Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Tools of the Trade: Cast Iron Cookware

I recently inherited a couple of pieces of cast iron cookware from my in-laws. They were big lovers of it and cooked with it regularly. They had short-sided skillets, tall-sided skillets, Dutch ovens and grill pans. A good sized inventory to choose from. I didn’t really grow up with cast iron, so it wasn’t something I sought out simply because I wasn’t familiar with it, but I’ve come to see the benefits of cooking with it and regularly use the pieces I’ve acquired.

Cast iron cookware, being made exclusively of metal, has excellent heat retention properties. It withstands and maintains high cooking temperatures which is ideal for searing or frying, and its excellent heat retention is good for long cooking stews or braised dishes especially those calling for meat.

Cast iron cookware has been used for over 2000 years, and as early as the Han Dynasty (206BC - 220AD) for salt evaporation. In Europe, before the introduction of the kitchen stove in the middle of the 19th Century, meals were cooked in the hearth or fireplace, and so all cooking vessels had to be designed to be suspended on or in a fireplace. Cast iron pots were made with handles to be hung over fire or with legs to stand up in the fireplace. Cooking pots and pans became legless (with flat bottoms) when stoves became popular. It was then that cast iron skillets were introduced. A neat little website I found describes what cooking in “the old days” was like for women.

The cookware was especially popular during the first half of the 20th Century. Lodge Manufacturing is currently the only major manufacturer of cast iron cookware in the United States, as most other suppliers use pots and pans made in Asia or Europe.

“Seasoning” protects bare cast iron from rust and creates a non-stick surface, eliminating the need for regular non-stick cookware which gives off toxic fumes when heated. So you could say that cooking with cast iron is a healthier option than many of the non-stick products on the market. Because of its non-stick surface, cast iron is a good choice for egg dishes. Some cast iron is formed into special shapes, the most popular of which is a mold that resembles corn on the cob, and is frequently used for making cornbread.
Silicone sleeve for hot handles

Because they are cast as a single piece of metal, including the handle, they can be used both on the stovetop as well as in the oven. But be careful, the entire pan gets hot, including the handle. This is where the use of a silicone slip-on handle cover comes in handy.

An ADA study found that cast iron cookware can leach significant amounts of dietary iron into food.  While this sounds distasteful, it’s actually quite healthy. However, the amounts of iron absorbed varied greatly depending on the food, its acidity, water content, and how long it was cooked.  But for this reason, anemics may benefit from this effect, while those with hemochromatosis (iron overload) should avoid using cast iron because of their condition.

Because it is a metal, cast iron cookware needs to be seasoned, which is a process by which a layer of animal fat or vegetable oil is applied and cooked into the cast iron. How to do that can be found aplenty on the internet. Basically it’s “cooking" it in a low temp oven for about an hour upside down.

Cleaning is another special consideration. It cannot be placed in a dishwasher but must be washed by hand. Ideally one also should not use soap, or if one does, then after drying re-apply a thin layer of fat or oil.

An easier way to enjoy cast iron is by purchasing enameled cast iron. It has a vitreous enamel glaze or coating which prevents rusting, eliminating the need to season the metal, and allowing for more thorough cleaning. But for that, it is considerably more costly to purchase than cast iron. I wouldn’t mind a Le Creuset Dutch oven myself, but they are typically over $200. Depends, like anything else, on how lazy you are. Cast iron cookware is quite reasonable but requires a little more hand-holding.

Either way,  if you don’t already own cast iron or a fancy enameled pot or pan, and you’re looking for a pan or two, consider adding cast iron to your collection.  You will find many uses for it. Cast iron  will last you a lifetime, and provide you with something useful and meaningful that you can pass along to your children. Thank you, Doris and Ken.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Grain-free Crackers

When people with digestive troubles hear that they should give up wheat, as it could be the cause of their trouble, either due to a possible celiac condition or simply a food intolerance, they inevitably switch to GF (gluten free) flour for their baked goods. Sadly, many times their symptoms actually worsen, as was the case with me. Due to the high starch content of nearly all gluten-free flours, if you suffer from digestive problems, you might want to consider completely removing them from your diet, at least for a while, until you get your symptoms under control. That’s exactly what I have done and I feel so much better!

But this is a drag, to say the least, as your baking options have now shrunk considerably. But it’s not completely impossible to enjoy muffins, breads, and crackers again. Two options are coconut flour and nut flour!


One of the most versatile nut flours available is almond flour. There are 2 types of ground almond products on the market - almond flour, and almond meal. Almond flour is made by taking blanched (skinless) almonds and pulverizing them into a very fine powder. Almond meal is made from whole, ground raw almonds - a heavier product than almond flour. If you’re intending to bake muffins and cakes, the lighter blanched almond flour would be preferable, as it will result in a lighter, fluffier product. But when you’re making crackers, it doesn’t matter much. 

