A Cast Iron Skillet- The Only Must Have For Your Kitchen

My mother used to tease me when I was younger about being a hopeless romantic.  From the time I can remember ever being described by her to someone she would say I wanted to believe only in the good side of things.  She called that being naïve.   I felt like this wasn’t meant to be a compliment.  Whatever it was, I have grown to be all right with this – it is who I am and I am comfortable in my skin.  Try that I might, I cannot nor do I want to view the ugly side of life.  Perhaps that is why Laura Ingalls Wilder and her books about living on the prairie have always appealed to me.

When I first read these books in elementary school they made me feel good about life in a simple way.  My favorite make-believe play (outside of playing school with Julie, Cindy and Lisa) was with a school friend, Estelle Moundfield.  I have no idea where Estelle is now but we had such fun together.  You see, she lived on a large piece of land in what was the nearest to being a farmhouse of any of my friends.  Estelle even had a barn so we would play for hours in the hayloft.  I would be Laura and she would be Mary.  It was great fun until one day I watched nature in real-time when Estelle’s cat leapt in the air and caught a bird flying by.  So long little bird.  Ugh!  That was enough of the loft for a while…

Life on the prairie

Anyway, my point to this is that my inner child has always been a little bit Laura Ingalls on the prairie.  I love everything about the idealistic side of how she and her family lived.  Now here I am in the big state of Illinois right smack dab living on the prairie.  I am a good case in point for intention bringing to fruition what you want to achieve!

Pancakes cooking on the stove

Pancakes cooking on the stove

Having read “The Little House” series dozens and dozens of times I know that the one pan Ma always used was an iron skillet.  I’m thinking that might be why it is my all-time fave cooking utensil for my kitchen.  I am guessing my skillet is over thirty-five years old or rather in iron skillet lingo, thirty-five years “well seasoned”.  I cook everything imaginable in my cast iron skillet each and every day.  I use it on the stove and in the oven.  I use it for everything from making my Sunday morning pancakes I wrote about in my post, Homemade Pancakes – What Could Be Better?  to stir-fry to oven baked chicken potpie and cobblers like the recipe in my post, Quick Summer Fruit Cobbler.

The benefits of using cast iron cookware

Did you know that cast iron cookware has been around since 513 BC?  Did you know that the Chinese first introduced it?  I figure that for most of you readers, acting like you live on the prairie isn’t a reason to own and use cast iron cookware.  So, here is a list of reasons why if you don’t already own and use any you will want to now:

  • Cast iron is virtually indestructible.
  • Cast iron is an excellent heat conductor, retaining heat well and distributing it evenly over the cooking surface.
  • Cast iron is a long lasting choice and can be reused irrespective of its age.
  • Most seasoned cooks believe that food has better flavor when cooked in cast iron than other cookware choices.
  • Cast iron is the healthiest option for cooking, as it requires little or no oil at all.
  • Cast iron is low on maintenance and can be cleaned using dishwashing soap, hot water and old-fashioned elbow grease.
  • Cast iron is environmentally friendly unlike non-stick cookware that releases toxic fumes into the air.
  • Best of all ~ cooking in cast iron has tremendous health benefits.  One of the biggest health benefits is cast iron’s ability to increase the source of iron in the food that is cooked in it which then increases the iron you absorb in your diet.

Using cast iron properly

Stuffed Peppers hot out of the oven

Stuffed Peppers hot out of the oven

In a previous blog post, Creating Homespace Beauty With Family Treasures, I wrote about the clearing and dividing of our mother’s home we six siblings did after we moved her into Richfield, an Assisted Living Facility for Alzheimer’s care.  As I wrote in the post, the six of us very carefully and methodically thought through dividing Mom’s furnishings and each of us six sibs chose items we personally treasured.  Most of what I chose I then passed on to my children.  All three of my kids are stellar cooks.  We all routinely text each other photos of our latest beautiful meals we have cooked.  But, Jimmy (my baby) has a deep love of all things happening in the kitchen and so I gave him one of my mother’s cast iron skillets I got.  Well seasoned, it is ready for whatever Jimmy has in mind to prepare!

“Seasoning” is a must so be sure to do this when you purchase any new cast iron.  For those of you new to the world of cast iron cookware, here are a few tips on how to season your pieces:

  • Clean your new cookware thoroughly with dish soap, hot water and a plastic brush.
  • Rinse and dry the utensil completely.
  • Apply a thin, even coat of vegetable oil to the surface of the utensil.
  • In a pre-heated oven of approximately 300 – 400 degrees, place the utensil upside down on the oven’s top rack.  (Put some aluminum foil under the utensil to catch any oil that might spill.)
  • Bake the utensil for one hour and then allow it to cool in the oven.

