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Ironclad cookery: The simple cast-iron pan serves as one of today’s under-the-radar trends

  • Minneapolis Star Tribune
  • Published Tuesday, June 3, 2014, at 1:19 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, June 4, 2014, at 6:45 a.m.

Photos

TIPS FOR CAST-IRON PANS

To prepare a new pan: Remove oils from packaging by heating pan on the stovetop. Use a paper towel to wipe away any oils. Cool pan and wash it with water, dish soap and a scrub brush (this should be the only time soap is used with the pan). Then season the pan (see below). Dry thoroughly. Note that some pans come preseasoned (follow package directions).

To season a pan: Wipe it with vegetable oil – including exterior, bottom and handles – and put it in a 500-degree oven and leave it there until it smokes (you may want to put pan on a baking sheet to catch any oil that drips off). Remove the pan from the oven and cool it slightly before rubbing more vegetable oil on it. When completely cool, wipe off any oil.

To fix a rusty pan: If there is a little rust, use a paper towel with vegetable oil to rub it off. For a seriously rusty pan, use a metal scrubber. Then dry the pan thoroughly and season it.

To prevent rust: Always dry the pan quickly and thoroughly. If desired, pop it into a hot oven or place it on a burner on low to dry it out. Store pan without a cover on top, which can trap moisture.

How to clean a pan: This is easier to do when the pan is warm. Using a nylon scraper, remove any bits and pieces of food in the pan, and rinse the pan in hot water. Never use a dishwasher. If necessary, add boiling water to help remove food particles. If food regularly sticks to the pan, it may need to be reseasoned. Do not use soap. If that concerns you, rinse the pan in boiling water. If cooking odors remain, put the clean pan in a hot oven for about 15 minutes to clear the smell.

How to cook with cast iron: Unless the recipe says otherwise, heat the pan to medium or medium high before adding food. To sear food, the pan should be smoking hot.

Advantages of cast iron: It’s inexpensive, heats evenly and is nonstick when seasoned. The pan can be heated to a much higher temperature than any nonstick pans, and it adds some iron to your diet.

SAUSAGE AND MAPLE STUFFED TOMATOES

Serves 6 to 8.

Note: Keep the tomatoes covered two-thirds through the cooking process and then uncover to let them steam-cook, which prevents them from getting overly browned and tough on top. Whether this dish is for an evening meal or hearty breakfast, rounding it out with a poached egg serves up a good combo.

6 to 8 ripe medium tomatoes

Kosher salt

1 pound bulk country-blend pork sausage (don’t use Italian seasoned)

1 medium onion, cut into 1/2-inch dice

4 garlic cloves, minced

7 to 8 ounces button mushrooms, cut into 1/2-inch dice

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup pure maple syrup

2 cup plain dry breadcrumbs

2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Coarsely ground black pepper to taste

Core tomatoes and, using a melon baller, scoop out the insides (save for another use or discard). Sprinkle inside of tomatoes with salt, and set tomatoes upside-down for 30 minutes on a wire rack set over the sink or a baking sheet to catch the juice.

While the tomatoes drain, cook the sausage in a 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat until no longer pink, breaking it into small pieces. Using a slotted spoon, transfer sausage to paper towels. Do not drain the fat from the pan. Add the onion and garlic, and cook, stirring a few times, until translucent, 4 to 5 minutes.

Add the mushrooms and oil, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms have released their moisture, about 10 minutes.

In a medium bowl, combine sausage and mushroom mixture. Add the maple syrup, breadcrumbs, sage, cheese and pepper to taste.

Using your hands, evenly divide the filling among the tomatoes, gently pushing the filling in to pack it, and press a roughly 1/4-cup mound on top of each tomato. Place stuffed tomatoes on baking sheet. At this point, you can cover the tomatoes with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to bake or overnight.

If you have refrigerated the tomatoes, pull them out 30 minutes before you intend to bake them to take the chill off. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Replace plastic wrap with aluminum foil and bake, covered, for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for an additional 10 to 15 minutes. Serve hot.