When I started omitting starchy things from my diet (once I regained my appetite!), I started to really miss crackers. I enjoy crunchy things, especially when I have cheese. When I got the cookbook, "Against all Grain" from Danielle Walker, I was excited to see a recipe for crackers. Not just a regular boring old cracker, but a rosemary and raisin cracker - something that sounded like it would go so well with my new favorite cheese: English Coastal Cheddar! 

I have been making these almost weekly for months now, so that I have nearly a steady supply! One batch lasts me about a week. Even if you’re not on a grain-free diet yourself, you could benefit from reducing your reliance on wheat-based products and make these every so often. They are really a lot healthier than wheat crackers or even rice crackers, as wheat disagrees with a lot of people and I do believe that eating too much wheat can lead to an eventual wheat allergy, and rice frankly has no nutrition worth talking about. It’s really just all starch. Why not eat more nuts? Nuts have fat, which makes us feel fuller (as opposed to rice, which is like eating air), plus they have fiber and minerals.


Blanched Almond Flour

These are easy and quick to make - from start to finish, it’ll take you maybe 20 minutes. But do stick around the kitchen while these are baking though because, being nuts, they can burn easily. You can make these with 100% almond flour if you like, or 50% almond flour and 50% almond meal. I’ve tried them both ways and it doesn’t make any significant difference because crackers are not meant to be fluffy. Plus the meal adds a little more fiber if you need more of that in your diet! For a twist, you can substitute some finely grated Parmesan cheese for 1/2 of the flour, omit the raisins and seeds, and replace the rosemary with thyme. That’s pretty tasty, too, especially when topped with a sliced tomato. 

Anyway, on to the recipe.

Rosemary Raisin Crackers

1 cup blanched almond flour
2 Tbsp. raisins
2 Tbsp. cold water
1 Tbsp. raw sunflower seeds 
1 sprig rosemary
1-1/2 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp. sea salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place all ingredients in a food processor. Process for 15 seconds or until thoroughly combined with small bits of speckled raisins throughout.

Form the dough into a ball then roll it out to a rectangular shape, 1/8 “ thick, between 2 sheets of parchment paper.

Remove the top sheet of parchment. Use a pizza cutter to cut the dough into 1 inch wide rectangles. Transfer the parchment paper to a baking sheet. 

Bake 12-15 minutes, rotating the pan once until crackers are golden. Check to see how they are doing - you want golden, not brown.  You may also want to turn the oven temp down if it’s looking like they are browning too quickly. 

Let cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then carefully break the crackers apart. Cool completely before serving.

Recipe courtesy of Danielle Walker from her cookbook, “Against All Grain”.


Friday, April 8, 2016

Mexican Chicken Soup

The weather is going to be a bit nasty this weekend. Rain is forecast for the next 4 days - unheard of in Southern California! Could it be El Niño (gasp)? We’ve been expecting it for months now, and we’re still waiting. Regardless, you know me - at the very mention of rain and the inevitable cooling of the temperature (however slight it may be) I’m off making soup! And in honor of El Niño, this time we’re making it Mexican.

I’ve made this soup several times now and love it more each time I have it. It’s a great combination of flavors. The addition of the roasted tomatillo salsa makes it "the bomb!" The traditional version of this soup is “chicken tortilla soup” but as I’m avoiding grains right now, there are none in this version. It’s from Danielle Walker’s cookbook, “Against All Grain”, a cookbook geared towards those with digestive trouble. It’s very digestion-friendly.

The recipe calls for it to be prepared stove top but I recently made it in my slow cooker because I was leaving the house and wanted it ready when I got back. So please note that I  only cooked it this way for a few hours. All day would be too long for the chicken, which would overcook and become dry.

The soup is very simple to make but do make sure you use homemade (chicken) bone broth for best flavor and superior nutrition. A simple soup needs a boldly flavored broth to lend backbone to it. Don’t use a wimpy stock from the grocery store unless you absolutely have to.

You can either choose, at the end of the cooking, to puree half the soup in a blender and return it to the pot to thicken it somewhat, or you can just leave it as it is.

Mexican Chicken Chowder

Ingredients

2 pounds chicken thighs, boneless, skinless, trimmed of fat
2 cups roasted tomatillo salsa
4 cups Chicken Broth
3 cups peeled and cubed sweet potatoes or butternut squash
2 cups peeled and sliced carrots
2 tsp. fresh lime juice
1 tsp. minced garlic
1/2 tsp. sea salt (or more to taste)
2 cups chopped pre-washed spinach
Garnish: chopped fresh cilantro and avocado slices


Directions

Place the chicken, salsa, broth, sweet potatoes, carrots, lime juice, garlic and salt in a stockpot over medium-high heat.

Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer 1 hour over medium-low heat.

Remove chicken, and using 2 forks, shred the chicken and set it aside.

Scoop 2 cups of cooked vegetables from the soup and puree in a blender. Make sure there is at least 1/4 cup of broth with it. Puree for 15 seconds or so and return to the soup pot.

Add the chicken back in and then the spinach and simmer 10 minutes until the spinach is slightly wilted.

Serve hot, garnished with the cilantro and avocado.

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