I’ve been doing a lot of reading and it seems like cast iron skillets are making a comeback. They have a variety of uses and are great because of their durability and their ability to retain heat while cooking, allowing for more even cooking for your food. They are also favored because of the perceived risk of non-stick surfaces and the chemicals they use to make them that way.
I just got two from Amazon, an 8″ and 10″ which just arrived. One major difference between most post pots and pans you can buy and cast iron is the need to season cast iron to protect its non-stick qualities and prevent it from rusting. I read and followed Alton Brown’s instructions in his book, Alton Brown’s Gear For Your Kitchen and found it to be relatively simple. Although mine came pre-seasoned, I wanted to learn the process, so here are the steps that I took.
I got my skillets out and pre-heated the oven to 350 degrees.
I then put a tablespoon of vegetable shortening in each skillet.
When the oven reached 350 I put the skillets inside the oven until they got warm enough to start melting the shortening. This only takes a few minutes.
I pulled them out and placed them on the counter.
The next step is to liberally coat the entire skillet with shortening. This gets messy, so you will want to use lots of paper towels.
Once each skillet was coated with shortening, they were placed back into the oven face down. This prevents the pooling of shortening at the seams. Place a baking pan underneath to collect any excess shortening to keep your oven clean.
Once both skillets are in, you can turn off your oven and let the oven and skillets cool and cure. I did this over night so they would not get in the way of baking or cooking. This does stink a bit, so don’t do it before guests arrive, but it’s pretty easy to do.
Last night was the final cooking class in the series that I had signed up for at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts and I anticipated it with mixed emotions. The positive of course is that I have greatly enjoyed taking classes to enhance my skill and provide a foundation for cooking. I definitely feel better equipped to cook, more comfortable in the kitchen and even more excited about continuing on with my journey than I was when I first set out. I was sad that the series was coming to an end and not terribly excited about the subject matter, sauces. To me, sauces always seemed like too much work and not worth the effort. I also considered any dish at a restaurant served with a sauce other than gravy for chicken or turkey to be suspect and feared it was there to cover up food that had gone bad or was not top notch. I left class with a new appreciation for sauces and understanding of how they can compliment a dish to make it its best.
Class started as usual with a brief overview of the recipes and sauces that would be made. Chef instructor Angie asked if there was anything that we would like to learn that we hadn’t and then asked who wanted to cook each dish. Interestingly enough, two members of the class did not attend which somehow made it so there was a perfect number of people for the number of recipes that were given.
As always it was a tough choice for most with all of the recipes sounding different from what we had made before as well as delicious. Each dish would include one of the five mother sauces (some of which we had made previously): Hollandaise, Mayonnaise, Bechamel, Veloute and Espagnole or some variation of them. We could choose between Asparagus Eggs Benedict with Chipotle-Orange Hollandaise, Salmon Poached in a Wine Court Bouillon, Grilled Tenderloin with Sauce Robert, Crispy Almond Squid with Sauce Gribiche, Chicken Supremes Allemande, Crisp Potato Cannelloni with Zucchini and Shrimp or Pears Poached in Read Wine with Crème Anglaise and Caramel. Anyone who knows me or has been reading this blog knows I have a strong affinity to steak, and so I jumped at the opportunity to make the tenderloin which I soon found out was a lot of work.
The steak included a Sauce Robert, a derivative of the Espagnole sauce. This old and painstaking sauce is rarely used anymore and after making it, it is easy to understand why. I was able to document the steps to my dish which are many.
The first part of the recipe for the Sauce Robert called for clarified butter. I put a large saucepan on the stove and set out to get my butter. Once I had the butter measured out I dropped a bit of it into the saucepan to start the melting process and was immediately greeted with hissing and smoke everywhere. The pan was way too hot. The butter instantly burned and turned black with billows of smoke going everywhere. Thank God for the stove vent. Time for a re-do.
I made sure there was enough butter and started again. Once the butter was melted I put it into a clear measuring cup and let it sit for a minute and then skimmed off the solid bits.
Using my knife skills I diced the carrots and onion into a small dice. It would appear that my skills need improvement to get a smaller dice with uniformity.
I placed the butter back into the hot sauce pan and put the onions in carrots in, stirring until they became translucent.
The next step I am convinced is why this is a sauce that you don’t see often. I added flour to my vegetables to make a roux.