Enjoy the art of cooking with cast iron.  In this modern world we live in with new gadgets and gizmos developed every day and advertised as the “latest and greatest”, do yourself a favor and return to cooking the way your ancestors did.  You and the environment will be glad you did!

To cast iron cooking…

Choose Sustainable Seafood

Southern flounder

Southern flounder caught by hook and line

Seafood generally gets a good rap.  It’s healthy, right?  Well, that depends on your perspective.  Yes, seafood, in general, is low in saturated fat and high in protein, vitamins and minerals and essential oils like Omega 3.  Add in seaweed or kelp and you can supplement your meal with even more vitamins and minerals as well as iodine, which is necessary for proper thyroid function.  While the bounty of the sea may be good for your health, the opposite may be true for the health of the ocean ecosystem.  All nations must take drastic steps to curb the relentless pursuit of more and more seafood. It’s a finite resource that needs time to naturally restock – time that we, as a world community, are not allowing.  So what can we do as individuals, or more aptly put, small fish in a big sea?

Your Dollar Speaks Louder Than Words

The first step you can take to make an impact on overfishing is to choose not to buy certain species.  Two examples of popular oceanic species that have been severely overfished are bluefin tuna and orange roughy.  Bluefin tuna is perhaps the most well known “high end” sushi choice.  In January of this year, the first bluefin tuna of the season was sold at auction in Japan for just under $400,000!  The law of supply and demand hard at work.

Stone crab claws

Stone crab claws can regenerate after harvest

Orange roughy is on the other side of the spectrum.  These bottom dwelling fish remained out of the limelight until around the 1970′s.  In the US, roughy began to show up in local grocery stores in the 90′s as a popular low-priced white fish alternative.  Akin to a gold rush, orange roughy were netted in schools of thousands, which decimated their ability to reproduce.  In fact, so many were caught that many were dumped because the processors could not deal with the volume of catches.  Fertile fishing grounds turned into ghost towns within a few years – a classic “boom and bust” scenario.

Tips for Supporting Sustainable Seafood

  1. Carry a sustainable seafood guide when you go to restaurants and grocery stores.  The Monterey Bay Aquarium provides a pocket guide called Seafood Watch for regional seafood species and categorizes them as “Best Choices,” “Good Alternatives” and “Avoid.” Download the Seafood Watch Pocket Guide here.
  2. Shop at grocery stores that select their seafood responsibly.  This year Safeway received the best recommendation from Greenpeace followed by Wegmans and Target, which tied for second.  It’s interesting to note that the seafood ranking article makes a reference to orange roughy as “one of the most vulnerable fish stocks on the planet” – a pretty powerful statement.  See how your grocery store ranked on the Supermarket Seafood Sustainability Scorecard.
  3. Purchase “traceable” fish.  If the store cannot tell you where and how your seafood was harvested, then you should choose not to support their business.  Ideally, you want to purchase “hook and line” catches.  Traditional “hook and line” fishing is more eco-friendly than other methods because there is little by-catch and if a species is caught accidentally, it may be released, hopefully unharmed.
  4. Eat locally caught fish and shellfish.  If you choose fish that are locally caught through sustainable methods, you support your community, sustainable fishing, and make a “consumer choice” statement to restaurants and grocery stores.  Sites like Walking Fish have links to seafood availability charts to find sustainable, local fish in North Carolina.  Farmed oysters are a great way to buy a delicious sustainable resource and direct your dollars to a local environmentally-friendly small business.

Close to Home

Speckled sea trout

Speckled sea trout caught sustainably

The impact of unsustainable fishing is not relegated to the open ocean or far away countries.  I have experienced the results of gill-netting in the sounds of North Carolina firsthand.  In the backwater salt creeks where I love to fish for trout and red fish, gill netters come in at night and clean out the populations of popular sport fish.  While they target the flounder and trout, many juvenile fish are killed when they sweep a fine mesh net through the creek, capturing everything in its path.  Fishing in these areas goes from plentiful to no fish for days after the netters come through.  This practice is currently legal in NC if you have a permit.  Gill netting as a method to harvest fish should be banned.  It destroys fish populations, which in turn hurts local fishing guides and recreational fishing not to mention killing or maiming any by-catch.  The gill netter reports (mandated by the NCDMF) actually have a requirement whereas gill netters must report how many turtles they catch and in what physical shape they were returned – proof that this method is irresponsible and dangerous to the welfare of our sounds and oceans.

