Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Cast Iron Cooking: Tips, Recipe Ideas, a Giant Cookie and a Cookbook Review

The right tool for the right job makes cooking a rewarding experience. I've gone back and forth so many times on the ideal cookware to stock my kitchen with. These days I find myself reaching for one skillet on a daily basis, sometimes washing out the skillet and using it twice for the same meal. I'm talking about my cast iron skillet.

There's much to love about cast iron cookware. For me, the number one thing is the fact that cast iron can withstand very high heat, making it possible to cook restaurant-tasting meals at home. You know what I am talking about- food with a flavorful brown sear on the outside and juicy on the inside. We seem to live in times where products last a year or so before they are made obsolete by the next version. Cast iron cookware lasts a lifetime and more. Long after my nonstick pan surface is chipping, and after the steel skillet handles are coming loose, the cast iron pan will be working as hard as ever. You only have to be a little patient and learn to care for it properly.

With my growing love for cast iron cookware, when I was offered a review copy of The Lodge Cast Iron Cookbook: A Treasury of Timeless, Delicious Recipes, I was happy to accept. I had a feeling that this cookbook would give me a few new ideas to use my cast iron cookware (it just so happens that both of my cast iron pans are from Lodge and I'm officially a fan), and it definitely did not disappoint.

Here are 5 things I loved about this cookbook:

1. I like reading cookbooks the way other people read novels, and this one is full of mini essays by different cooks about their cast iron memories. And I enjoyed reading this little nugget- many pieces of Lodge cookware made in 1896 are still in use today. Now that's the kind of antique I would not mind collecting.

2. The book is rich in vegetarian recipes and they sound oh-so-good, just to name a few- seasonal breakfast frittata, pimiento cheese panini sandwich, summer squash casserole, roasted corn pudding; there's even a recipe for rajma.

3. I always thought it was a bad idea to cook tomato-based dishes in cast iron, because acidic foods leach the iron and make the food taste too metallic. Many of the recipes were tomato based so it is indeed fine to cook acidic foods in cast iron, only perhaps I wouldn't leave the food in the pan too long after cooking. This opens up even more possibilities of using my cast iron cookware.

4. There is a whole section on cornbread recipes, all grand prize winners of the National Cornbread Cook-Off held annually in Tennessee. I really enjoying looking through the innovative variations on cornbread, like upside-down salsa cornbread and festive good luck cornbread skillet (yes, it calls for black-eyed peas).

5. I never thought to use my cast iron skillet for pizza and desserts. The cookbook has wonderful recipes for both. I then looked at food blogs and found many more, like this nice pictorial recipe for cast iron pizza and another one from King Arthur. Pineapple upside down cake is the classic recipe for dessert in a cast iron skillet, but I also can't wait to make these brownies, and Siri has a wonderful recipe for banana bread.

All in all, paired with a piece or two of cast iron cookware, The Lodge Cast Iron Cookbook cookbook would be a wonderful wedding or housewarming gift.

One of the recipes from this cookbook that jumped out at me was for a giant chocolate chip cookie. A simple chocolate chip cookie dough patted into a cast iron skillet and baked into a giant cookie that can be cut and served like a pie- what fun!

Giant Chocolate Chip Cookie-in-a-Pan
(Heavily adapted from a recipe in The Lodge Cast Iron Cookbook)

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
2. In a large bowl, melt and cool 1.5 sticks butter (3/4 cup).
3. Stir in 1 cup sugar and a dollop of molasses and beat well.
4. Add 1 large egg, 1 egg yolk and 2 tsp. vanilla extract and beat well.
5. Gently stir in 1 and 3/4 cup flour, 1 tsp. baking soda and 1 tsp. salt.
6. Fold in 2 cups bittersweet chocolate chips and 1 cup toasted chopped walnuts.
7. Scrape batter into a 10-inch cast iron skillet sprayed well with baking spray. Pat down into an even layer.
8. Sprinkle batter with coarse sea salt.
9. Bake until the edges are lightly browned, 30-35 minutes.

Cut into wedges and serve warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. With the bittersweet chocolate and the hit of sea salt, this was a grown up version of a childhood classic. For a special occasion, it would be fun to use an icing tube and decorate this "cookie cake" the way they do it at the mall cookie stalls.

Here is a list of top 10 ways that I use my two cast iron pans. There are many brands out there but like I said, both of mine are Lodge, from their seasoned line, and I love them. I cook a lot of Indian food so it is not surprising that I have adapted my cast iron pans for some of my favorite Indian dishes.

My first cast iron pan was this seasoned 10 inch griddle.

1. Dosa. This is the reason I bought this griddle in the first place. When we moved to St. Louis from NYC, I tearfully bid farewell to the wonderful dosa restaurants near 28th street and Lexington Avenue and thought my days of eating authentic dosas were over. Not so- we acquired a wet grinder and I bought this wonderful cast iron tava, and we're making our own almost-as-good-as-the-local-Udipi-joint dosas, baby.