After the flour was added I stirred for 30 minutes until my roux became amber. During this time it cooked down significantly.
Once amber, I added tomato paste and veal stock (another reason why this sauce is not popular as it takes 24 hours to make).
I then brought everything to a simmer and skimmed off the impurities that came to the surface. I realized that since the sauce would be skimmed this wasn’t really critical and when the mixture had reduced added the herbs directly to the pot since a cheese cloth would not provide any benefit.
Once the sauce had reduced I added another cup of stock and brought everything to a simmer while I simultaneously started working on the other half of the sauce.
I placed the diced shallot, Dijon mustard and white wine in a sauce pan and brought it to a boil.
Once reduced I mixed the wine reduction into the Espagnole sauce and simmered for 5 minutes.
The sauce didn’t have any salt so it was added liberally to bring out the flavor. One taste was all I needed to know why this sauce was special. It had an amazing taste and I imagined it would be good on top of meat.
Now it was time for the good stuff, grilling the tenderloins. Chef Angie got the grill started upstairs in another kitchen which was being used for a couples class while I go the meat ready on a wire rack. When the grill was hot, we went up stairs and grilled the meat for a couple of minutes to get some nice grill marks on it.
We then went back down the stairs and put the meat in a convection oven at 400 degrees. After about 10 minutes it was a nice medium-rare. The meat was left to rest for a few minutes as we got the sauce ready in a gravy cup.
She showed me how to slice a plate the meat going against the grain to ensure that the muscle fibers were shorter, making for a more tender and easier to chew bite.
As the class eagerly awaited for the moment of true, the tasting, I drizzled the sauce over the slices and took a bite of an end piece.
The sauce was worth the effort and my classmates agreed. It was nice and thick and added a great body and flavor to the meat which hadn’t been seasoned at all. I don’t know that I will make the sauce anytime soon.
I also captured two additional dishes that my classmates made, the Eggs Benedict and a modified pasta recipe which was created due to time constraints. Luck or not, everything turned out amazing.
I really enjoyed my cooking class experience. I would recommend it to anyone with experience or not. Skeptics may state that I could have just followed the recipes at home and saved the money I spent on the course, but a truly valuable aspect of going to class is having a teacher there that can tell you what you did wrong and more importantly how to fix it. If you have never made a Hollandaise or Espagnole Sauce obviously you don’t know how it’s supposed to taste. I may take another class in the future but at this point I want to finish my initial planned course of study and practice the basics that I learned from this class. I feel that the supplemental reading I have planned will help me fill in some knowledge gaps and help me better decide what to do next.
I didn’t have cooking class this week because of the holiday weekend and it’s funny because I actually miss it. We have our final class next week on Friday as usual and I’m looking forward to it. Without class, I still wanted to practice what I had learned so I decided to look through my cupboards and pantry to see what I had that I could make for dinner. Last night I placed some steak that I had bought in a marinade of medium salsa for a Steak Diablo. In the cupboards I found a can of refried beans that I decided to heat up to accompany the Steak.
I started by pre-heating the oven to 350 degrees as well as two pans onthe stove. I placed some olive oil in one pan heated up the refried beans, adding cumin powder, black pepper, chili powder and kosher salt. Once warm, the heat was turned down to low to keep them warm.
The steak was next. On the hot pan I added a bit of olive oil for lubrication and then placed the strips down for five minutes on the presentation side to get a good sear.
I then turned the strips over with my tongs to sear for another five minutes. The steaks were then placed in the oven for five minutes and pulled out and checked. They weren’t done so I put them back in for another five minutes to finish off. When they were pulled out the second time they were perfect so I let them rest for a few minutes before cutting and plating.
During our last class we went over basic plating concepts which I wanted to bring into my dinner so I sliced the meat and placed it on my plate. I then added the refried beans to the plate with some tortilla chips for dipping. A rather odd combination I know, but it’s grocery shopping time and one must make due with what they have. I added some of the medium salsa to the beans and steak along with some sour cream for the beans as well. It wasn’t beautiful, but better than just throwing it down on the plate I suppose.
The end result was actually pretty decent. I much prefer my steak finished off in the oven. It cooks a bit faster, I’m sure due to both conduction and radiant heat. The marinating also produces more flavor and body making the dish a lot more appealing.
