How do you care for cast iron?

19th century kitchen

They really knew how to rock cast iron in those days.

A couple of months ago I found an 8″ cast iron skillet on the sidewalk. It was a newer model pan, already seasoned, hardly used. One of my neighbors had apparently decided they didn’t like it, or need it.

I snatched that puppy up. Not that I need more cast iron–I have three skillets in varying sizes, and no room for another. But to me, cast iron is solid gold. So I gave it to a friend who didn’t have one, who’d never cooked in cast iron before.

Initially she seemed skeptical of the whole “no soap” thing, but now she has discovered how versatile a cast iron skillet is, and how it makes everything taste better. The precise selling point may have been the night she made apple crumble in it, a discovered the delightful crust of caramelized sugar that had formed on the bottom.

Now that it is her go-to pan for everything, she’s developed many questions about its care. Questions I don’t know if I can answer properly. This is what I told her, and it is all I know:

  • Never wash it with soap, just wipe it out with a damp cloth.
  • Never scrub it with a pad or scouring powder. If stuff is stuck to the bottom, soak it, then scrape the residue off  gently with the flat edge of a spatula.
  • If it looks dull, oil it.

I know there are whole web sites devoted to the care of cast iron, and these have competing doctrines, especially when it comes to the seasoning process. I don’t have the strength to sort out these arguments, so I just muddle on. “Good enough” is sort of my all-purpose mantra. But my friend has lots of questions. So I thought I’d throw this out to you all:

How do you care for your cast iron? What do you season it with? Where do you stand on the soap issue? How do you get stuck stuff out of the pan. How old is your pan? What’s the most useful piece you own?

Of course, I don’t mean that you have to answer every single one of those questions! But if you have any advice you’d give to a newbie cast iron owner, please do let us know.

A Homemade Mattress?

Edmund_Dulac_-_Princess_and_pea

The Princess and the Pea by Edmund Dulac

This is the story of my life. I read about some old domestic technology or product that makes a lot of sense. Perhaps it is obsolete. Or perhaps it is only done/made in more enlightened countries. Nonetheless, I want it. So I have to make from scratch.

Yesterday we met a great couple, Renae and Dimitri. Renae mentioned she was thinking about making her own mattress. I was intrigued because just that morning I’d woken up with low back pain. Our mattress is worn out. We need a new one, but I’ve been dreading buying a new one. I don’t like the waste of it all: The ignoble dragging of the old mattress to the curb. The prospect of sleeping on a brand new construct of toxic foam and fire retardants–or opting for a less toxic but less comfortable futon.

So, when Renae said this, I was fascinated. I’d never considered making my own mattress.

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Failed Experiment: Bermuda Buttercup or Sour Grass (Oxalis pes-caprae) as Dye

The “dyed” t-shirt is on the left. The shirt on the right is a basic white tee. I could have achieved similar results by entropy alone.

Chalk this one up to the failures column. In an attempt to use Bermuda Buttercup (aka Sour Grass) and various mordants to dye a couple of white t-shirts yellow and green, I succeeded in dyeing both snowy white shirts a pale shade of …let’s call it ecru. Let’s not call it “grimy old t-shirt white.”

There was a moment last night when one shirt took on an extremely light, delicate yellow-green cast–and that was exciting– but the color came out when I hand washed and rinsed the shirts.

Perhaps it was a half-assed project all along. I had no burning reason to dye with Oxalis–except that it’s thick on the ground right now. Also, Oxalis is rich in oxalic acid, which is supposed to (cough) serve as a built in mordant, helping the plant dye to bind more easily to both plant and animal fibers. Oxalis theoretically yields tones ranging from lightest yellow to a sort of acid green, depending on which additional mordants you might use. Used straight, it was supposed to yield a very pale yellow.

So I thought, why not play with it and see what happens?

My only information source for this project was The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes by Sasha Duerr. This, also, was a mistake. I usually use more sources when I start a project, but I felt lazy.

I don’t know if this is a flawed book or not–I’m not judging yet. It’s on probation. It’s a pretty book, and inspirational in that it makes you want to dye everything you can lay your hands on–hell it makes you want to raise your own sheep and spin your own yarn, so you can dip it in acorn, cabbage and fennel dye, sing some folk songs, dance a dance,  compost the solids and acidify your garden soil.with the spent dye.