From Ross Sveback in “Lodge Cast Iron Nation.”

NEW BOOKS ON CAST-IRON COOKING

“Cast-Iron Gourmet,” by Matt Pelton (Hobble Creek Press, $18.99)

“The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook,” 2nd edition, by Sharon Kramis and Julie Kramis Hearne” (Sasquatch Books, $19.95)

“Lodge Cast Iron Nation,” by editor Pam Hoenig (Oxmoor House, $24.95)

“The New Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook,” by Ellen Brown (Sterling Epicure, $24.95)

It may be the most versatile pan around, yet it’s hundreds of years old and comes in one color: the cast-iron piece de resistance. For generations of cooks, the pan has been passed along from kitchen to kitchen as an heirloom.

Among the fans of the heavy-duty pan is Ross Sveback of Afton, Minn., a lifestyle promoter and the state’s answer to Martha Stewart. (“I’m the inappropriate Martha. There are no rules in my world. I don’t say you can only serve this with that. You forge your own road,” he noted in a phone interview.) When he’s not on TV, or at the Mall of America doling out pointers for entertaining or everyday living, he’s likely to be found in the kitchen.

Sveback himself has a cupboard full of cast-iron cookware. One of his recipes appears in the new book, “Lodge Cast Iron Nation,” edited by Pam Hoenig. The only company that still makes its cast-iron cookware in the United States is Lodge Manufacturing of South Pittsburg, Tenn., which opened in 1896.

Whether the cookware is used to fry chicken, bake cornbread, roast Brussels sprouts or sear steak, the pans add a special sizzle to cooking. Sveback tells us how he uses this versatile pan: on the stove, in the oven, on the grill or campfire. And at the table, where the dish can be presented direct from the heat.

Q: Why the attention to cast-iron cookware these days?

A: It’s that old-time magic. It’s the sense of heritage. People are on a budget. But they still want to buy things and treat themselves. This is one reason that cast iron is so popular. People want beautiful things in their home and they want to entertain and have a perceived elevated lifestyle. But they are going back to things that their grandmothers did – like canning. We’re in a time where people are valuing again what people do with their hands. It’s a more personalized world.

Q: What are the advantages of cast iron?

A: It’s approachable. Anyone who really loves cooking can afford this cookware. I can’t buy a $300 copper pot, but I can get a really good cast-iron pan for $50. It’s a fantastic investment in your kitchen.

Q: What cast-iron pieces do you have?

A: I have many pieces, some heritage from my grandmother, including an abelskiever pan that hangs on my wall. You can find great pieces at garage sales. Buy it, even if it’s rusty, and then restore it. I have miniature cast-iron skillets that I like to use. Anytime you can serve something in individual portions, people feel special. They think you’ve taken extra time to do this – but you haven’t.

Q: How often do you use cast iron?

A: I cook with it almost every day, especially in the summer. I love the heat retention with the pan. I can set food out on the table in the pan and it stays warm for a long time.

Q: What are the biggest problems with cast iron?

A: People don’t rinse the pan right away. Don’t leave food in it or it’s harder to clean. After you’re done eating, remove any food from the pan, wash it with hot water and a scrub brush (not metal). Sometimes you have to be patient a bit to get it clean.

Q: How do you restore it?

A: I use a scouring pad. I scrub it with warm water to get rid of the rust. Then I add the oil. Don’t use bacon grease or olive oil; use some kind of vegetable oil. I prefer canola oil. I use my fingers or a paper towel and get it all over inside the pan. You can lightly put it on the outside on the sides and liberally on the inside. Then I heat the pan on medium until it starts to smoke, take it off the heat and put it in the oven (which isn’t on). I put it in there to be out of the way and because it’s hot. After it cools, wipe off the excess oil and it’s like a brand-new pan.

Q: What can you make in a cast-iron pan that’s unexpected?

A: Pie. But line your pan with parchment (you probably don’t have to, but I do). Some people make bread. I also like to make cake – especially pineapple-upside down cake. It’s the only way to get that caramelization that’s so nice.

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