I’ve never made pancake batter before. Yes it’s true, I have never made my own batter. I’ve mixed together pre-made batter from Bisquick, but I’ve never actually made pancake batter myself which anyone who has knows makes wholly different pancakes.
I did some searching online and found a recipe for buttermilk pancakes . It seemed simple enough and included ingredients I had on hand. After reading it through I realized that it would make too many pancakes so I cut the recipe in half. I whisked my dry ingredients together first, and then whisked in the wet ingredients until well-combined. I also decided to use a teaspoon of vanilla extract for some extra flavor since I like it a lot and enjoy the subtle accent it provides.
I used my heavy iron pan for cooking which unfortunately only fits one pancake on it at a time. After buttering the pan, I used a ladle to place a measured amount of batter on the pan each time.
After the dough started to bubble and the sides became visibly solid, I flipped the pancakes over to finish cooking for about a minute.
These pancakes were not as firm or sweet as the Bisquick ones that I am used to making. Also they take on a much darker color when cooked. I plated them in a stack and put some maple syup on top. The fluffiness was a different experience and they were very enjoyable. I’m really happy to have another simple recipe under my belt and will look forward to more mornings enjoying buttermilk pancakes at home.
Friday’s cooking class was so much fun. The focus was on grilling, sautéing and roasting, all of which result in truly delicious food. I came to class stuffed from my company’s international buffet day wondering if I could even eat another bite. I would soon learn that this would not be a problem. Everything turned out great.
I arrived to find that we were in yet another kitchen; we had officially used every kitchen in the school. This was the only one with a proper grill though so it made sense that we would use it. I signed in, grabbed the recipe handout and sat down ready to read through the recipes and listen to the brief lecture regarding the methods. Once most of us had arrived, we went through the recipes and picked the ones we wanted to work on. We were given many great options including: A Warm Salad of Fruits, Endives, and Pancetta, Honey Spiced Pork Roast, Diablo Skirt Steak, Indian Flavored Grilled Vegetables with Paneer, Quinoa with Sauteéd Caramelized Onions and Mushrooms, Grilled Swordfish Verde, and Grilled Cranberry-Orange Zinfandel Bread. I teamed up with my classmate Anthony with whom I had worked on making the French onion soup to make the Diablo Skirt Steak this week. I love steak and with summer coming up, the recipe was too good to pass up..
While trying to get our bearings in the new kitchen, Anthony and I started off with searching for our ingredients along with tasting some canned salsa that was set out for the recipe we would be making. The recipe called to use half of the salsa as a marinade for our skirt steak and the other half to put on top after the steak was grilled. We decided to use the salsa as the marinade and then to make our own salsa as outlined in the recipe using fresh ingredients. This proved to be a wise choice, given the color, texture and taste of our salsa. We bagged our steak and set it aside to marinate before moving forward.
We made our salsa pretty quickly using rubber gloves to seed and dice the jalepeños. It was strange to use gloves, but I was happy I did given the heat of the peppers I was cutting. Finishing this task early put us in an interesting position as we had to wait at least 30 minutes for the marinating. We did not have a food task to work on, allowing us to observe others and converse. It just so happened that others were nearing a good stopping point just after we did, allowing Chef Angie to provide us with a demonstration and a special surprise. She would show us how to prepare a new recipe for steak and lobster, a special treat she brought in for us.
I don’t know why I was surprised, but the lobsters were alive when she showed them to us, moving and squirming around. The immediate thought was about the lobsters going into a boiling pot of water to cook, but as it turns out she would show us another method for killing them and cooking them with the steak. She actually twisted them apart to our surprise and then put the tail and claws on a baking sheet to go in the oven for 6 minutes. This was another interesting reminder of how removed we are from the food that we eat and where it comes from.
The steak was also cooked in the oven, and then slit and stuffed with lobster and placed back in the oven until the meat was cooked through. The combination of grilled steak and lobster were to die for. I felt truly fortunate to have such a fun instructor who is always looking to show us something new and exciting.
After our steak had marinated for about an hour, we took it out of the bag an placed it on the grill for four minutes on each side just like the recipe called for.