It sent me into fantasies of living in some groovy Sonoma-Portlandish nirvana where my house is clean and has plaster walls and wood beams in the ceiling (the wood beams are always in the fantasy) and a fire in the grate. I’d watch the goats graze in the back yard while I cheerfully sip tea and knit something marvelous out of hand spun angora dyed with Oxalis.

(As opposed to the reality of me stumbling around our money pit of house in my exceedingly unnatural and ancient polar fleece robe, desperately searching for a chair to sit on that doesn’t hold a cat, so I can watch the LAPD stalking around the unoccupied house across the street, guns drawn, trying to nab arsonist squatters, without being in the line of fire. True story! Just happened!)

ANYWAY. Point is, the book did not serve me well in the matter of Burmuda Buttercup.

This is, therefore, an anti-project post. Following these steps will get you nowhere.

A more determined dyer or a better blogger might soldier on and find the correct answers and report them to you as a public service, but I’m sorry my friends.  I’m giving up on this one and will probably try onion skin next.

Read on if you dare.

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Wild Edible: Bermuda Buttercup (Oxalis pes-caprae )

Image courtesy of Wikipedia. Photo by MathKnight

It’s Bermuda buttercup season in Los Angeles. Burmuda buttercup, also known as sourgrass, soursop, African wood-sorrel and  many other names, is a member of the wood-sorrel family. It originated in the Cape region of South Africa and is now found all over California, parts of Australia and probably other places as well. Here, it comes with the rain and vanishes with the heat.

It’s a “weed” (Wikipedia describes it as a noxious weed and an invasive species) so if you look it up on the internet you’ll mostly find information on how to eradicate it. It’s true, it’s terribly persistent, because it spreads through underground bulbs. But I think its attractive–usually more attractive than whatever neglected patch of landscaping it has colonized. More importantly, it’s super tasty.

It packs a potent, lemony punch, like true sorrel, which makes it an excellent salad green, and that’s how I use it–raw, in salads. The leaves, stems and flowers are all tasty, but for salads I just use the flowers and leaves. They provide a bright, lemony note which is just wonderfully fresh and tasty with tender new lettuce–springtime in a bowl.

As its true name, Oxalis, indicates, it is high in oxalic acid (as are many more common greens, like spinach), and (mandatory warning) oxalic acid should not be consumed in enormous quantities or if your physician has warned against it for some reason. But its sour nature makes it unlikely that you could stomach enough to hurt you.

Give it a try if you haven’t yet. If this form of oxalis doesn’t grow near you, other edible wood sorrels– or naturalized true sorrel–might. Have a look around.

Note the structure: 3 hearts joined at the center, and the distinctive brown freckles on the leaves.

Oxalis pes-caprae has another use–as a dye. I’m experimenting with that this week, and will talk about the results in a future post.

Your Essential Oil Toolkit

A few bottles of essential oils are an important part of the DIY toolkit, but some people don’t ever try them because they are so expensive. I can’t deny that they are pricey, but once you start using them, and you see how far they stretch and how many uses they can be put to, you’ll start to understand why they’d be a bargain at twice the price. Best of all, the most useful oils (to my way of thinking) are the cheapest.

My picks are: lavender essential oil, peppermint essential oil and tea tree oil. These three would make a good starter set for anyone, and are also a good trio to take traveling with you. All of them are on the low end of the essential oil price scale.

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Deodorizing Wash

Deodorizing wash? Freshening wash? In Making It we called it cleansing spray. I’ve never been quite sure what to call this. It’s not a deodorant, in that it doesn’t really stay on you, deodorizing continuously. It’s not a body wash in that you don’t use it in the shower. This is a little mix I created, a simple blend of water, baking soda and essential oil. It’s something you can splash on and towel off real quick when you’re in a hurry. I use it when I don’t have time to shower, but suspect I’m a little too fragrant. I also bring it camping to help reduce the fugg. The baking soda cuts through body grease and deodorizes. The tea tree oil kills any stinky bacteria that remain.

