Cast iron cookware, the Cooks Holy Grail

Back to basics, returning to the best.

I now own three complete sets of cookware. First is a conglomeration of non stick pots and pans. Second is my cherished Tramontina Stainless Steel cookware and third… is the holy grail of all cookware, my mixed set of Cast Iron.

The first two I could live without, the third I couldn’t. I called it a mixed set, here’s why. I show little allegiance to name brand. In fact, most of my cookware is so old that if it ever had a name, I’m sure by now the company is long out of business. Many of them are well over 100 years old. The reason I chose each one individually is due to the quality. Even new pots and pans have flaws in them. They may not show but if you look closely at the rim and see a slight difference in thickness, this is a flaw. It will not heat evenly. Now other metallic pans are stamped out or extruded or as in cast aluminum, made with steel dies that cannot deviate in size. They are theoretically perfect.

Cast iron pots and pans are made using a method ages old called sand casting. A box of oily black sand is used to make the pans impression in. Top and bottom.  They put the two halves together, then molten cast iron is poured into the cast box. Once the impression is filled, the box is broken in two and the sand, along with the freshly cast pan, is poured out. The sand is recovered and reused. The pot is then inspected for flaws of any sort and sent for further finishing. A reputable cast iron cookware company has much higher standards of quality than most imports. Those I stay away from, no matter the brand. Another I don’t cotton to are ones with an enamel finish. What’s the point of these? You’ll never obtain the taste of true cast iron cooking with enamel cookware.

So how do you know if a pans any good to buy? In this rare case, name brand does help. Be aware of specialty pans made for famous chefs or merchants. They are usually a cheap import or lesser quality line made by someone else. Think about this, what qualifications do Emeril, Paula Deen or any other celebrity chef have that qualifies them to have their name cast in cookware? None! So don’t get roped into buying some junk cookware because some celebrity stuck their name on it.  I have seen some horrible import cookware on the market with great looking packaging. Remember, you will not be using the beautiful looking packaging to cook with.

A few brands I actually give my two thumbs up on are these. The old, no longer made McClary’s, Older, Griswold and Wagner’s (the later two now owned and manufactured by the American Culinary Corporation. I recommend only the  pre-takeover Griswold’s and Wagoner’s since rumor has it the newer ones made by ACC are made in China and are of a lesser quality. Many of the older lids always had dimples on them for self basting. Lodge cookware (Probably the best made today and are made in America and are my #1 choice for new cast iron cookware), Then there is Browning ( very nice set, lids are excellent, made for the outdoors. Most likely an import but well made) GW Gear (these are OK but they come with a worthless wooden storage crate that many times arrive in pieces. Lids are good though and casting is acceptable, most likely an import)

Some I’d stay away from are. Bayou Classics (cheap import), Stansport ( Chinese import, casting marks and handles are questionable but the dutch oven seems good), Buffalo tools (Import, cheaply made) Most any famous chef brand and unfortunately even Cracker barrel. This is because they cast their name on the bottom causing uneven heating.

Things to know about cast iron cooking and care.

1-      Quality. Scaling is NOT normal. A properly cast and finished pan will not scale if pre seasoned correctly. Look for how well ground out the mold marks are. See if the lid fits snugly and look for thin spots on the rim. Don’t overlook the handle, it should be smooth, even in the hanger hole.

2-      Pre seasoning. Cast iron is the original non stick cookware. Once it is seasoned, nothing sticks to it. Follow the manufacturer’s directions if purchased new. Many are now being sold as “pre seasoned”, that’s all fine and good for the first time cooking, but continue to season the pan as if it were not pre seasoned. To season;  Wash pan in mild dish detergent and dry completely.

Pre heat your oven to 225 degrees. Then using lard, shortening or the least desired vegitable oil, lightly coat the entire pot, inside and out.

Place the pot in the heated oven for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, increase the oven temp to 500 degrees and bake for 45 minutes. Remove when finished and allow it to cool. When cool, the pot should not be sticky, if it is then either too much oil was used or time and temp were too low. Reheating at 500 degrees for another ½ hour should solve the problem. If the pot is an antique or rusty, clean it very well, even using steel wool and a mild detergent, then season twice in a row.

