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.

Roasted Asparagus

This, believe it or not, is a cake! I found it at Sweetopolita, where she'll tell you how to make it.

This, believe it or not, is a cake! I found it at Sweetapolita, where she’ll tell you how to make it.

Erik’s aunt just called to ask me how I cook my asparagus, because she wants to make it for company tonight. It’s so easy to make perfect cooked asparagus that I forget that some people find it intimidating. Maybe that’s because of those dedicated asparagus cookers they sell, and associations with silver tongs and Hollandaise sauce and hotel brunches. Yet the truth is all you have to do is roast it.

Here’s a universal rule: everything tastes better roasted. Even vegetables. I can’t think of one vegetable that doesn’t roast nicely, and asparagus is one of my favorites. All vegetables are roasted the same way, basically, but here’s an asparagus specific recipe.

Roasted Asparagus

Pre-heat your oven to 400F (is that 200C?)

Trim the pale, woody ends off of the asparagus. Lay the asparagi down on a cookie sheet or in a baking dish–or hey, even a roasting pan!  Somewhere they can spread out in a single layer. Drizzle them with lots of olive oil, then get in there with your hands and toss and massage that oil in, so all the stalks are completely coated. Lay them back down in a single layer. Give them a generous salting and a grind of pepper and chuck the pan in the oven.

Roast for about 30 minutes at 400F until tender but still retaining a bit of spine. Fat stalks might take longer, skinny, less long.

  • You may like to push the time in the oven until the asparagus browns, if you like that roasty, almost-burnt flavor, like I do.
  • You can roast them with lemon slices on top, too, if you swing that way.
  • While they’re good hot, they’re also fine at room temperature, or even cold out of the fridge in salad-like applications.

The Upside Down Fire

This is how I make a campfire fire now. I used to use the teepee method, or some half-assed rendition of the teepee method, and I often had trouble with such fires. They required babying, rebuilding, etc., and they burned fast. This fire is built in the opposite direction: heavy stuff on the bottom, lighter stuff on top, tinder on the very top. Basically, the finished product looks like a bird’s nest sitting on a log cabin.

This style of fire is great because it takes care of itself–build it, light it, and get on with your other chores. It lasts a long time too, as it makes very efficient use of the wood. I’ve done this many times, and it works like a charm.

The video above is a little shaky, but the technique is clear. He’s building a big campground fire in a fire ring. It’s not necessary to use so much wood–the technique scales. Here’s a link to another video showing the same method with smaller sticks and a more bushcraft-y technique.I’d recommend watching both.

The only thing I’d add to the technique in the video above is that I would lay down a larger layer of thin sticks (the 1″-2″ diameter stuff) on top of the big logs. Somehow he pulls it off with remarkably little small stuff. I found that if I didn’t have a good supply of twigs and small branches on top, the big logs in the under layers didn’t catch fire fully.

In video #2 the fellow builds a complicated teepee structure on top with his twigs. I don’t think that’s necessary, either. I mean, it’s okay, but it seems like work. You can just pile lots of little stuff on top any which way and light it.

It’s like Goldilocks. I think the first guy has too little tinder, the second guy, too much. But to each, his own. You’ll find your own way–and you’ll love this fire.

ETA: I forgot to mention that a Vaseline soaked cotton ball or a lint firestarter or some pieces of fatwood or something similar can really help foolproof the fire. Just tuck the firestarter under the small stuff. Not at all necessary, but helpful if you’re a beginner, or if conditions are bad.

How to make your soup wonderful: Wild food soup stock

nettle soup stock

We’ve mentioned urban foragers and foodie extraordinaires Pascal Baudard and Mia Wasilevic before. They not only forage food, but go on to make really good stuff with it. One of their websites is Urban Outdoor Skills, and I like to go there to check out a section called the Food Lab, where they talk about food products they’re experimenting with, and give how-to’s.

A few months ago Erik brought home a beautiful bouquet of nettles. I decided to try one of the Food Lab projects that intrigued me — Wild Food Soup Stock Preserved with Salt. This is no more than a bunch of finely chopped vegetables, herbs and greens (wild or not) mixed with plenty of salt to preserve it.  I made mine with onion, celery, parsley and those nettles. It makes a strong, salty paste that keeps well in the fridge. My first jar is almost finished, and I’ve been using it for months. It still looks good.

Pascal says this is a traditional European method of making instant soup stock, but instead of using it as a stock by itself, I’ve been using it as a finishing touch at the end of cooking up a pot of something.  It really helps at that tricky moment when you’re standing over your soup pot, spoon in hand, asking yourself, What does this soup need? Somehow it improves the flavor in a subtle, magical way–and in the meantime, garnishes the soup with tiny bright confetti flecks of green. Note that this stuff is super-salty–so I hold back on the salt until I add this, and then add more if necessary.

Citified Parched Corn

parched corn

Dried corn on the left, parched corn with peas and blueberries on right

I was thinking about trail food, and wishing for a portable snack which was not based on nuts and chocolate chips (though there’s nothing wrong with that!) or too sugary, like dried fruit or energy bars. Then I recalled parched corn.

Parched corn–dried corn which has been roasted–is one of those legendary Native American foods, like pemmican, which you hear about but don’t necessarily ever get to try. Parched corn is a lightweight, long-keeping, high-energy trail food. It can also be ground into flour and used in cooking. I have vague elementary school memories of claims that a warrior* could walk a whole day nourished on just a handful of parched corn.

(They did not mention that the warrior might be cranky at the end of the day–which I suspected might be the case. I’ve heard similar claims about Roman soldiers marching on handfuls of barley. Poor guys. But now that I’ve tried parched corn, I must admit that it is strangely filling. I managed to spoil my supper by doing too much tasting as I roasted the corn. So maybe the claim are real and–geek alert!– parched corn is our homegrown Lembas bread.)

Parched corn, being tasty and useful, was widely adopted by the Europeans who arrived here. So it was turned out to be the Official Snack Food of wagon trains and trappers and the like.

I went looking for a recipe and found my idea was hardly original. Preppers and outdoorstypes love their parched corn and there are plenty of recipes and tips out there. The only thing that I have to offer that is different is that this is a rather sissified, citified, consumerist version of parched corn.  And it is delicious. Chewy, sweet, a little salty… and most of all, corny.

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