Monday, August 15, 2011

Helpful Household Hints: Cooking in Iron

This is a paradigm shift.  Usually you're talking about household maintenance.  What gives?

Yeah, I'm usually about handyman type stuff.  But the underlying theme there is always money money money, and especially not giving yours up to someone when you could simply do the work yourself.

You might recall that I've already touched on the economics of eating in vs. eating out.  The example I chose wasn't perfect because it looks like rather a tighter race than it really is, and of course I did mention that breakfast tends to be a low-priced meal even at the fast food places.  Lunch and dinner on the other hand can become pretty pricey, and certainly more expensive than even a lavish meal cooked at home.

I get all that.  But the title up there says "Cooking in Iron."  Expand on that.

Like home repair professionals, top-notch chefs are inclined to make you think you're stupid, incompetent.  If you're dumb, that means they're the smart ones, the ones who can bang together an excellent meal.  But if you've ever watched Top Chef (my personal favorite, all-around good guy Rick Bayless who actually believes anyone can cook, probably as well as he can and they're all worth learning from) you've seen that one of the challenges the competitors face is making gourmet meals on short notice, or in primitive conditions with rudimentary equipment, or with vending machine ingredients.  That is to say, they're made to make food that doesn't rely on gadgets, flashy pans, or super-high-dollar foods.

And this relates to me how...?

If they can do it, so can you.  At this moment Sweetie is whipping up a little dinner.  Admittedly it isn't going to be anything flashy but frankly we're not flashy people.  I don't want my food to be flashy.  I want it to taste good.  That's why I choose to eat the food instead of just subsisting on the same thing day after day.

Fancy oven?  Not hardly, a ten-year-old Kenmore from the lower-middle of the spectrum.  Utensils: cast iron, baby.  Lodge cookware, from South Pittsburg Tennessee.  You don't find that many things made in America anymore, but Lodge is solidly planted just a hundred miles down the road.  Ingredients: canned.  I don't know what brand and frankly I don't care.  My dad told me a story one day about how a factory cranked out Penn brand tennis balls during the day shift, and Slazenger brand, from the exact same production line, during the night shift.  Same balls, different stamp.  It might be just a story, but what the heck: they're tennis balls.  Who's going to tell a difference?  They're green beans, who's going to tell a difference?

So you could drop a few hundred bucks on a set of top-of-the-line Calphalon pots and pans and use, just like everyone else, the same four or five pans over and over.  What are those other pans for?

Revereware is a popular and very old brand, and we have quite a bit of it.  Most of our array of Revereware has been accumulated over years from garage sales and thrift stores.  What the heck, it's a pan.  It's clean.  It matches the others.  What more could you ask for?

Sauteing, frying, lots of general cooking happens in the cast iron, though.  Do we miss the old non-stick surface of our Teflon lined pans, not a bit.  A well-seasoned iron pan practically rejects scrambled eggs, they leap out of the pan onto the plate.  Cleanup is a snap and f it doesn't shine, well, it's cast iron.  It's supposed to look like its great uncle was a locomotive.

What's your point?  It sounds like you're just bragging about cast iron pans.

Maybe a little.  I like the absence of pretension.  It's a solid piece of metal designed to transfer heat and cook food.  Period, end of story, no embellishment.  So the food stands on its own, as does the cook.  You don't need to lean on gadgets and expensive ingredients for good food.

Dinner tonight: butter beans, pork chops, potatoes.  It might not sound like much but we can expand on it:  Pan-seared pork chops with sauteed onions, breakfast fries with pepper, and butter beans.

That first description doesn't sound impressive, does it?  But the second one does, almost like something you'd read in a menu at Shoney's.  It's the exact same plateful of food.  And if you ordered it at Shoney's it'd set you back $8 per person, while the cost of all the ingredients for the entire family's dinner tonight might not be $8 total.  And no tipping, either.  Sure, someone has to do the dishes.  What of it?

Looking for the point, still...

The point is this: good food is just good food.  You can pay a lot for it to have someone else cook it, someone else bring it to you and someone else clean up, or you can pay a little and do it yourself.  But the big point is there's nothing to stop you from doing it yourself.  Dinner tonight, with either the plain or the fancy name, took about fifteen minutes to make.  I've already cleaned half the dishes from making it.  No Kobe beef was involved, or marinated artichoke hearts.  Cans were opened, plain potatoes were peeled.  The cookware is black and hot and the wallet stayed closed.  It was affordable, fast and delicious.

Your dinner can be all of those things.  Or it can just be fast.

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