Saturday, August 27, 2011

How to care for an iron skillet

Iron skillets, being old-timey relics, attract folk wisdom to them like they're magnetic. There are recipes on their curing, and lengthy rituals for seasoning a new skillet abound in the lore.

One thing those who cook in iron will agree upon is that you can't rush experience. The process of making a new skillet non-stick is not unlike breaking in a new sous chef. Start out by practicing, then give it progressively more challenging tasks until it's frying your eggs every morning like a champ. Treat it like it's special, enabling it to do its job in its inimitable way, because it is an original. Is treating a cast iron skillet differently from all your other cookware too much to ask for a non-stick surface that doesn't come to you care of the chemical labs of DuPont? I don't think so.

I learned to care for cast iron from my first mother-in-law, an excellent home cook who grew up in a large, rural family during the Depression. Many of her standards had clearly not varied from the days when she prepared them on a wood stove. She scrambled eggs in a cast iron skillet in the morning, and baked cornbread in the same skillet every night. When I set up my own kitchen, I got a small skillet, which I still use every day. I have a larger one, too, for bigger jobs.

I put my other pots and Pyrex through the dishwasher. Large items that don't fit, I wash in the sink with hot soap and water. For cast iron, I follow a different method, and clean the skillet the same way I watched my mother-in-law clean hers. After rinsing and squeezing any remaining dish soap from the sponge, I wash the skillet gently, not using the scrubby side of the sponge if I can help it, because this removes the non-stick finish that I build up by seasoning my skillet after every use. When it's clean, I set it on the stove and dry it over a high heat. When all of the water has evaporated and the skillet begins to smoke, I turn off the heat and pour in about a teaspoon of high-heat oil such as sunflower oil, and rub it in all over the bottom and sides of the inside of the skillet with a paper towel. After the skillet cools, I put it away.

When I buy a brand new skillet, I do the same thing: wash it gently without soap, heat it to smoking, and oil it. At first, the coating this makes is very thin and not as non-stick as it will become over time, with use. Literally, using the skillet to cook seasons it, and this cleaning method seasons it more evenly and thoroughly. When your iron skillet looks like mine, black and shiny with use, it will release omelets, sear steaks, and allow you to sauté and shallow-fry anything with ease.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Local tomatoes

Vine-ripe tomatoes (even the green ones, a zebra type, are fully ripe) destined for the sauce pot

From age 12 to 26, I lived on the Gulf coast of Florida. For most of that time I was about an hour south of Tampa, in farm country. The entrance to my parents’ new housing development faced cow pasture; continuing past the development away from the highway, railroad tracks crossed the road and beyond that, within a mile of the house, the road went to dirt.The area developed rapidly. By the time I moved out at 18, the road was paved all the way to the turn off to my friend’s house: a golf course had gone up, just past the railroad tracks. When I took my partner to Florida several years ago, he wanted to see an alligator. A large specimen, spotted in the national park, while at excitingly close range, laid too still to engender much awe in the Yankee. One night, we drove past the golf course in a thunderstorm. Inching along the road in a total downpour, windshield wipers on maximum speed, we stopped just short of a small alligator crossing the road. It lashed its tail menacingly at us before continuing on its way to the golf course. Now he was impressed.

Living in rural Florida was strange, to a family of Italian-Americans from Long Island. We ventured out as a group at first, and like Americans in a foreign land, sought out the familiar, however debased the local version. Rural Floridian pizza is soundly disappointing, and not even available by delivery. On weekends, we went to the beach and the laundromat. In the evening, showered and sunburned, the whole family snuck candy into the dollar theater. “My Cousin Vinny” had us roaring in recognition of ourselves.

A quarter mile down the road from our new home, I picked wild oranges and ate them. Despite warnings of sour wild fruit, I found they were sweet, and savored the exotic flavor of orange juice, hot from the sun. Two more miles by bicycle on dirt roads took me to my closest friend’s door. Her family kept goats, and her brother slept in a trailer parked in the yard. Several of my friends were distressingly poor. I learned quickly that some of the students in my middle school didn’t speak English, and some didn’t even speak Spanish, only Quechua. They disappeared before the school year ended, the children of migrant workers.

