From Home Cooking

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Kitchen PSA: Cast Iron Care

We deviate slightly from this blog’s travel mission to deliver an essential message for home:

Cast-iron pans are cheap, sturdy, non-stick, and incredibly easy to care for.

I have to say it, because people seem to have the wrong idea about cast iron–that it’s somehow a finicky, fragile thing that needs special care. And this idea was broadcast nationwide last night in an episode of “Selected Shorts,” when someone read Marc Maron’s essay about his cast-iron pan.

In the essay, which was first published in Lucky Peach, Maron talks about buying a cast-iron pan at a yard sale and becoming obsessed with preserving the seasoning. He barely cooks in it (there’s your problem right there, bub), and instead spends all his time coating it with lard and so on. He eventually has a bit of a breakdown, strips the seasoning with oven cleaner, and starts fresh, and has more of a breakdown, and then I couldn’t really hear because I was shouting too much.

I know–the cast-iron pan is a metaphor for Maron’s psyche. It’s not really about how to care for a skillet; it’s about how to care for yourself. And it didn’t even bother me much when I first read it in Lucky Peach, because I figured LP readers knew the practicalities of cast-iron pan care already.

But now, here’s Marc Maron on a nationally syndicated radio show, essentially giving the whole country a quickie lesson in how to care for your cast-iron skillet.

Or HOW NOT TO. With all his fretting, he set back the cause of cast iron 20 years!

Dude, first: the whole thing about no soap? It’s no big deal. Cast iron that’s well seasoned–like the pan you bought from the hipster at the yard sale–can handle a little soap. The seasoning is not going to evaporate when touched with soap. (That’s why you needed to resort to oven cleaner–insanely toxic oven cleaner, on a thing you’ll eat out of?!–to strip it off.) When I’m doing the dishes, I usually wash our skillets last, with the regular kitchen sponge–sometimes it still has some soap in it, sometimes it doesn’t.

Actually, it’s water that’s not great for the skillet. Sometimes I let the skillet soak a little, if there is something crusty on it, but this, in the long run, will do in the seasoning and dull the pan. But once, for an hour, to loosen up some scrambled eggs, will not hurt the pan noticeably.

Post-washing: dry the pan immediately. Shake the excess water off, and then set the pan on a low burner to dry. (You could of course dry it with a towel, but then your towel would get a bit greasy.)

Next up, Marc Maron: the thing about coating the pan with oil and letting the oil bake on. Yes, that’s lovely, but you only have to season the pan when it’s messed up–like, when you get one from a yard sale, and it’s all dull and maybe a little rusty. Do the oil-coating treatment once or twice, cook a couple things, and then you’re good to go.

The best thing to do for your cast-iron skillet is to cook bacon in it. When you’re done cooking the bacon, wipe out the grease with a paper towel, with a little extra friction on the stuck-on bits, and your pan will look great. Next time you pre-heat it, the last bit of bacon fat will cook in to even more seasoning. If you don’t do bacon, do something else fatty. Eventually, the seasoning will naturally build up.

Peter and I own four cast-iron skillets and one Dutch oven. We have so many because they’re like puppies–you see a cute one at a store, and you just want to give it a loving home. Plus, hey, they’re useful–you can fry things, you can deep-fry things, and you can bake pies and biscuits in them. You can fry eggs in them. Truly they’re wondrous.

And I do love cast iron for the same reason Marc Maron says he does: this object has lasted potentially a hundred or more years. It’s a connection to tradition, the past, etc. The beauty of that is that these mothers are tough.

And, just as important, they can change. Sometimes your skillet looks beautiful and shiny, and your eggs practically flip themselves. Sometimes you cooked with too much wine (acid eats away at the seasoning), and your skillet gets dull. Sometimes you forget to turn the burner off after it’s dry, and your skillet gets smoking mad. But–and listen here, Marc Maron–the skillet is resilient. It can handle bad stuff, and eventually be fine again–even better. It doesn’t need babying–it just needs to keep going, to be cooked in, to be loved.

A Bad Idea for a Holiday Gift

You know all those seasonal stories in magazines are researched a year ahead of time. This is one of those. Here, as we launch into the season of frantic gift-buying, may we at Winslow Place tell you an inspirational story about the perils of late-night advertising?