3-      Cleaning. Never, ever, place cast iron in the dishwasher to be cleaned. Only a mild quick cleaning followed by an immediate drying is ever needed. I know of many cooks that simply wipe out the pot with a damp towel then returned to the fire for 1 minute to dry. Re-season by simply wiping a fine layer oil on it. If heavy cleaning is needed then you should re-season it using the oven method. The secret to forming the non stick surface is to allow a build up on the interior of the pot or pan. By wiping with a damp towel and drying it afterward using heat, will begin the buildup. Some of my frying pans, to my best judgment, have never had anything done to them but a good wiping out. I said before, some of my cast iron cookware is over 100 years old! If scrubbing is needed, use a mild detergent and a nylon scrub brush, never metal chore boys or Brillo type pads. If you cook outdoors, you can simply heat the pan until the stuck residue burns into a char. Then just wipe out the char using the damp towel again. Cast iron can crack or warp so never place a hot pot or pan in cold water, let it cool first.

4-      Cooking tips. Before using, wipe a teaspoon of oil into the pan before pre heating. Then pre heat to warm it up before placing food in them. Never place frozen or very chilled food into cast iron, doing so will cause the food to stick and burn. Soups and watery foods do not require a preheated pot but still wipe a bit of oil in them first.

5-      About Dutch ovens and frying pans. When looking at frying pans, any over 12” should have an opposing handle of sorts opposite the long handle. It may be just a 1” cast nub or a formed loop handle, either works since you’ll never grab cast iron bare handed anyway. Use a lid lifter or pot holder in removing the lid. I am against using the leather gloves so many trail cooks use because leather will hold and transmit heat, causing severe burns. I opt for a heavy cotton or Kevlar cooking glove. Dutch ovens come in two styles, flat bottomed or with legs. Flat bottoms are made for stove top or oven cooking. They can be used over a campfire if they are fitted with the wire hanger handle and work well on electric stove tops.The lids fit as either a normal pot lid or come in the depressed lid style, either works well. Dutch ovens with legs are made for open fire cooking only and will not work on electric stove tops. To use, place the pot directly on top of a bed of coals, then heap coals on the lid, doing so acts to completely submerge the pot in heat. The lid has a depression made in for this purpose.

Cooking with cast iron sounds like a bit more work, but what you put into cooking is what you get back out. Some of my 100 year old pots and pans are still releasing flavor from cooks long gone up to the big Chuck wagon in the sky. Cast iron cookware rarely if ever changes and are for the most part, passed down from generation to generation.  While I do own other cookware, those will most likely never hang from my children’s pot racks, they’ll be sent off to Goodwill. My eldest son has already laid claim though to my cast iron cookware when I too start cooking at the Heavenly Chuck wagon.

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COWBOY BEANS, Also known as, Whistle berries, Pecos strawberries and Fart-n-darts

courtesy of Google Images

In my latest travels out West, I had to make a stop at a small eatery in Cave Creek Arizona where they serve what I think is the worlds greatest bowl of beans. More a bean soup than anything else, the dish simply burst with the flavor of beans. Sitting there enjoying my big bowl of beans in their own gravy, I made a vow that when I got back home I’d  re create this recipe. The menu at the place simply said, “Cowboy Beans” so I was left on my own to discover their recipe.

Within a few days of returning home, I dragged out my heritage recipe collections to see if any I had came close to the recipe they served up there in Cave Creek.  Nope.

I discovered that all my recipes were of the variety that made thick, brown sugar and molasses style beans. Similar to the popular Boston Baked beans or store bought Bushe’s or Campbell’s Baked beans.  These, I am positive, were not the same style found whipped up by trail cooks from their Chuck wagons.

I had never thought much about what kind of beans those Cowboys really ate and that got me thinking. Exactly what kind of beans did they really eat while out on the trail?

They surely didn’t do the molasses style since that would have meant traveling with loads of brown sugar and jars of molasses. The sugar would have quickly hardened into a rock and the molasses , being rare out west, would have been worth its weight in gold.

Since many trail drives started out in or around Texas, it made sense then that the spices,  beans and cultural taste would be indigenous to the Mexican influence.

I scoured the Western cooking blogs and web sites and found to my amazement, most posted nothing but common syrup thick pork –n-bean recipes and even at that, they used canned rather than dried beans.