In the end, it is up to you, the consumer, to make a decision to purchase sustainable seafood.  Demand to know where your food came from and what method was used to catch it.  Many eco-conscience chains go to lengths to state “product of USA”, but you must go a step further.  Tell the store or restaurant manager that you want to purchase sustainable, traceable fish and shellfish.  So far, it seems to be working (Target Commits to 100 Percent Sustainable, Traceable Fish by 2015).

Happy cooking,

Chef Ryan

Tailgating – A Great American Tradition

Turkey breast on charcoal smoker

Turkey breast on charcoal smoker

It’s 8am on a fall Saturday.  You’re fumbling around with the coffee maker trying to get the black gold percolating.  In a few hours, you’re supposed to be down at the stadium to cheer your team on.   While you’re gathering your game day gear, many dedicated fans are already set up in the parking lot with charcoal burning, food marinating and beers cooling. They are the “true” tailgaters.  It’s what they live for!

How to Tailgate Like a Pro

For many sports-loving Americans, tailgating is as important as the actual game.  The pre-game tradition of socializing, playing low-impact sports like frisbee and cornhole, showing off your team spirit, and predicting how much your team will win by are half the reason folks show up in droves to attend sporting events.  All this excitement builds up an appetite. Remember those folks that were up getting ready for the game around the time you were going to bed?  They have food, and not just any food.  They have a tailgaters dream – brats, ribs, burgers, chili, steaks  – you name it – it’s probably cooking in the parking lot somewhere.

Deviled crabs

Deviled crabs

Tailgating cuisine rules the pre-game festivities.  If you have great smelling food then you can expect to make some new friends.  When I speak of tailgating, I don’t mean a Bojangles “8 Piece Tailgate Special.” I mean real food – the kind that you plan and prep ahead of time.  I realize that many folks may believe they don’t have the culinary know-how to prepare a tailgate, opting instead to pick up fast food on the way to the game. Additionally, tailgating requires equipment like grills, charcoal, tables and chairs, not to mention dealing with putting everything away in a safe place before heading into the game.  I’ve been to too many games where a “novice” has prepared a really tasty meal right before the game starts, but has no idea what to do with the smoking hot grill and coals.  Any chef or experienced cook will tell you that careful planning of your time is one of the keys to a successful event, no matter how big or small.  So make sure to plan your meal, pack all of your supplies, get to the stadium early, and most importantly, have fun!  Master these skills and you’ll be a pro in no time.

Tips for Successful Tailgating

Beer butt chicken

"Beer butt" chicken

Here are a few tailgating tips to make your next game day safe and fun:

  1. Keep a tailgate cooler packed with items like plates, utensils, cups, paper towels, garbage bags, wet-naps and extra condiment packets (ketchup, mustard, hot sauce, soy sauce, etc.).  Just don’t forget your cooler!
  2. Start your charcoal at least 3 hours before you plan to enter the stadium.  This will allow you time to get the grill hot, cook, eat, clean up and let the grill cool before putting it back in your vehicle.
  3. Cook items like ribs or chicken wings the night before.  On game day, reheat them on a grill to save time and ensure that your food is cooked all the way through.
  4. Experiment with seafood. Oysters and clams are two examples that are easy to share with your group. All you need is crackers and hot sauce.
  5. Pack a few wood chunks in your cooler and throw them on the grill with your food.  A little smoke will add extra flavor to your tailgate!
  6. Plan on feeding extra people.  Bring more than enough food and make some new friends!
Ribs fresh off the smoker

Ribs fresh off the smoker

If you follow these tips, you are sure to have some happy tailgaters in your group! Remember, it’s important if you’re grilling to start early so that the grill cools down before you pack up and head into the game. Clean up as you go and be sure to recycle. It’s also a good idea to coordinate with your friends so that they can pick up drinks, sides and snacks. As with any event, preparation and timing are the “keys to the game.”

 

 

Happy Tailgating!

Chef Ryan

Smoking Hot Summer

This summer has been a scorcher!  If you’re like me, you have probably hunted down your lucky friends who have access to a pool.  This inevitably leads to the tradition of firing up the grill to take part in our country’s favorite summer past time – barbecuing!  For a change of pace (and flavor), I suggest incorporating smoke into your routine.  Just a hint of smoke can enhance meats and other foods greatly.  So take a stab at impressing you friends and family with this classic cooking technique.  If you practice now you’ll be a pro in time for the holidays!

Smoking Then and Now

Smoked scallops, smoked salmon and Bloody Mary!

Smoked scallops, smoked salmon and a Bloody Mary!