The steak was then brought to a serving platter and checked for “doneness” with a thermometer, it read 109 degrees. Anthony asked Chef Angie to tell us what level the steak had been cooked to, to which she replied simply “raw”. After a good laugh, considering the obviousness of this given the blood pouring out of our meat, we placed the steak on a baking sheet and cooked it in a 350 degree oven for 5 minutes. At this point it was cooked perfectly. We learned that most steaks in restaurants begin with searing on the stove but are actually finished in the oven to the appropriate level of cooking based on the order. The steak was sliced and then plated on a serving platter with the salsa. We were given a brief overview of plating, which dishes to use when serving for singles or family style and advice on how to plate a dish using elements of the recipe to add color and appeal. We garnished our dish with lime slices on the side.
The steak and the rest of the dishes were amazing, especially the bread which took on a totally new flavor once grilled over an open flame. It is truly amazing how fast the class is learning, coming together and gaining comfort in the kitchen after only five weeks.
Our final class is in two weeks due to the Easter and Passover holidays. We’ll go over sauces while refining the cooking techniques we have learned since the beginning. This will be a great way to end our class series leaving me and others more confident in the kitchen while also leaving us with a few great recipes under our belts and I’m really looking forward to it.
I was about to leave work now when I received an email from Chestnut Farms, a local farm in Massachusetts, welcoming me into their meat CSA. This is really exciting news. I learned about them and their meat CSA a few weeks ago at lunch with my friend Erik. He is part of the program and after hearing about it I knew I wanted to join.
CSAs as they are referred to stands for Community Supported Agriculture. The idea is that members contribute contribute to a share of a farming program in return for locally grown meat and/or vegetables depending on the farm. It’s great both farmers and consumers as it it allows for both to connect. Farmers also get the added benefit of a guaranteed demand for their livestock or produce while consumers gain a better awareness of where their food comes from in addition to a fresher and healthier product. A sustainable farm shares a limited amount of shares as the farm must be able to sustain it’s livestock or vegetables by utilizing the land that they have instead of buying feed or chemical fertilizer from outside sources. This requires the changing of grazing areas and the rotation of crops on a regular basis, just as nature intended.
Most of us buy our meat from the supermarket or butcher. It comes wrapped in a package and is practically indistinguishable from its live form, often treated with chemicals or dyes to make it look fresh. While I’ll be picking my meat up at a distribution site once a month, the farm encourages share members to visit and see where their food comes from. I like the idea that I can drive to the farm, see how the animals are treated and cared for. I k now I will feel confident that the food I will be eating is as healthy as it can be and that the animals have been treated and slaughtered humanely.
I signed up for the lowest share to start which provides me with 10 pounds of meat a month consisting of pork, beef, chicken, turkey and lamb. I’m really excited about getting meat from a local farm that is grown without the use of hormones or other artificial means. The commitment for each share lasts 6 months and is available for pick-up at many different locations in surrounding towns; I chose a pick-up site in the town that I grew up in.
At the moment I see three drawbacks of joining a program like this. The first and obvious one is price. It does cost a bit more to buy the meat through the CSA than at the supermarket, but when I think about about what I am getting I am ok with this. Secondly, I have to pick it up at a certain time and place each month whether I need it or not. This means that I have to keep that day free for my pickup or ask my parents to help me out if they are around. It also means that I could run out of meat and have to buy it at the supermarket anyway or that I could have leftover meat which I have to store in my freezer. The other thing which is not really a drawback but a change is the lack of choice in meat. Depending on the time of year and the availability on the farm, my meat share contents will change each month. This actually makes sense and is more natural as not all meat is “in season” all year round. Being able to eat meat or pork any day of the year is only a modern phenomenon which draws gasps of disbelief when pointed out. My share starts in June and I’ll provide updates as I make my pickups
Today was international buffet day at work. It was organized by a colleague as a mini-competition that would showcase food from all over the world, a fairly easy task given our very diverse company. I knew I would definitely enter in a dish, but the question was what to make. It didn’t take me long to decide on making a Latin dish to showcase my that part of my heritage, but I couldn’t decide on what to make.
My mother had shown me how to make a bean dip which would be easy to do. During last week’s cooking class, we learned how to make carne asada. That also seemed like a good choice and a way to put into practice what I had learned. Another option was to create tostones, a form of friend bananas which I saw Alton Brown make on an episode of Good Eats which I had saved on my DVR. My last option was arroz con leche, a rice pudding dessert. As the day approached I could not make up my mind so I resolved to make a cena típica (a typical dinner) which would include all of the dishes and something to drink.