Our area’s principal agricultural products were dairy, oranges, and tomatoes. On the school bus into town, we passed the tomato packing plant where some of my classmates’ parents worked. Later, as a student assistant on an agricultural research extension farm, I experienced the “lite” version of farm labor, picking small fields of tomatoes that my boss grew in order to report differences among the cultivars. I learned that tomatoes grow in hands, ripening from the bottom hand up, so that as we picked the same field subsequent times, the ripe tomatoes grew higher.

This zebra tomato is striped dark and light green; the light green color on a typical red (when ripe) tomato indicates that the fruit is mature, and will ripen off the vine. The dry cracks visible on this fruit are another common attribute of heirloom varieties that has been bred out of commercially grown tomatoes.

I learned a trick for removing the stubborn green stain that even Lava soap couldn’t touch: a green tomato, crushed with one's fingers works as a cleanser in the field. After picking, I helped grade tomatoes, watching them move through the apparatus of wide belts full of holes of different sizes, through which the tomatoes fell into chutes, and were collected in bushel buckets.

Vine-ripened paste tomatoes

We counted and weighed the fruit—I came to think of tomatoes more as fruit. Of course I already knew that botanically, a tomato is a fruit, but I came to know them well enough to understand they're like other fruit. The fruits of the garden are like tree fruits: sweet, and full of seeds. As they ripen, their color becomes brighter and the flesh softer, and the seeds become more easily separated from the flesh.

Tomatoes grew so thick on the vine at my farm’s unlimited u-pick this week, I marveled that anyone had any trouble finding them. Yet I heard people giving directions to one another on where to look. I collected about ten pounds of tomatoes in two yards of row, all within a foot of the earth. Later pickings won’t be this abundant. Living in Florida, I saw surplus tomatoes dumped into cow pastures, and the cattle eating them contentedly.

As a young newlywed, I brought home buckets of tomatoes from the farm where I worked and turned them into sauce. All of my female relatives who made their own used canned, so working with fresh fruit was an experiment. Simmering the sauce all day is ritual, and utterly essential. Canned tomatoes are already skinned: you can blanch and then shock fresh tomatoes with cold water to loosen the skins, or roast the tomatoes and allow them to cool so the skins can be plucked out before simmering them into sauce. At the end of the day, an immersion blender will fix a lot of things.

Of the tomatoes I brought home, a few are clearly green. Kevin remarked on this but I assured him that they will ripen. The research farm where I worked duplicated the practices of conventional agriculture, including frequent spraying against pests, and picking the fruit while they were still “mature green”: a lighter shade that indicates the tomato will fully ripen off the vine, yet is firm enough to withstand transportation. Back in Palmetto, Florida, along the roadsides in tomato season, thrifty people collect green tomatoes that have fallen from dump trucks. Here in western Massachusetts, nearly all of my tomatoes were quite ripe. I trucked them home as carefully as I could on a bicycle, with no mishaps, and had discarded any tomatoes with cracked skins at the farm, but the next morning, I found a couple that had been squashed beyond usability at the bottom of my bags.

A couple of large heirloom tomatoes and a lot of paste tomatoes. A few are "mature green," and the rest are not yet fully ripe.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Heirloom tomatoes

If you’re looking to pawn off your heirlooms on someone, look no further. As a mostly-locavore, I enjoy fresh tomatoes in high summer, and at no other time of the year. While some will timidly suggest that perhaps the tomatoes available in the supermarket in March can occasionally disappoint, I will tell you clearly: those tomatoes are awful. Don’t buy them. Bland and mealy, they’re probably why I spent the first half of my life sure that I disliked raw tomatoes. I liked tomato sauces and ketchup, but those pale, watery fruits tasted to me like they grew under fluorescents, and they still do.

It’s why the last couple of years of blight struck me, too, and why I’m so grateful to bring home pounds of gorgeous tomatoes from my farm share this year. Their odd shapes and colors, and tendencies toward cracking, signal tomatoes that have been not been bred for their uniformity or shipping qualities, or their ability to be ripened by gassing. These are some of the same varieties of tomatoes that we grew fifty or a hundred years ago, before we shipped them cross-country, with rich, sweet, old-fashioned flavor and meaty texture. I favor dark colors: browns and purples for sauces, red for eating raw.

When you choose heirloom tomatoes, and no other, the anticipation is sweet, and even the nutritional payoff is greater: an heirloom tomato, grown in soil that hasn’t been destroyed with conventional farming practices, vine ripened and eaten just days after harvest, is higher in vitamins and minerals than the standard, conventional, flavorless alternative available the rest of the year. The newer varieties, in golden orange shades, are higher in vitamin A, but with a milder flavor that signals less of the sour ascorbic acid—vitamin C—that tomatoes are known for.