One day in deep winter, we received a package. We weren’t expecting anything…

Peter loves packages.
Peter loves packages.
Knives? Who packs knives in a foam cooler?
Knives? Who packs knives in a foam cooler?
China's finest knives, KuchenStolz.
China’s finest knives, KuchenStolz.
Now the foam cooler is making more sense. Frozen steaks?
Now the foam cooler is making more sense. Frozen steaks?
Oh! Another Chinese kitchen accessory!
Oh! Another Chinese kitchen accessory!
Gourmet franks! What's not to love?
Gourmet franks! What’s not to love?
Stuffed Sole Fillets. Weird.
Stuffed Sole Fillets. Weird.

OK, now…if you have a television, and you watch it late at night, you by now probably know what this box is. We don’t, so we were very, very puzzled about this assortment of foods and objects all in the same package. We also had no idea who had sent it to us. So we just kept unpacking.

Life insurance ads? With the steaks? How morbid can you get?
Life insurance ads? With the steaks? How morbid can you get?
Conversation starter cards! Would you go back to life before cell phones?
Conversation starter cards! Would you go back to life before cell phones?
FINALLY, in the bottom of the box, we found a card.
FINALLY, in the bottom of the box, we found a card.

Our slightly demented friend Dan was responsible. His card said, roughly, “I’ve watched these ads so many times, I’ve always been curious about this. But I didn’t really want to try it myself.”

I think it must’ve been an ad along these lines, but more tailored for insomniacs. And Dan was probably imagining our unpacking it would go something like this.

We live in a kind of special little food bubble here. It was odd to read the brochures touting the “grain-fed beef,” and we spent a lot of time squinting at the ingredients on that stuffed sole. And the brochures were like the kind I haven’t seen since I was a kid, when we’d get them tucked in the Parade magazine. By moving to New York, I guess I thought bragging-about-grain-fed beef and life-insurance ads in fake old-computer font just stopped existing…but they’re out there, of course, and now they were in our kitchen.

We ate it all. The beef was delicious. Good little reminder about why people started feeding cows grain in the first place. The stuffed sole was just fine, and the stuffed baked potatoes were really good. The only thing that was gross were the “gourmet franks”–yes, the only thing I’d been excited to see in the box when we unpacked it. Apparently, “gourmet” means “squishy, with no snappy skin.” Shudder.

But, bottom line, even after we’d eaten everything, the best thing in the box was what we found in the very bottom.

DRY ICE! Also something I haven't seen since I was a kid.
DRY ICE! Also something I haven’t seen since I was a kid.
Sugar Duck says, "Wooooooowww..."
Sugar Duck was very impressed.

We can genuinely say thank you, Dan, for this strange and wondrous gift pack that provided such entertainment in the dreariest time of year. We just might not wholeheartedly recommend it to others.

Two Amazing Cookbooks from Gaza and Iraq

gazakitchen“Heh, that’s not a very thick book,” a visitor to my house wisecracked when he saw my copy of The Gaza Kitchen laying out.

Woe to he who utters the untutored statement in my house! The guy got an earful of all the amazing things I had learned from this truly wonderful book: Gazans cook with dill and hot chili. They pound everything in clay mortar-and-pestles. There’s a hot debate over whether Gaza should even strive for food independence. And any Gaza cook worth her (it’s usually her, in this book) salt gives meat a quick boil first before doing anything else.

I see why this guy made this off-the-cuff lame joke. We in America don’t get a lot of information about Gaza, and certainly not about something so trivial as, oh, you know, food. This cookbook is a beautiful document of real daily Gaza life, which you never see. It has great photos of women at home, in their kitchens; of markets and ingredients; of street scenes. It talks about traditions, regional biases and yes, some political issues, which are of course sometimes impossible to extricate from our daily meals.

Every cuisine should be documented this way–not just through recipes, but with these generous biographies of the cooks, photos of techniques and ingredients, and discussions of food supply and how dishes are adapted due to non-food-related issues.

For instance: Gazans traditionally favors so-called “red tahini,” from toasted sesame seeds. But due to the blockade, it’s too expensive to make–so regular imported white tahini is used. I like to think that, thanks to the careful documentation of Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt, a detail like this won’t be lost in a few generations’ time. This cookbook brings a whole food tradition to light for those who haven’t known it, and it helps record it for those who cook it every day, whatever the circumstances.

Lecture over. Phew. Buy the book. If you don’t believe me, please note: Anthony Bourdain blurbed it!

***

iraqiTwo weeks ago, I got to meet Nawal Nasrallah, the author of Delights from the Garden of Eden, an Iraqi cookbook. It was just reissued this year, by a new press that invested in gorgeous color photos and more. Nasrallah was visiting NYC, and wound up cooking dinner at a friend’s house.