I woke up this morning deciding to work from home so I could prepare my dishes for the 12 noon deadline. I have never made this many dishes at once before and really needed to think about the cooking order and counter space. The steak would take the least amount of time and so I knew I would cook it last. The arroz con leche would need some time for the rice to cook and since I had never made it before it would need some guidance from mom over the phone. The bean dip was something I could make easily and keep warm in the oven so I would make that second. After the bean dip I resolved to make the tostones since they needed to be fried twice.
Arroz Con Leche
I started with two cups of rice in a big pot with enough milk to cover the rice by an inch. I also added a teaspoon of vanilla and 2 large cinnamon sticks broken up into pieces to increase their surface area and distribution. I set the stove on high heat to bring up the temperature and then lowered the heat to medium as my mom advised. The key I was told is to watch the pot so as not to burn the rice and the milk at the bottom. I stirred occasionally and as the mixture reduced and with the rice absorbing the the milk I added more milk and some water to keep the level of creaminess that I wanted while maintaining an appropriate amount of moisture.
While I stirred I noticed that the bottom was getting hard in some places. I hadn’t been paying enough attention as I cooked my other items and I could tell the bottom was burning and giving the pudding a burnt flavor. The rice was still hard after45 minutes and I had to continually add milk. In the end after more than an hour of cooking as the rice began to soften I added my last bit of milk. I stirred in 2 cups of sugar and a bit more vanilla to sweeten the pudding and packed it into a serving dish to go.
This was the easiest dish. I added a bit of olive oil to my pan an put in two cans of refried beans. I added both cumin and chili powder, salt and pepper and stirred.
Once everything was combined I put it into a Pyrex baking pan and put it in the oven to stay warm. As I neared the completion of my other dishes, I added medium salsa and mixed shredded cheese on top with a few dollops of sour cream and put the dish back into the oven so the cheese could melt. Everything was covered with tin foil for transport. I prefer small lightly salted tortilla chips for dipping so I brought in a bag for everyone.
I would have to say this was my least successful dish. The flavor was there, but the crispiness was not. In a pan I placed about a half an inch worth of corn oil and heated it up over medium heat. While the oil was warming up I cut up three ripe plantains into one inch thick segments which were placed in the oil for one minute on each side.
I took the plantain slices out and put them onto a baking pan and flattened them out with my knife. They were soaked in water briefly which had salt and garlic for added taste. I believe this is where my problems came from. They were soaked for too long and became mushy. Also as anyone familiar with frying would know, when placed back in the hot oil they splattered all over the place as the water literally exploded causing the oil to spray and burn my hands. I cooked them forever in the oil but they would not get crispy no matter what. With time running out I placed them on cooling racks and then into a traveling container to take with me.
This was the best received dish of all no doubt due to style points and the very fact that it was marinated steak. Last night I created my marinade using the juice of two whole limes, 2 teaspons of white wine vinegar, 3 cloves of garlic, pepper, chili powder and enough orange juice to fully submerge my steaks in a zip lock bag.
I heated up my pan on high heat and dropped my steak onto it one at a time for 3 minutes on each side to get a nice sear. I placed them into a casserole dish and covered them with foil for the trip to the office.
At the office I setup a portable grill and finished the steaks on it. Grilling in the office was quite the spectacle drawing lots of ooohs and ahhhs and eager anticipation. The steaks were very moist and tender and were cut into stripes against the grain for serving. The marinade definitely added a nice subtle flavor and tenderness to the meat that everyone enjoyed.
Everything was setup on a table that was empty and displayed with each course placed in the order it would be served. I also had some mango juice to serve along with my dishes to enhance it’s Latin flare. Unfortunately I did not win. A member of my team at work, Jose won with a duo of roasted chicken and turkey which were I must admit, perfectly cooked. All of my cooking effort was mistimed or miscalculated. The rice and tostones took way longer to cook than I thought they would, causing me to be 45 minutes late to the hour event, meaning that many people had already eaten voted and left! I’d like to think that if I had arrived on time I would have recieved more votes. The experience was great, providing my first experience with cooking multiple dishes at once for a multi-course meal. I was surprised at how comfortable I felt cooking everything at once; granted not everything went smoothly or turned out as I had hoped, but that is the nature of learning and I am truly happy that I challenged myself.