Category Archives: kitchen projects

Cast Iron Trials

An ancient heirloom cast iron skillet is one of those kitchen essentials every cook should have. It’s the ultimate in getting a great crust on foods – from steak to potatoes It works to simply saute vegetables and can’t be beat for going from stovetop to in the oven (except for maybe my beloved Le Creuset Enameled Dutch Oven…) But I digress. I knew I needed one of these, and without a great Southern grandmother to bestow one upon me, I headed to the local church fair in search of one. There I found a great cast iron grill pan for about $3 – who could say no?

Well, maybe I should have. First off, it was rusty. Normally – not a problem with my flea market shopping – a little elbow grease tends to go a long way in that department. I scrubbed it within an inch of its life with a copper scouring pad and gave the whole inside a kosher salt scrub as well. The next step was re-seasoning, but all I had in the house was olive oil, and that would quickly go bad in this application. So I let the pan sit. Naturally, it rusted again. So I scrubbed it again. Thus the never-ending cycle… in my defense I had a few other time commitments (law school) and the pan never seemed to make it to the top of the priority list. I didn’t want to see it go to waste – so it ended up with a new owner via Freecycle.

Still on the hunt for a pan to make the perfect home fries, I went back to the cast iron section at our local restaurant supply store. It was heaven – they came pre-seasoned! And devoid of rust! So I bought one and took it home, only to find out that the pre-seasoning is this sort of gluey icky stuff that was not up my alley at all. So, as is my M.O. with these things, I scrubbed it within an inch of its life. Naturally, it needed re-seasoning. The powers that be on the internets recommended one of two things: either Crisco (vegetable shortening) or bacon grease. While I do have a jar of bacon grease in the fridge for special occasions, I’ll be the first to admit I was sort of grossed out by the idea. What if it went rancid? For that matter – what would keep it from going rancid? Plus, a friend of a friend has a cast iron pan that he insists on never washing (read: cleaning) and the only words I can use to describe it are “wicked gross.” So, I went out to the store and bought a can of Crisco.

It went well at first – I coated the pan, wiped off the excess, baked it for an hour at 200° and left it to cool overnight. The pan looked good initially, but things started to get sticky and it had to be stripped and re-seasoned all the time. In fact, it prevented me from wanting to use the pan at all. I again started looking for alternative seasoning method. Some vegan bloggers recommended alternative vegetable oils like flax or avocado, but frankly I didn’t have it in the budget (poor law student, remember?)

Enter: bacon grease. My thoughts would shift between the image of the aforementioned wicked gross cast iron pan and the fact that it must have worked or Southerners would have abandoned it long ago.

Not 100% yet, but definitely getting there.

You know what? It works. Perfectly. I used the method outlined at An Oregon Cottage:
1. Use a plastic scrubber to remove any stuck bits. Some use coarse salt, but that would be wasting something in my frugal world. *smile*
2. Wash the pan with hot water only (no soap). Yes, it’s OK- it is getting clean, I promise. I use the scrubber side of my sponge and haven’t found that it takes the seasoning off, like some sites warn against. Your call.
3. Dry the pan thoroughly on the stove. Heat it for just a minute or so on medium heat (not high and don’t walk away).
4. Remove the pan from the burner and turn it off. Using a rag (or paper towel) grab a smear of bacon grease and rub it all over the inside of the warm pan.
5. Set back on the burner – turned off, but still warm – and let the pan cool there before putting away.

Cast Iron Tips

  • Do NOT turn the heat any more than medium high/7.5 out of 10 on an electric stove. The cast iron doesn’t need it.
  • Be prepared to adjust to a whole different set of cooking times. This is not a pan to flash cook things – be patient, grasshopper.
  • This should be an obvious one, but remember that the handle gets hot too. Or, like me – you’ll only have to forget this once to NEVER forget it again.