I treasure each tomato and plan to eat them as they reach their peak of ripeness. They sit in a cool place, never in the refrigerator, as this makes them mealy. I eat them on salad, or as salad, and cook them into dishes. Since I have more than enough tomatoes for raw eating this week, I might make “fishy pasta.” Start some water for pasta, and get to chopping.

Mince and sauté half an onion and some garlic. Add a pound of chopped fresh tomatoes and brown them if you can, but if they’re just too juicy, cook them down. You can add some red wine and simmer it off, if you like. When the tomatoes are good and saucy, add the contents of a couple of short cans of fish: tuna, salmon, mackerel, sardines. A few anchovies are a tasty addition. If you have some roasted vegetables in the fridge, add those, too. When the fish is hot, finish with fresh chopped basil and parsley.

Usually the fish make it salty enough, but check it anyway. Serve over pasta with a grating of pecorino, and a grinding of black pepper.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

How to learn to cook from cookbooks

People can’t afford to eat healthy, the headline says, but when I read more closely, I find the numbers saying something else. In fact, only a small percentage of people say they can’t afford to eat the kinds of foods they would like to eat. I consider the cost of groceries against the alternatives to cooking my own food: eating out, or buying prepared food.

Since money’s not the issue for most people, they’re choosing to buy worse food than they could be buying to stay healthy. What is the real barrier to access, if you can get to a grocery store and afford to buy good quality food? I think there are two things that stop people from eating as well as they know they should, and the first one is that people think there’s not enough time to make good food. People are genuinely busy, and their days are already full. Until we’re so enlightened a country as to offer the working people simple, healthy food at government-subsidized prices, we’ll just have to tackle the other barrier: culinary confidence.

The cheapest, most nutritious foods you can buy are simple ones you can cook yourself, but that we’re losing the knowledge of how to prepare. Food preparation is fascinating to everyone, at a time when the art of home cooking is imperiled. My mother didn’t learn how to cook from her mother: she learned how to cook from boxes and cans, so that’s what I learned. I had to pass through some other apprenticeships to learn the basics of feeding myself cheaply. If there’s no one to teach you, you can teach yourself. Learn to cook just one dish that you know you enjoy eating. Then learn another one. It’s not an all or nothing business, cooking for yourself.

The best kind of culinary confidence is being able to work with whatever you have, even without a recipe. That comes as you learn the techniques that you can apply to categories of foods. But even experienced cooks like reference materials. If you’re new to cooking, you will want at least one good, encyclopedic cookbook. The kind of cookbook you need to get started will teach you how to do basic things like fry an egg, soak and cook beans, make rice, or sear a steak. They’ll continue to serve you for years, every time you want to bake a cake or some bread.

Most cookbooks on the market will fall to one or the other side of the encyclopedic cooking reference. On one end there are themed collections of recipes, which are usually of limited utility for someone who’s learning how to cook. They have their place, but you’ll know from the title, or a glimpse through the pages, if the flavors appeal to you and the techniques are at your skill level. Most of my shelf is taken up with themed cookbooks: I consult Claudia Roden on Middle Eastern food, and have several volumes of Indian cooking, but my favorite is by Madhur Jaffrey. Someday when I want to cook even more slow food than I do now, I have a daunting volume of Mexican cookery that I will delve into.

To the other side of the cookbook spectrum are the kind that I typically avoid: the mainstream, “healthy” cookbook. It’s usually full of advice on how to structure your diet so as to remove all of the things they think you shouldn’t eat, like animal fat and salt, and the recipes are usually pretty horrible as a result, so it manages both to avoid teaching basic cookery, and also to avoid teaching you to make even one solid dish that you’d want to make again. You can see why this would not qualify as a culinary confidence builder.

What cookbook should a new cook buy? Go thrifting, and keep an eye out for the gingham-checked “Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook,” which might be familiar from kitchens of your childhood. It’s still a good reference. My favorite go-to for marinades, quick breads, and stews is Mark Bittman’s “How To Cook Everything,” but if the big yellow book is scaring you, there’s a smaller, “Basics” version that’s cheaper. For whole wheat baking and charts on cooking times for bulk food items, I recommend “Laurel’s Kitchen,” a vegetarian cooking reference guide.