Prior to modern refrigeration, smoke was used to preserve meat and seafood.   Today smokers are used by novice cooks and professional chefs, not so much to preserve food, but rather to impart that wonderful smokey flavor.  It should be noted that most “smoked” foods are not smoked in the true sense of the word, but rather they are “cooked with smoke.”  Wood chunks, chips or pellets are added to charcoal and the protein cooks fully in the heat while absorbing the desired smoke flavor.  True (cold) smoking can take hours, days, or even weeks, depending on the size and thickness of the protein.

Smokers have become more mainstream and have worked their way into many backyards, typically taking a backseat to the reliable gas grill.  eHow states that in 2009 57% of grills sold were gas, while 43% were charcoal.  That being said, it’s hard to beat the flavor from a charcoal grill, but the convenience of a gas grill is definitely a benefit.  Regardless of the type of grill you own, you are only a few minutes away from incorporating smoke into your meal without the expense of a separate smoking unit.

Simple Smoking with a Grill

Smoking pork butts on Weber charcoal smoker

Before: Pork butts smoking on Weber charcoal smoker

There are a variety of methods to enhance your meal with smoke.  The cheapest way to do this is to simply wrap some small wood chips (see our wood smoking chart below) in aluminum foil, poke a few holes in the top and add to the gas or charcoal grill.  The chips will begin to smolder after a few minutes and the smoke will adhere to the food.  Please note that using a smoking device in a gas grill will cause a slight buildup of soot, but don’t let this dissuade you!  If you prefer to step up to the next level, you can purchase an inexpensive smoke box from any of your large hardware or outdoor living stores – many are less than $15.  Over the course of the last 15 years, I graduated from smoker box to electric smokers to stand alone charcoal smokers (I currently own two well-used Weber smokers).

How to Smoke with a Gas Grill

Below are simple steps to apply smoke to your meal using a gas grill.

Chopped BBQ with jalapeno cornbread and homemade pickles

After: Chopped BBQ with jalapeño cornbread and homemade pickles

  1. First, wash your meat/poultry/seafood in cold water.
  2. Pat dry and apply salt, pepper and anything else for your desired flavor.  Water acts as a barrier to the smoke, so drying the meat is important!
  3. Allow the meat to come to room temperature (10 to 15 minutes, possibly longer for red meat).
  4. While you are waiting, crank up all of the burners and place the foil smoking pack (with the wood chips inside) on the hot grill, close it and wait for it to start smoking.
  5. Once smoldering, turn one side burner off and use your tongs to move the smoking foil to the now unlit side.
  6. Lightly oil your grill and pat your protein dry again.  Salt will cause moisture to leach out of the protein, so drying the food limits the chance that it will stick to the grill.
  7. Place your food on the grill and close the top.
  8. Cook the food as you normally would on the grill.  The smoke will not speed up the cooking process.

Wood Smoking Chart

Wood Comments
Apple Produces a mild smoke that is great for chicken, duck, dove, cornish game hens and quail.  This wood is commonly used to smoke bacon.
Alder Traditionally used in the Pacific Northwest to smoke salmon.  Imparts a mild smokiness that works well with most seafood.  Try this wood when smoking scallops.
Cherry Another mildly sweet smoke that enhances fish and poultry.  If you are using a cold smoker, this wood is a good choice when smoking fruit (apples/pears) and cheeses.
Hickory One of the most widely available and used woods.  Perfect for ribs, pork butt and turkey breast.  This wood may be used for any cuts of meat that require a long smoking time.
Maple Excellent choice for hams, fish and poultry.
Mesquite Produces a very strong smokiness.  Prolonged use of this wood may ruin food, so it is best used for items that cook quickly, such chicken breasts, ribeye/strip steaks and flank steak.  Try using this wood in a smoker box while grilling.
Pecan A great choice for fish and poultry, especially trout.
Oak Another excellent choice for items that require a long smoking time.  Perfect for large cuts of beef, such as brisket or prime rib.

Important Smoking Rules!

Never use:

  1. Wood that has been chemically treated, painted, stained, etc.
  2. Wood purposed for industrial or commercial use (pallets, siding, flooring, construction site scraps, etc.)
  3. Pine or other conifers (the sap may ruin the food and/or make you sick).

There are many types of fantastic woods available for smoking including peach, pear, apricot, nectarine, hazelnut, grape and even coffee.  Experiment with them all and most importantly, have fun doing it!