Favorite Cast Iron Uses:
Home Fries. Leave the potatoes in there – i.e. DO NOT STIR OR OTHERWISE MESS AROUND WITH THEM – for at least 10 minutes. They won’t burn, I promise. If you don’t turn up the pan too high, that is.
Cornbread. I am still perfecting my cornbread recipe, but this is one of the easiest things to make that absolutely cries out for a cast iron skillet.
Roasted Veggies. I love roasted green beans or asparagus with garlic and pimentón straight out of the oven – I eat them like candy. Which sometimes results in finger burns. Totally worth it.
Roast Chicken. Cover the pan with your veggies of choice – potatoes, sweet potatoes, rutabagas, onions, garlic, carrots etc. Then butterfly/spatchcock (don’t you just love that word?) the chicken on top. Add some olive oil, salt and pepper over everything. Roast accordingly – I usually do 425° for about half an hour and then 350° until the internal temperature reads 165°. Inhale.

I’m still new to the cast iron game and still looking for tried and true recipes. What’s your favorite?

Third Time’s the Charm Yogurt

It seems making yogurt is all the rage these days. I’ve recently come across posts from Tigress, The Girl’s Guide to Guns and Butter, Attainable Sustainable, and from Marcus Samuelsson. Yogurt is getting expensive – I believe the quart size Chobani in my local grocery store is now upwards of $7. You can buy cheaper yogurt, but a lot of it has pectin in it to change the texture, which I don’t like. I am a pure Greek yogurt girl – I want my ingredients to say “Milk, Live Active Cultures” and that’s IT. To top it all off, my friend Olivia has been making yogurt for a while, who on the scale of difficult cooking projects called this one “so easy it’s stupid.” So I had to give it a try.

Take One: Well, I’m sure you can figure out how this is going to go purely by the fact that its take one. It didn’t go badly – I just wasn’t satisfied with it. I didn’t start with much milk – in fact I used some lovely Beaver Brook Farm milk leftover from making ice cream. Whole, RAW milk – super rich stuff. I had been buying 2% Chobani. I also tried this in thermoses/travel cups – only about half made it – chalk that up to poor insulation. I probably didn’t care for this small batch because it was so rich. I also had to find a way to up my yield.

Take Two: I went all out on this one. I spent the extra dollar for a half-gallon of Farmer’s Cow 2%. I also bought a Chobani 2% – you have to get the starter cultures from somewhere. Making yogurt is fairly easy from all of the methods above – heat milk to 180° and leave there for a while, depending on how thick you like your yogurt. Then let it cool until it drops below 115° – stir in the cultures and keep it warm for 4-8 hours until it sets. You really do have to babysit it – this is why they have yogurt maker machines that you can buy, but I wasn’t about to spend money on a unitasker. I heated the milk to 180° for 10 minutes, then once it hit 115°. I stirred in the yogurt. While it was cooling, I put 110° water in my crock pot, and turned it on warm to keep it there. I put the yogurt in a metal bowl in the warm water, effectively creating a bain marie. There was only one problem – the warm setting on the crock pot is TOO warm! I had to set an alarm anytime it hit 115° and rush in to put in a couple of ice cubes. Needless to say – the batch did not turn out as yogurt, but more like a ricotta. If you go much over 115°, you kill the cultures – what makes yogurt, yogurt. I am going to try to see if I can salvage it today with some salt and make chicken rollatini and ravioli. But anyway – strike two. I fed the leftover whey to my plants, though – at least they get something good out of it.

Take Three: I just couldn’t bring myself to buy the $7 yogurt in the store, so I knew I had to try it again. Farmers Cow – check. Probe thermometer – check. Olivia offered her method of wrapping the warm milk in towels to keep it warm. I also thought about Sofya’s method of sealing it in the oven overnight, and Kris’ method of using a cooler. But given the past two strikes I wanted to keep an eye on this one, so back to the crock pot. This time, I put 110° water in the crock pot and didn’t turn it on. It gradually cooled – I could monitor the water temperature with a probe thermometer – and when it got below 90°, I added some additional warm water – never going over 110°. It sat for about six hours – and really firmed up. I strained it overnight to get the consistency I wanted. I woke up this morning to the most perfect thick, luscious yogurt. Finally! Breakfast was a small cup with the last bit of a jar of apricot amaretto jam from last summer. Perfection.