I was all breathless and told Nasrallah I’d had her cookbook for almost ten years, and loved it so much. “So, what have you cooked from it?” she asked me.

Er. Um. The thing is: every time I’ve decided to use the cookbook, I get distracted by the amazing historical details. The Akkadian etymology of seemingly every Iraqi food word. Odd factoids (Sumerian women called their husbands “honey man”!). An hour later, my head is full of fabulous stories, but I still haven’t decided what to cook. So I make a salad.

The dinner I had with Nasrallah was just the starting point I needed: red rice with chickpeas, lamb shank with raisins and almonds and onions, baklava filled with a delicate soft cheese. Oh, and the original “moussaka,” which has very little to do with the Greek stuff.

Nasrallah isn’t just a collector of recipes–she’s a scholar and a translator and has burrowed down into medieval cookbooks and back to ancient texts to really root Iraq’s food in place. The detail in this book is hilarious and enriching.

Buy it. Even if you never cook from it. Though I strongly suggest you do. That baklava with cheese is dreamy…

RG at Home: Pie Pie Pie Pie Pie Pie!

Never mind that it’s currently too hot to roll out a pie crust: I am here to tell you that Millicent Souris’s new book, How to Build a Better Pie, will save your life.

I first made Millicent’s acquaintance at the late, great Queen’s Hideaway. Dessert was pies of a couple sorts. I ordered with less than enthusiasm. Restaurant pies are uniformly bad. If it’s a fancy place, the pastry chef has always had too much French training and makes a dense and crumbly tart shell thing. If it’s a lower-end place, they rarely believe in paying for butter, and figure a prefab crust is fine.

The Hideaway was different, though, because Millicent was in charge. She understands the rustic, American charm of a pie crust, and how it should be both flavorful and flaky–not just some sturdy container for filling. A pie is really about the crust.

I myself used to make a pretty good pie crust. But this was years ago, at a higher elevation, in a drier climate. My skillz never translated to sea level, and over the years, my pie crust has been hit and miss. I tried various gimmicks (fo-pro, vodka, you name it), but posts like this and this great post by Christina always reminded me I was overthinking it. I mean, if Choire Sicha can make a freakin’ pie crust, so can I.

Millicent was the best reminder–if you knew her, it would be crystal-clear that she’s not pulling any BS, dreamed-up-in-America’s-Test-Kitchen tricks.

So to have all her collected wisdom in a book, with photos of her actually making the crust…well, it’s a dream come true. And what’s extra-great are two things:

1) Millicent taught herself to bake pies. She didn’t come into it with expectations or decades of subconscious knowledge absorbed in her upbringing. This is not a fussy book, and the photo of the empty pie shell on the back of the book is the perfect illustration: a little lumpy and irregular, and clear where bits have been patched. Anti-Martha, pro-everyman/woman.

2) Pie is many things, and Millicent covers it all. Sweet pies, traditional pies (Shaker lemon pie, apple pie), more creative pies (sweet potato with sesame praline), savory pies, white-trash pies, English fish pies, that chocolate pie with the salt that made me dizzy at the Hideaway…

And finally: jailhouse pie.*

The last recipe in the book, Jailhouse Cheesecake, seems like a throwaway gimmick, with its “whipped topping” and “‘gram’ crackers.” But in fact it’s a gesture that reflects Millicent’s whole approach: generous, proud of ingenuity and pretty realist: “They make their own pie crust in jail. For shame if you cannot muster the strength.”

Actually, that last line shows off the third thing that really makes this book. Pie seems like a slightly frivolous thing–a novelty, a special-occasion food. But we all have warm associations with it, and it’s actually not that hard. And because Millicent is a wonderful writer, with attitude and wit, she conveys all this in a way that makes you want to get up and roll out the crust (never mind the 90-degree heat).

Baking a pie represents so much about a certain kind of cooking that’s essential to survival–it requires ingenuity and making do, but it’s also a generous gesture.

We don’t have to have children or enough money to name a hospital after ourselves or find a cure for something. We can just make food, and pass it along. That might be enough.

Amen, sister.

Millicent modeling pie at a Sunday Night Dinner

Buy this book. You won’t regret it.

*The jailhouse pie reminds me of a truly wonderful story I read in Gastronomica a few years back. Here’s a rough summary, as the original article, with pics, is a pay-only PDF.