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cooking

stuff that matters - cast iron

http://www.flickr.com/photos/nickdawson/5909000576/in/photostream What is it they say about stuff? You don't own it, it owns you. I get that. Did I mention we hired an organizational specialist recently? But sometimes there are things which do matter in our lives. Quality things. Important things. Sentimental things.

I'm a big fan of quality in stuff. Sure, who buys junk, right? Maybe I'm a little more obsessive than most. When I get into something, I tend to research the heck out of it. I keep buying the same make and model of car because I did my research and really like how well it is made. I wear one brand of dress shirt because after 10 years the first one I bought still looks crisp and presentable. I'm a Mac because they tend to break less than other computers I've owned.

Quality doesn't have to mean expensive. In fact, some of the best made things may be the least expensive. Take cooking, you can spend $300 on a single pan (don't ask me how I know). Lately, I've been cooking on cast iron... like a lot. Cast iron is cheap, you can get a great Lodge brand pan at your local hardware or Amazon for $20. Its thick, heavy and feels substantial. You know the handle isn't going to melt in the oven or break off. When properly seasoned, they are better than any nonstick pan for eggs. You can crank the heat all the way up on cast iron pan and never worry about it warping or discoloring. You can smash garlic or pepper corns with the bottom, turn it upside down to heat up tortillas, take it camping and stick it in the fire... see what I mean? These things rock!

By the way, I'm not alone in my adoration of cast iron cookware. Cast iron, like bacon, has become the topic of twitter exchanges in some circles.

I have memories of staying with my mother's parents in the summers as a kid for a week or two each year. My grandmother got up every morning at 4:30 AM. She made breakfast, worked a crossword... well, I'm not entirely sure what all she did. I don't think I've ever been up at 4:30.

By the time I was a kid, biscuits came in vacuum tubes and pancakes in boxes. I think my grandmother probably used those store bought items. I've often lamented the current state of packaged foods as an interesting mix of marketing, generational apathy (get off my lawn!) and connivence. If there was a time when my grandmother got up at 4:30 AM to make biscuits, I'm pretty sure it wasn't because she enjoyed being up that early. Making biscuits is hard work and takes time. When someone came along and put them in that fun , explosive tube, well, game over, sign us up, no more kneading dough! Still, doing things the right way matters. You can't really make southern biscuits without cast iron and you can't really fry a catfish in anything else.

A few months ago my grandfather passed away. He had not been well and I'm truly sure he is in a better place. My grandmother had passed a few years before. When it was time to clean out their home I was asked if there was anything I wanted. "Find me the cast iron pan please."

"Nothing else?"

"Nope, just the pan."

Truthfully, I don't know if my grandmother ever made biscuits in this pan or if grandaddy ever fried a fish in it. It may not be that old, although the markings suggest it is. It was pretty banged up and in need of some care. I ran it through the self clean cycle of my oven and have begun the process of "re-seasoning" it. Its not my only cast iron pan - I have lots. But I find myself using it more than the others. Maybe its the size, maybe its the memories; it just feels right.

...

Oh, and so this properly qualifies as a food post for me...

The other  night I made the most amazing lamb's liver in the pan. I find lamb's liver is pretty mild and doesn't need a soaking. Sprinkle with sel gris, and dust really well with flour. It helps to really push the flour in like in this pork chop recipe. Let it rest for 10 minutes while you render some pancetta and melt the onions in the pan. Remove the pancetta and onions. Crank the heat to high. Use the pancetta grease in the pan and lay the liver in. When you see crimson pools of blood just starting on the uncooked side, give it a flip. You want liver to be rare; anything else is chalky and tough. When you see crimson on the cooked side, take it out of the pan.

I reduced the heat, splashed in some port and sherry vinegar, added the pancetta, onions and some home cured sauerkraut and warmed it through.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/nickdawson/5909001444/

 

The Richmond Times Dispatch (and I) weigh in on Sous Vide

For a little something different...The Richmond Times Dispatch ran an article last week on the Sous Vide style of cooking. I've become a huge fan (can you tell?) and was delighted when a friend suggested my name to the RTD. The article is a nice recap of the technique. And, like I said, I think it's here to stay:

Dawson says he looks for the machine to soon be more prevalent when the price begins to decline. "Right now, it's a bit of a luxury product, but I don't think we're far from seeing it become a mainstay in American kitchens."

