Sunday, February 21, 2010

Pan Love

Among my prized possessions is a collection of cast iron pans. The only one I can remember purchasing new is a double-burner griddle. A couple of small skillets were donated by my mother when I got my first apartment. I seem to recall that my smallest one, currently a spoon rest, followed me from a dorm room and may have begun its life in the early '70s as an ashtray. The large one I use to make my baked apple pancake was gifted to us in 1977 when the neurosurgery resident/juggler who lived on the second floor left for California, taking with him only what he could fit into his jeep. From the good Dr. Schell we also inherited a large Corningware casserole, an exact match to our wedding set and a piece we lacked. I roast things in the skillet my dad used to fry potatoes and eggs with fennel.

Cast iron pans have been fixtures of American cooking since colonial times. They were employed on open campfires as the settlers moved West and on chuck wagons to feed hungry cowboys on cattle drives. They were a staple of the American kitchen well into the 20th century and are renowned for their even heating, heat retention, and durability.

They don’t wear out. They can withstand very high heat. They are forgiving. They get better with age. (How many things can you say that about?)

A well-seasoned, well-cared-for pan is a joy. You get non-stick without the teflon. Cast iron can go from stovetop to oven without worry.  You can use it on your barbecue grill. You can turn a skillet upside down  and bake pizza on it.  Cast iron care is pretty easy, the pans come seasoned, and if an over-zealous kitchen helper scrubs off the seasoning, that can be remedied. You can’t break cast iron pans. Just don’t drop a big one! And remember that they stay hot for a long time. So be careful to use an oven mitt when you take a pan off the heat and a trivet when you set it down.

Most cast iron skillets are numbered on the handle, and nest to store easily. The numbers indicate  relative size, but do not reflect the cooking diameter. For example, my “Number 9” actually has a diameter of about 9.5”  Cast iron pans were manufactured in the USA by a number of different foundries until the 1950s. Those made by Griswold Cast Iron in Erie, PA (1865-1957) are highly prized; their collectors hold annual conventions.

Lodge Logic Pre-Seasoned Fajita SetOne American company is still going strong – Lodge Cast Iron in South Pittsburg, TN, founded in 1896. Lodge is the oldest family-owned cookware foundry in the USA. Besides the traditional nesting skillets, griddles, and cornstick pans, it offers a number of new products reflecting America’s changing times. These include pizza pans, woks, and fajita sets. All the cast iron pans are made in the US, but the company also carries two lines of enamel cookware from China.

The company has been working hard to become more green. According to the Lodge website: “Lodge Manufacturing received the 1994 Governor’s Award for Excellence in Hazardous Waste Reduction: In 1991, Lodge President Henry Lodge replaced the cupola melting system with more environmentally friendly induction melt system. The result was that Lodge Mfg changed its status as a Large Quantity Generator of Hazardous Waste to Small Quantity Generator.” Lodge has also been working to find ways to reuse its foundry sand and to improve its rate of cardboard recycling. A product that was green for its long life and versatility is now even greener.

Back to my pans. Hardly a day goes by that I do not have a use for one of them — for melting butter, making pancakes, baking cornbread, frying an egg or some potatoes, roasting chicken and root vegetables. I cook a lot.

I am not ready to part with any of mine anytime soon. So, when my son set up his first place, I ordered from Lodge. I’ve heard that he uses the pan. I don’t think he is making cornbread yet, but he has plenty of years ahead. And I hope what the website says will come true for him: “When you choose Lodge Cast Iron Cookware, you’ve made a friend that will last more than a lifetime. The Lodge family appreciates your patronage and hopes that if this is your first piece of Lodge Cast Iron, it will be the first of many.” There was a recent recall of some QVC pans made for Paula Deen in China that shattered. I can’t guarantee it, but I don’t think that will happen with the ones from Lodge.

Ad Hoc at HomeThe last time I went to the gym I picked up a pretty recent Esquire magazine (December 2009), and discovered a wonderful article: “Does it Matter if It’s an Eighth of a Cup?: The Night Thomas Keller Came to My Kitchen,” by Ryan D’Agostino. Long story short, the author and his friend decide to prepare a meal from celebrated chef Thomas Keller’s most recent cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home, and to invite Keller over to enjoy it. He agrees. They aren’t quite ready for him. Keller lends a hand. They all enjoy a great meal. And here is the important punchline. The author quotes a line from the cookbook (which sounds great by the way): “If you could only have one pan in your kitchen, [a cast-iron skillet] is the one I’d give you.”

So a cast iron pan IS the perfect gift. Thomas Keller says so! Remember that the next time you want to show your love.

Coincidentally, as I was wrapping this post, I caught a story in the Wall Street Journal about Joel Schiff, who lives in an 850-square-foot one-bedroom East Village apartment, along with the over 7000 cast iron items he has been collecting for decades. According to  Steven Kurutz, Mr. Schiff apparently came “to appreciate the permanence and craftsmanship of cast iron” after his other belongings were destroyed in a houseboat fire that left his cast iron pans unharmed. Mr. Schiff is widely respected as an authority on cast iron among members of KOOKS (Kollectors of Old Kitchen Stuff).

The world is full of strange and wonderful tales.

And clearly I am not the only one to have succumbed to pan love.

1 comment:

  1. I love cast iron! Here is one of my favorite recipes!