Grab Your Cast Iron: "Skillet, a Love Story"

A lot of people have this love/hate thing with their cast-iron cookware. Maybe you thought they were kidding when they said "don't put it in the dishwasher" and you ended up with a rusty problem on your hands. If this is the case, please forgive and forget. Pull out your cast-iron pans and create some happy memories. 

Or maybe you're like me and you love your cast-iron skillet so much that you use it almost exclusively! Deep down, you know it's the pan for you...it goes on the stovetop, into the oven, and onto the table! It fries your chicken, sears your steaks, and bakes your cakes! Did you know: a cast-iron dutch oven is the secret to baking breads at home with an amazing crust. It retains heat, cooks evenly, and, if well-maintained, will last longer than you. Suddenly, I imagine the moment when my future child goes off to college and I pass an old cast-iron skillet onto the next generation...a special moment, right?

Cast iron can be purchased from most hardware stores, quite affordably. I love the trusty old Lodge brand (for both cast iron and seasoned carbon steel), but if you want to be fancy, head over to Williams-Sonoma and blow a few thousand dollars on the entire line of Staub cookware (coincidentally, also making you my new best friend).

Here are some of my favorites ways to use cast iron:

Breakfast 

It's hard to say which dish I cook more often for breakfast: frittata or baked eggs. Both are one-pan, easily assembled and prepared dishes. I already shared this recipe for Baked Eggs here, which I use adorable little single-serving Lodge skillets for. This recipe is the same idea, but the eggs are baked on a bed of breakfast potatoes in a large cast-iron skillet. 

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Ingredients

1 tbsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
2 med-large Yukon Gold potatoes, diced small
1 small or 1/2 med-large red onion, diced small
1 clove of garlic, minced
3 tbsp. chives, finely sliced
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
1 tsp. paprika
2-4 whole large eggs, cracked and separated
salt and pepper, to taste

Method

Heat the olive oil and butter in a 9-inch cast-iron skillet, then sauté the potatoes and onion - with about one teaspoon of salt - until golden brown and crisp. Add the garlic and cook for less than one minute, just until cooked through. Remove from heat. Add the thyme leaves, paprika, some freshly-ground black pepper, and 1 tbsp. of chives. Stir to combine.

Turn your oven's broiler on or heat your oven as high as it will go - usually 450 or 500 degrees. 

Make 2-4 little indentations in the potatoes - this is where each egg will be placed and will allow it to stay whole instead of spreading all over the pan. 

Place an egg in each little bed you've created. Put the skillet under the broiler for about 5 minutes, but check the eggs after 3 minutes. The yolks should be soft and the whites cooked through. Remove from the oven and sprinkle the rest of the chives over the top. Serve in the skillet and enjoy!

Vegetable Stew | Pot Pie

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Serves 3-4

I hesitate to use the term "pot pie" because it's usually associated with lots of cream and butter. Other than the puff pastry on top, this vegetable stew doesn't rely on an excess of fat to make it tasty - it's heavy on the vegetables and on the flavor.

Ingredients

3 tbsp. olive oil
1 small red onion, diced
2 carrots, diced
1 small fennel bulb, diced
1 large portobello mushroom, diced
1 cup Brussels sprouts, trimmed and cut in half
1/2 cup fresh peas
1 bunch of asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup broccoli, stems removed and cut into bite-size pieces
1 cup cauliflower, stems removed and cut into bite-size pieces
1/2 cup water
16 oz. can of whole San Marzano tomatoes
2 tsp. ground paprika
2 tsp. sea salt
2 tsp. freshly-ground black pepper
a dash of cayenne pepper
Frozen puff pastry, thawed (I use Dufour)
1 egg, beaten

Vegetable Stew pre-pastry

Vegetable Stew pre-pastry

Method

Heat 2 tbsp. of the olive oil in a large cast-iron skillet on med-high heat. Sauté the onion, carrot, fennel, mushroom, and Brussels sprouts until soft and golden brown. Sprinkle a bit of salt over the vegetables while cooking.

Add the peas, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, and 1/2 cup water. Place a lid on the pan, lower the heat, and allow to steam until the water has evaporated and the vegetables are cooked, but still firm - about 2 minutes.

Return the heat to med-high, add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil to the pan along with the paprika, salt, black pepper, and cayenne. Sauté the vegetables with the spices for about a minute, until everything is well combined. 

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Blend the can of whole tomatoes until slightly pureed - you still want some chunks of tomato in there. Pour about half of this into the pan and mix with vegetables to combine. Add as much tomato as you need to reach the consistency of a thick stew - you want to have more vegetables than sauce - and this will vary. Allow this to simmer for 10-15 minutes until the tomato has thickened and slightly reduced.

Remove from heat and allow to cool for at least 10 minutes. 

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Prepare the puff pastry by placing it on a lightly-floured surface and rolling out any holes or broken seams. Cut the pastry into a round that is 1 inch bigger than your pan. Place the pastry round over the pan (if the pan is way too hot and you don't have time to cool it down, transfer your vegetable stew to another cool cast-iron pan), make one or more slits on the top to allow air to escape, and brush lightly with egg.

Bake for 30-40 minutes, until the crust is richly golden brown and cooked all the way through.

Don't Be Afraid of That Fish...

The only way I will ever cook a piece of fish is with a cast-iron skillet. If you want to know why the fish you've ordered in restaurants is so good, let me give you a foolproof and simple way to cook a simple thing: seared salmon.

1. Set your oven to a high temperature: 450-500 degrees.

2. Prepare fish. Make sure the bones are picked out. Leave the skin on. If you see scales on the skin, scrape them off or give it a quick rinse. Cut into 6-8 oz. portions. (You can ask the fish monger to do most of this for you at your local market). DRY the fish with paper towels - thoroughly. Salt both sides. 

3. Heat a cast-iron skillet over med-high heat until it's nearly smoking. Add a couple tablespoons of olive/grape seed/canola oil. Place your fish into the pan, skin-side down and leave it alone. Don't touch it. Leave it! I'm serious. 

4. Now you can touch it. Check to make sure it has formed a nice crust and that you can see it cooking/turning opaque from the bottom up. Once the skin is crisp and golden brown, grab the pan (yes, it will be hot) and pop it into the oven for just a few minutes - until it feels firm and springs back when touched on the top and sides. Some people wait until they see "white spots" on the salmon...this is now the point of overcooking, so please pull it out before that happens. 

You now have a beautifully cooked piece of fish with crisp skin - fish skin is so good for you, but so few people take the time to cook it well. Savor the moment and enjoy.