Simple Pork Chops - perfect for early spring

74F during the day and 35F at night - yep, it is early Spring in Virginia. This time of year is always bittersweet for me. On one hand the warm days mean ski season has come to an end. On the other, little tender buds of the first veggies and spring flowers are starting to poke their heads out of the ground. My personal sliver lining is that ski season ended for me rather forcefully this year - that means I can focus on the bounties of the season. One of my favorite dishes for this time of year combines the crunch gold brown goodness that warms the cool nights and a bright acidic lightness for those warm afternoons - crispy pork chops.

Pork is such an essential ingredient, and one that we are appreciating less and less. It is a real shame when you think about it. The pig is an amazingly versatile animal. For starters the meat runs the gamut of deep and rich to light and lean. It takes on flavors effortlessly but is sweet and savory on its own. Pigs are also endowed with a truly perfect fat-to-lean ratio. It is why pork is the basis of most of the great cured meats from saussion sec to the Spanish Iberian ham.

Chefs will tell you, given only one protein to work with that they will make a choice of the porcine persuasion every time. So why is it that for last twenty years we have relegated our pork consumption to gray flabby chops and tenderloins packaged in chemicals masquerading as a marinade? While I am fairly sure my goal of reintroducing lightly fried pork liver may be an uphill battle, I am confident that we can start giving pork chops the justice they deserve.

Like so many of the Food Simply posts in this series, the first step is finding great pork. And great pork usually comes from great pigs who are (you guessed it) probably closer to your home than on a factory farm ten states away. Locally grown pork may not be hard to find either. In a poetic mix, social media tools like FaceBook and Twitter are connecting local farmers with foodies in a very 2.0 kind of way. Try a search on search.twitter.com or ask some friends. Finding a real, bone-in chip will make a tremendous difference. In addition to a bone-in chop, there are few other key things to look for when selecting a chop. As you move from the front of the pig towards the hind legs, the chops will get larger and contain more of a secondary muscle group. If you can find those back-cut chops, the reward is a richer, darker meat that is full of flavor. You should also look for a nice "fat cap" running around the outside rim of the chop. In general, the chops should be a nice rosy pink, free of sinew and should never have a slimy feel.

The Brine

Just like our simple roasted chicken, we want to start with a brine. You can pull the exact same brine method from that post. The basic idea is the same, add as much salt as the water will absorb - toss in any other flavors you like and give the chops a soak for at least 12 hours; you can take it to 72 in the fridge with no problem. Brown sugar will enhance the natural sweetness of pork.

The Prep

*At least an hour before cooking, remove the chops from the brine and pat dry. *Let them dry on paper towels. *On a plate, combine 1/2 cup of panko bread crumbs (you'll find them on the ethnic aisle) and 3 table spoons of white flour *thinly slice 1 clove of garlic *Mince a hand full of fresh parsley *slice a lemon in half - we'll juice it into the sauce * grab 1/4 cup of chicken stock, if you don't have homemade use water (its much better than store bought stock)

*optional - some people cut 3 slits vertically in the fat cap, on skinnier chops this helps prevent 'cupping'

The Crust

This is a technique I learned from a chef friend. They used it at my favorite restaurant to make their sweetbreads extra crispy and it works on anything from chicken to ...well.. pork chops. The goal is to really press the panko-flour mix into the meat. You want to almost force the breading into the pores. I like to lay the chops flat into the mix then press down with my palm. Flip them over and repeat. Then pick up some of the breading with your fingers and actually try and press more into the flesh. Pick up the chops and give them a gentle tap or shake to knock off excess.

Important - let the crust rest on the chops for 10 minutes before cooking. That will hydrate the flour and make a stronger bond so it does not come off in the pan.

Cooking

This is another trick that I have borrowed from Brad, my chef friend. He likes to cook New York strip steaks in their own fat by starting them on the fat cap and rendering it out. The result is a really crispy crust where the fat was. It works equally well with pork chops.

*in a heavy pan over medium heat, place the chops in standing on their side with the fat down. You may have to hold skinnier chips with tongs. *Once the fat is golden brown - it may take up to 8 - 10 minutes, lay the chops down and crank the heat to high *After about 4 minutes, life the chops and check for a deep golden color, if they look G.B.D. give them a flip. *start checking the internal temperature after 2 minutes - we are shooting for 135F. Remember, this is quality pork and just like our chicken there is no reason to over cook it. Once it hits 135F, pull them from the heat and let them sit aside to keep warm. *Dial the heat back to medium and drain the excess fat, saving a scant film *add the garlic and toss for 30 seconds *squeeze the juice of the lemon into the pan *add the 1/4 cup of stock or water *Allow the liquid to reduce via a boil for 1 minute * add parsley

Serving

*pour your pan sauce over the crispy warm chops, garnish with slice of lemon and ENJOY!