Homemade Yogurt
One half gallon of milk – your choice
One small individual serving of yogurt – your favorite

Heat milk slowly to 180° on the stove. I find stirring it often helps avoid forming a skin and also avoids burning the bottom of the milk. Leave it between 180-185° for 10 minutes. Let it slowly cool to 110°. While it cools, prepare your slow cooker with 110° water and a metal or otherwise oven-safe bowl (a bain marie). Once the milk has cooled, mix 1/4 cup of it with the individual yogurt, and then milk into the rest of the warm milk. Pour into metal bowl in slow cooker, put probe thermometer in the water in the slow cooker, and monitor. Do not go above 110°, but do not go too low either. Incubate 4-6 hours, until yogurt has firmed. Drain for thicker greek style yogurt. Use the very last bit of this batch to make your next batch. Never buy store-bought yogurt again!

Food in Jars’ Tomato Jam & Spoon Oil

These really are two separate projects. One edible, one practical. They have nothing to do with each other, except that they both require a boiling water bath and a mason jar or two. So if you have some free time on a weekend, you can kill the proverbial birds with one stone.

So start your boiling water bath (BWB). You can make do with what you have – make a rack out of tin foil to keep the jars off the bottom of the pot – but it really is worth investing in a canner with a rack. Ball even makes a stainless steel canner, though its not cheap. (Hint: Check eBay or Froogle for deals!) Once I fill it with cold water, cover and turn the heat to high, I start both the spoon oil and the tomato jam/other waterbath canned product of your choice.

First, the spoon oil. Taken from FIJ and 3191 Miles Apart. Add a 1/4 lb of beeswax to a mason jar in your canner so that it begins to melt as the water heats. The jar needs to be above the waterline – so having a rack helps here.

Once the beeswax begins to melt, Marisa and Stephanie suggest heating the mineral oil in another jar before adding it to the beeswax. I did, but looking back on it all it really did was dirty another jar. In the next batch, I might just mix them together from the beginning.

I had the hardest time finding mineral oil, until I went to the local pharmacy. Both Walgreens and CVS have it in the back – just ask someone to help you find it before you spend a ton of time hunting. And don’t ask someone at the grocery store, unless you really feel like sending the employee on a wild goose chase.

This spoon needed a healthy dose of spoon oil AND a sanding.

Anyway, warm the mineral oil alone or with the beeswax, until it forms a lovely clear yellow liquid. Once it cools, you can lay out all of the wooden implements in need of some TLC. As you can see, we had quite a few of them. When its cooled, let a thin coating of spoon oil soak into your wooden stuff for an hour or so (enough time to make and can tomato jam perhaps?) and then rub dry with a kitchen towel.

While the spoon oil is cooling, I start the jam of choice. This time, I wanted to make another batch of tomato jam. Make sure to use a non-reactive pot – I use an enameled dutch oven – whenever you cook tomatoes. I made my first batch with fresh paste tomatoes this summer – tomatoes were crazy here – and then made another batch with frozen heirloom tomatoes from 18th Century Purity Farms purchased at CRFM. In February. Reason #212372191 why I am a farmer’s market junkie.

Tomato Jam
Adapted from Food in Jars’ Tomato Jam
5 pounds tomatoes, finely chopped – seeds, skins and all!
2 cups dark brown sugar
1 cup pure cane sugar or turbinado sugar
8 tablespoons lime juice (Bottled – Marisa explains why)
2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger – no powder please!
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon red chili flakes
1 tablespoon fresh diced red chile

Combine everything in a non-reactive pot. Cook over low heat – be careful, with all that sugar it will burn! Marisa recommends 1-1 1/2 hours, but I usually end up letting it go around 2 hours. Stir every 10 minutes or so, until it reaches desired consistency. I use equal parts dried and fresh chile – add more if you like more of a kick.