Here are some of my kitchen notes for making dosas in a cast iron pan:
  • I always smear the cast iron pan with a tsp. of oil before starting to use it, and drizzle a few drops of oil or ghee around every dosa edge. For a new cast iron pan, you may need a little extra oil to begin with.
  • Get the pan nice and hot before pouring the first dosa. Cast iron takes longer to heat up compared to metal or non stick pans (however, once it heats up it retains heat remarkably well). Hover the palm of your hand a couple inches above the pan's surface- you should feel the high heat. 
  • Make sure the dosa batter is at room temperature. Batter straight from the fridge tends to stick to the pan.
  • Let the bottom get completely cooked and crispy before attempting to flip the dosa or pry it up (many dosas are cooked only on one side). Once the dosa cooks, it will come off the surface. Half cooked batter sticks to the griddle surface so be patient.
  • By the way, my dosa formula is adapted from Vaishali's recipe. I use 1 cup brown rice, 1 cup dosa/idli rice (parboiled rice), 1/2 cup urad dal, 1/3 cup poha, 2 tbsp chana dal, and 1 tsp. methi seeds.
2. Rotis etc. All of our tava-cooked Indian breads, including chapatis and rotis and stuffed parathas turn out beautifully on the cast iron tava, with nice brown spots on the outside and soft insides- and this works for both cooking them and reheating them.

3. Patties: Vegetable patties are my favorite crisper-cleaning snacks and a tasty way of eating assorted vegetables. I use the griddle for shallow frying patties, such as these, and patties for ragda patties.

4. Kaap: These are pan-fried slices of vegetables that make for irresistible side dishes to a simple Indian meal. In general, I make a mixture of rice flour, rava, chili powder, turmeric and salt, then dredge thick slices of vegetables (potato, sweet potato, plantain, eggplant, pumpkin, butternut squash) in it and pan fry on this griddle. Much more than any other pan I have used, the result is a crispy spicy coating enclosing soft, melt-in-the-mouth vegetables.

4. Grilled cheese: Cast iron griddles make the most fabulous grilled cheese. Some of our favorite cheese sandwiches are here. These days, we often make "gourmet" grilled cheese with fancy bread, assorted cheeses and interesting combinations of fillings, like brie and apricot jam.

5. Quesadillas: This dish is a weekly favorite in my home. Just stuff a whole wheat tortilla with plenty of shredded cheese and a filling of beans and sauteed vegetables. Again, the high heat of cast iron contributes intense flavor to this simple dish.

In Spring of last year, I wanted to add to my collection and bought a 10 inch cast iron skillet. If you are new to using cast iron, then this is the pan I would recommend. It is incredibly versatile and the size is just right for a family of 2 to 4. Buying a seasoned pan makes it simple for a beginner to start using it right away. Here are my top 5 uses for this skillet:

1. Sauteed vegetables: I am convinced that most of the reason why some people hate vegetables is because they have not been cooked in a flavorful way. Roasting is one way to get vegetables browned and tasty and a quicker easier way is to cook the vegetables on fairly high heat in a cast iron skillet. I saute vegetables to serve as a quick side dish, to add to grilled cheese and quasadillas (see above) and to add to curries.

2. Bhaaji/Subzi: All of my favorite subzis (Indian stir-fried vegetables), like cabbage, cauliflower-peas and eggplant-lima beans, give me fabulous results with this skillet. I do find that potatoes tend to stick to the pan.

3. Caramelized onions: The easiest way to make a posh meal out of a humble vegetable. Caramelize a bunch of onions and make a dip, put them on pizza or grilled cheese or turn them into soup.

4. Skillet lasagna: After reading this cookbook and discovering that you can indeed cook tomato-based dishes in cast iron cookware, I made skillet lasagna with great results- simple saute vegetables like onion, peppers, zucchini, mushrooms, add pasta sauce, broken lasagna noodles and cheese- ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan- and cover and cook for a tasty one dish meal.

5. Rice dishes turn out beautifully- I've already posted a mushroom pulao, had great results with this recipe for cheesy rice, and my all-time favorite breakfast dish, poha, is wonderful when made in the cast iron skillet.

If you have any more ideas for using these versatile pans, please chime in by leaving a comment.

This post is a tribute to Miri who wrote the popular food blog Peppermill. Miri passed away last week, leaving me (and so many of her blogger friends) reeling with shock and sorrow. I was a regular reader of Miri's blog and enjoyed her warm and and optimistic voice. She shared hundreds of recipes that had me in a bookmarking frenzy, from a recent favorite winter vegetable pickle made by her neighbor's mom to all the Tamil specialties. Diwali of last year, I was home with a newborn with no time to make traditional treats, but reading her 4-part Diwali bhakshanam series (she wrote with characteristic enthusiasm, "I decided to involve my 6 year old so that she gets a feel of all the traditional Tamil sweets and savories which she wouldn't get to see otherwise in Delhi") made the festive season come alive for me.