Happy smoking,

Chef Ryan

A Chef in the Garden

Some of my fondest childhood memories took place in and around our garden.  The 20 x 30 foot fenced in plot behind our house served as our personal farmers market when we were cooking at home.  Tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini, eggplant, peas, beans, yellow squash, corn and a variety of peppers were the staples each year.  I remember checking the garden each day to search for ripe cherry tomatoes and sweet peas, which I would usually just eat off the vine.  Our garden salads were true to the word and the experience of watching the veggies grow and picking them at their peak of ripeness was something that I will always carry with me.  These days the garden is smaller, but it’s still a part of my life.  I am lucky enough to have a nice 10 x 10 garden where I grow my cooking essentials.  It consists of a blend of herbs and vegetables that I use on a daily or weekly basis.  It is truly a pleasure to harvest and share homegrown produce with friends and family.  And starting a small garden is easier than you may think.

Black raspberries ripening

Black raspberries. Photo credit: Ryan Kalooky

A Practical Herb Garden

Many of us simply do not have the time to maintain a garden at home.  If this sounds like you, I encourage you to start a basic herb garden.  Many herbs are easy to grow, add great flavor to dishes and are expensive to buy on a regular basis.  You can plant them in the ground if you have space, in pots on your deck or balcony, or even indoors on a windowsill that gets some good sun.  You don’t have to plant a little bit of everything – my advice would be to plant what you like and what you will use regularly. The table below lists some of my favorite herbs that are very simple to grow.

Basil A must for fans of Italian food.  An annual, but easy start from seed and to root from cuttings.
Chives Add to scrambled eggs or accent a seafood dish.  Be sure to use the blossoms, which are a great garnish for soup!
Dill Add small sprigs to your salad or add to a buerre blanc for a salmon or trout dish.
Mint Excellent for summer drinks, spring rolls, or combined with garlic, ginger and cilantro for a unique salad dressing.  Once you establish your plants they will come back each year.  Also very simple to root from cuttings.
Oregano A versatile herb that I use throughout the year in sauces, seafood dishes, and in salads.  Easy to grow and root from cuttings.
Parsley The flatleaf or curley varieties are excellent for adding a “green” flavor to any dish.  Use the entire unchopped top of the sprigs in salads for a refreshing, clean change of pace.
Rosemary A powerful, “piney” herb that compliments pork, beef and chicken.  Chop up and add to roasted potatoes or use the leftover woody stems as skewers for chicken kebobs.
Sage Use this excellent, unique herb with scallops or roasted chicken.  Try frying whole sage leaves for an inspiring garnish.  It’s not just for Thanksgiving time!
Thyme My favorite perennial herb – add to eggs, pan sauces, stock, and marinades.  Pairs well with garlic, onions, and potatoes.  Incorporate into compound butter.

Tips for Cooking with Herbs

So you’ve planted your herbs, allowed them to grow and mature, but simply can’t find the time or enough occasions to use them?  Below are three simple suggestions to help stretch your herbs throughout the year:

Aromatic oils – add a tablespoon of your favorite chopped herbs, 5 or 6 black peppercorns and a bay leaf to about a cup or two of olive oil. Heat until simmering, strain, and allow to cool to room temperature.  Once cool, you can put the oil in a small container, label it and pop it in the fridge.  Use a spoonful to sauté veggies or to enhance a salad dressing.  Allow a few tablespoons to come to room temperature and add a pinch of salt for a fast, simple and tasty dip for fresh bread.

Compound butters– let two sticks of unsalted butter come to room temperature.  Fold in fresh herbs, garlic and freshly ground pepper (or any combination).  Roll up in plastic wrap (in the shape of a dowel – about the diameter of a half dollar or quarter) and place in the freezer.  When needed, you can cut “coins” off the roll and use for cooking.  This is a great method for inserting butter under the skin of poultry since it will hold its shape and not melt immediately in your hands like refrigerated butter.  The compound butter will keep for months and is great for finishing pan sauces or for a quick and tasty topping for a baked potato or steamed veggies.

Stock – don’t throw away those herb stems!  If you have leftover thyme, sage, or a few cloves of garlic, you can make a quick vegetable stock using a few scraps of onion, carrots, and celery as a flavor base.  After you simmer the veggies and herbs for 30 or 40 minutes, strain, cool, package and freeze.  You can easily make a few pints of stock for future use – most importantly, you won’t have to buy expensive stock from the grocery store next time you make soup.  I routinely make chicken stock and vegetable stock.  Make sure to label (name and date) your stock, as it will lessen in flavor the longer it’s left frozen.

Rosemary plant

Rosemary. Photo credit: Sean Kalooky

Happy cooking,

Chef Ryan