When it is almost ready prepare your jars, lids and rings. When it has cooked down to your liking, remove from heat and fill jars, leaving 1/4 inch of head space. Wipe rims, apply lids and twist on rings. Process in a boiling water canner for 20 minutes. I always have some leftover, which goes into an unprocessed jar in the fridge for me.

After 20 minutes, remove jars from water bath and allow them to cool. Sometimes, I turn the heat off in the canner and let the jars cool in there. When jars are cool enough to handle, test seals. You should be able to pick up a jar by its lid only. Store jars in a cool, dark place for up to one year – if they last that long…

1. Serve with sharp cheese and crackers. Its great to bring to a party, since its most people don’t equate tomatoes with jam. Remember though – its fairly sweet – so pair accordingly.
2. I think it would be equally delicious or in a grilled cheese sandwich with whole grain bread.
3. I might have future plans for it as the base of a tomato, thyme and gruyere tart.

Indian Spiced Winter Squash Soup

Quite a mouthful. Literally. My Farmer’s Market decided to host a soup swap. I had butternut and acorn squash sitting on my counter forever and more puree in the freezer. This was the perfect excuse to use it, along with some of my other favorite local ingredients!

Local butternut and acorn squash (from the CRFM but I can’t remember which vendor!)
Fabyan’s Sugar Shack Grade B Maple Syrup
Wayne’s Organic Garden Onions & Garlic
Penzey’s Tikka Masala, Garam Masala and Tandoori Spice mixes
Coconut milk
Olive Oil
Homemade veggie stock (a la The Sweet Beet – see below)

Peel and chop the squash and 2-3 small onions into similar size pieces. Peel 2-4 cloves of garlic, depending on your preference. Throw all the veggies on a baking sheet with a drizzle of olive oil, fresh ground pepper and salt. Roast at 400° for about an hour – until the big chunks of squash are fork tender and they are taking on a little bit of color.

You can multitask by roasting all of the veggies while making stock. Take the vegetable scraps (squash peels, garlic and onion skins and begin to sautee them in a little olive oil over medium heat. Once I could smell them, I added the contents of my frozen scrap bin. I keep a container in the freezer to collect scraps until its time to make stock. This one had more onion and garlic remnants and eggshells. I’ve been using this method from The Sweet Beet and saving eggshells and adding a touch of vinegar to my vegetable stock. Anyway, once you can smell the veggies cover with water, bring to a boil and simmer while the veggies in the oven are roasting.

After the veggies are done, take them out and strained the stock. Add them back into the soup pot, add enough stock to cover by a few inches. If you are making a big batch (like 6 quarts big) you may have to use two pots/batches. I then add indian seasonings to taste – I would estimate maybe about 3-5 tablespoons depending on the size of your batch. I also add salt and pepper to taste. If its too hot, you can add a little maple syrup – or you can do both to have a sweet/spicy soup. At this point, I immersion blend the whole thing. You can do it without a hand blender by putting it into a regular blender – just make sure if the soup is hot to vent it and cover the lid with a hand towel – it WILL splatter. Alternatively, you dont have to blend it, but this soup is much better when it is thick and creamy.

1. Change the flavor. I like Indian spices, so I used them here. Squash is such a neutral flavor – your options are really endless. You could easily use sage and/or rosemary, maybe those herbs with apples or pears, sage and brown butter would be lovely. Spanish flavors of pimentón and sherry could also be great. I think I need to make this soup again…
2. Without the eggshells, I believe this recipe would be vegan. Easy to change for your vegan friends!
3. You can always use cream instead of coconut milk, but I am dairy sensitive and I prefer the flavor of coconut milk in this recipe.
4. Serve with crusty bread – naan in my case (don’t I seem to say that with every recipe?) and a drizzle of olive oil.