Re-reading Miri's post about baking muffins with her daughter was extremely painful this past week, knowing that this little 6 year old girl is left to face the biggest loss of all. I hope Miri's husband and daughter know that they have friends and well-wishers all over the world and that their darling wife/mother touched many lives. Read loving tributes to Miri by Arch, Bong Mom, Manisha and Nina.

During a brief e-mail correspondence, Miri told me her real-life name- Raji- but I will always think of her as Miri (the word means "pepper" in several Indian languages), peppering our blogs generously with her witty and warm comments. What makes it most poignant is that Miri who so loved cooking and baking succumbed to a rare digestive disorder. I laid aside my grief and tried to write this post with joy and enthusiasm because I think Miri would have liked that.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Of Salad Days and Blog Birthdays

This past week, One Hot Stove turned 7 years ago. You'll agree that seven years is a ripe old age in Internet years. Now as to whether old qualifies as experienced or decrepit- that's for you to decide, gentle reader. Seven years after timidly starting this blog, I am in awe of (a) the power of words and (b) the power of community.

And by community, I mean YOU- so here's a tight virtual hug for ya (( )).

Speaking of community, there's a worthy blog event going on right this minute. Siri of Cooking with Siri, along with her family, often visits the Vaidehi Ashram, a refuge for little girls in Hyderabad in Southern India. Can you even imagine being a small child left all alone in the world? I sure cannot. The mere thought of a little girl (a little girl just like my daughter) being left to fend for herself on this harsh planet brings angry tears to my eyes. And makes me grateful for places like Vaidehi Ashram that provide a home and a family and an education to girl children who started life with such a disadvantage. Siri has written two posts talking about her visits to the Ashram and is hosting a fundraiser to raise money for food, clothing and schooling for the little girls. Get all details about the fundraiser/raffle by clicking here.

One Hot Stove is sponsoring one of the raffle prizes: An Ice Cream Package consisting of the Cuisinart ICE-21 Frozen Yogurt, Ice Cream and Sorbet Maker PLUS a copy of the book Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home by Jeni Britton Bauer. The ice cream maker is a new and improved version of the one I bought for myself a couple of summers ago. I've enjoyed using it week after week, especially in Spring and Summer, often using the very simplest of recipes (mix the ingredients and pour into the machine) to make tender coconut ice cream, kesar pista ice cream and strawberry ice cream. In fact, my baby shower was an ice cream social. The book is one that I borrowed from the library and renewed as many times as they would let me. The recipes in this book are eggless and Jeni's ice cream is close to the texture of kulfi. I chose this raffle prize knowing that I love both these products and I hope you'll buy a ticket and put your name in the hat for this prize!

If ice cream is not your thing, there are loads of other prizes, from kitchen tools like knives and kettles to cookbooks to gadgets like e-readers. Read Siri's post for all the details. We often worry about giving money to organizations where we are not sure of whether the money will actually do any good. I feel very good about giving to Vaidehi Ashram because of Siri's visits and her description of how the place is run. The money will be used for the kids and not on advertising or overhead expenses. You have until February 25th to participate in this fund-raiser and share a bit of your good fortune with a child in Hyderabad.

On to the recipe. I wanted to bake something sweet and lovely to celebrate the blog birthday. In the end, I decided to spend my precious weekend moments cuddling with Lila and I ended up making an antipasto salad. The salad was an accompaniment to the pizza that friends brought over when they came to watch the Super Bowl. It was so tasty and colorful that I instantly deemed it blog-worthy.

The inspiration came from this drop-dead gorgeous antipasto platter. It induced serious salad cravings for me. My antipasto platter was a simple one, with bagged baby spinach, goodies from the olive bar at Whole Foods (olives, marinated mushrooms, artichokes, roasted red peppers) and giardiniera, which are Italian pickles consisting of cauliflower, celery and carrots in a vinegary brine (I happened to have a bottle in the fridge- an impulse buy from many moons ago). We added some very fresh mild mozzarella and a few shavings of parmesan, along with a shower of freshly ground pepper.

I served Meyer lemon dressing on the side. I've heard so much about Meyer lemons in food blog land but tasted them for the first time when I found them being sold in Trader Joe's. I have to say, I can see what the hype is about- this lemon has a remarkable taste, very aromatic and lemony without the harshness. For the dressing, I simply whisked together Meyer lemon juice, mayonnaise, honey mustard and some coarse salt.

I can see myself putting together such a platter for many gatherings in the future. And I'll be making my own marinated mushrooms and giardiniera to make it more cost effective. Slices of bell pepper and red onion would be perfect additions to this platter.

I'll be back to continue year eight on One Hot Stove. I'm still finding my voice, still learning to express myself, still just a novice in the kitchen and I hope you'll stay with me as we cook our way through life.