To be clear, this is specifically used to cut sweat on the upper regions of the body–pits, chest, neck and back. I wouldn’t recommend using it “south of the equator.”

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A Mason Jar Camping Lantern

Okay, so this isn’t going to win any awards for ingenuity (or craftsmanship!) but its easy and it works. I use this little jar and ones like it when we car camp. Barring high winds or rain, the tea light never goes out. The handle allows you to carry it around or hang it. Headlamps are all very convenient, but little candles make a campsite feel like home. And yep, it works well in the backyard too.

 There’s nothing to it, but just in case the picture makes it look more complicated than it is, all I do is wrap a piece of scrap wire around the mouth of the jar, twisting it closed. The ridges at the top of the jar hold it in place. Then I make a handle by twisting a second piece of wire around the first.

Indigo 101

Graham stirs the vat with his “witchy stick” –which is tinted many beautiful shades of blue.

One of the primary lessons of gleaned from my Shibori Challenge is that cotton is difficult to dye with natural dyes, whereas wool and silk take these colors beautifully. Know your materials!

Building on that, I’ve also figured out that the reason indigo dye is the favored dye for shibori techniques is because indigo gets along very well with cotton (and other plant fibers) and the dyeing characteristics of indigo are ideal for shibori. In fact, the idiosyncrasies of indigo probably led to the development of shibori, way back in the mists of time. So, if I want to make shibori patterned cotton cocktail napkins, as was my challenge to myself, I may as well fall in with thousands of years of tradition and dye with indigo.

Book reading and Internet surfing are all well and good for gathering knowledge, but to learn an unfamiliar process, nothing works better than to find someone who knows what they’re doing and go watch them. That way, you learn via a pleasant form of osmosis, rather than by frowning at at a glowing screen.

Our friend Graham Keegan dyes with indigo and sells his beautiful canvas and leather creations in his own Etsy shop. He kindly invited me to come to his studio and watch him dye some test swatches yesterday.

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Update: Citrus Vinegar for Cleaning

In a previous post we talked about soaking citrus peels in white vinegar to make scented vinegar for cleaning. I’ve been doing this for a while now, using a 50/50 water and vinegar blend in my spray bottle, and I like the scent, but I’ve realized that because the vinegar is tinted by the orange peel if it is left to dry on a white surface it will leave yellow marks behind.

This is not a big deal, because when using vinegar spray you are usually spraying and wiping at the same time, and I’ve never seen yellow streaks left behind from using this way. But a few times I’ve sprayed something and then forgot to wipe it down. When the spray dries, a pale yellow residue shows up. It doesn’t stain, you just have to go back and wipe it up. Unfortunately, though, it looks a lot like urine, leading to puzzling questions until you figure out what’s going on!

Shibori Challenge Proves Challenging

So it’s May 15 and I have not met the terms of the Shibori Challenge. I have been playing with both natural dyes and shibori techniques, but have not yet made anything worthy of being sewn up into a cocktail napkin.

I think I’ll have declare my challenge a little over-optimistic. As it when I start any new craft, I’m hitting various walls and spinning around trying to figure out what’s what. But that’s okay. Our motto around here is Go Forth, Embrace Failure, and give Her a Big Kiss.

The foraged, plant-based dyes I’ve been working with are only producing pale tones for me, even with mordants. I’ve made a sort of olive grey out of mint and a light sage out of artichoke and a beige out of coffee. These shades are fine in themselves, especially if you want to dress like a hobbit, but not really strong enough to show off shibori patterns. I know it’s possible to get strong colors out of common plants–it seems other people manage it–but I’m beginning to understand why indigo is the classic choice for shibori techniques.

Wanting to play with shibori and having no luck with local plants, I experimented with turmeric. Turmeric is a “fugitive dye” — a phrase I love — meaning it will fade fast. It fades especially fast in sunlight. Nonetheless, it’s nontoxic and makes a bright, deep yellow with no fuss. And I just happened to have a big container of stale turmeric just wasting away on the shelf. I tried some shibori techniques with that, with some okay first time results — though also with plenty of beginner mistakes.

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