Now I have a slight sugar problem, not bad mind you but enough to make me alter my cooking habits a bit in order I don’t fall over dead before I complete my personal bucket list.

So I went about searching through every type of cook book from Western to Vegan for a healthier, non sugar recipe and still I could not find what I had in mind.

Then I found it. When I had been camping out in Texas, I ran across a State of Texas sponsored history attraction that was dedicated to the Texas Trail drives. There amidst the Charles Goodnight collection, was an old Chuck Wagon showing how it was set up. Alongside it in a glass and wooden case, was the reproduction of a few common recipes used back in the day. I photographed them closely and then immediately forgot about them.

Suddenly remembering this, I opened up my Kodak collection of photos and found what I had been searching for. Their recipe for ‘beans in gravy’ eaten on the trail.

Well, I immediately converted the recipe into today’s amounts and whatnot. I changed the sautéing of the veggies in butter and oil versus a “a good hand sized glob of suet” (it sounds worse than it is, suet was a homemade tasty unfiltered lard .

While the beans stayed the same, I had to guess on what a ‘ Mexican pepper’  was,  so I used a combination of one  Poblano and two Cubano peppers. There are many I could have used but these are common down here. I charred them up on an open fire like written but changed from canned to fresh and roasted, my diced up tomatoes. All in all, the new recipe was near as possible to that of the real Chuck Wagon one.

Let me say this. I was thrilled with my beans, they were absolutely delicious!

Sometimes heritage recipes aren’t as tasty, well formed or as good looking as those of today, but a heritage recipe whether good or bad does something a modern recipe can never do. It lets you literally touch the past by using your tongue.


 

 Ingredients

2 cups of dried (not canned) red beans

2 cups of dried (not canned) pinto beans. Some folks advise to pressure cook these guys before hand to get ’em soft

1 large yellow onion (Spanish or Sweet is fine) chopped up fine

3 Tbl chopped up garlic

3 green chili, Cubano, Poblano (your choice of Mexican ) peppers. Grill or roast them up for a minute then then chop them up

3 ripe tomatoes, grill them up for a minute then remove seeds and chop them up

1 Tbl vegetable oil for sauteing veggies (if using olive oil, use light to reduce the olive flavor)

1 Tbl of butter added to sauteing oil

7 quarts of water (for added flavor use 2 cups of vegetable stock and 5 quarts of water)

1 large ham bone with meat attached, pig foot or large slab of salt pork or suet. (Add extra pork fat if using ham bone for taste and

for added ham flavor, add 2 packets of Goya Ham Concentrate to the mix)

Spices

1 1/2 tsp coriander seed (toast them up first in a small skillet for bursting flavor, toast until you smell them)

1 whole unbroken bay leaf (remove after cooking)

OPTIONAL,  Add 2 dried hot red chili peppers (1/8 tsp of cayenne pepper can be used instead if you ain’t got chilli peppers)

1 tsp of black pepper during simmering

1 tsp of salt during simmering. (Salt to taste,  add more salt if desired when almost finished cooking)

Cooking instructions

Soak beans overnight in water to cover, changing water once; drain.

When beans are ready, saute onion, garlic, green chiles and tomatoes in butter and oil in a large stock pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat.

Add water / stock and ham bone then bring to a boil.

Add beans, toasted coriander seed, bay leaf and dried chilies.

Continue to boil for 30 minutes, then lower heat, cover and simmer for three to four hours.

After a few hours of simmering, remove the lid, leave it off, and season beans with salt again to taste.

Continue to cook until beans are soft but not mushy.

Remove ham bone and bay leaf before serving.

Makes about 16 servings

Fire roast the tomatoes before chopping them up

Chop up the tomatoes

Chop the onion up into small pieces

Saute veggies in butter and oil

Add Ham bone. I save my ham bones from previous hams by freezing them after the ham is eaten. Add fat to the ham bone as by itself, it will be too lean.

Add microwave heated ham to pot

Roast up the Coriander in a skillet

Fill pot with 7 quarts of water and start to boil. Add beans only after pot is boiling

Boil covered for 4 hrs then uncover and add salt

Don’t forget to remove ham bone, fat and bay leaf when cooking is finished.

Old west ditty.

“Beans, beans the musical fruit,

the more you eat the more you toot!

The more you toot, the better you feel,

So eat your beans at every meal!