The resurgence of cast iron: Everything you need to know, plus recipes

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The cast-iron pans favored by countless grandmas and mothers, rugged outdoorsmen and chuckwagon cooks have finally come in out of the cold.

That’s because people are rediscovering how beautifully the pots cook — with steady, even heat and a nonstick, seasoned surface — enabling home cooks to sear steaks, slow-cook stews and turn out fresh-baked breads and desserts worthy of a professional chef.

“It’s your favorite black dress in your wardrobe of pans,” said Julie Hearne of Seattle, who has written several cast-iron cookbooks since 2004, when she and her mom teamed up to write “The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook,” later revised in 2013.

“We couldn’t find any books on bringing cast iron into the modern day,” she said of the impetus behind the cookbook. “We call it the little book that could, because it’s been a gem. Then we wrote the ‘Cast Iron Skillet, Big Flavors Cookbook’ in 2007. It’s a great book, but I think it was a little bit before its time.”

In all of her cookbooks, Hearne tries to expand the palate of the pan, incorporating local ingredients like Dungeness crab and oysters along with global flavors such as Urfa pepper and tamarind.

This ain’t your grandma’s cornbread recipe anymore — she gives that classic an update with a Cornbread Pudding recipe by Tom Douglas — but that doesn’t mean you can’t use her handed down, vintage pans.

It’s one of the few kitchen tools that get better with age.

“I have some that have been passed down from my grandmother,” Hearne said. “And some special, unique ones from antique stores that had been really well loved and are smooth as a baby’s bottom.”

With the simple black pan trending hot again, there is no dearth of recipe sources.

Lodge Cast Iron published “The Lodge Cast Iron Cookbook” in 2012, followed by “Lodge Cast Iron Nation” in 2014. Meanwhile, specialty magazines such as Taste of the South’s Southern Cast Iron and Country Living’s Cast Iron Recipes have popped up at newstands, offering all kinds of down-home favorites, from lasagna to chicken and dumplings.

Like so many trends these days — Mason jars, pressure cookers, fermented products — the cast-iron pan in all of its familiar shapes and sizes (skillet, Dutch oven, grill pan and griddle) was forged from equal parts necessity and innovation.

“If this pan could talk, the stories it could tell,” said Hearne, who took a tour of the Lodge Cast Iron foundry while writing her first cookbook, then served as a judge at Lodge’s National Cornbread Festival.

Originally slung over the open fires of Europe, the treasured pieces were carried by settlers to the New World, where pioneering companies such as Griswold and Wagner (now out of business) sprung up, pouring molten iron into sand-clay molds to “cast” new pans.

These days, the sturdy pots are being reinvented by a new generation of American companies hoping to improve on perfection.

Nest Homeware of Rhode Island has added twig-style handles for a hand-crafted, bespoke look.

Field Company of New York has kept the 1930s look but made the pans much lighter (and easier on the wrist).

Finex of Oregon produces the pans in an elegant, octagonal shape for easy pouring and added fast- cooling silver coils and brass accents to the handles.

Last but not least, Lodge Manufacturing — founded in 1896 — now pre-seasons all its pans, pre-emptively launching the process by which the food’s fat and flavor is absorbed into the pores of the pan, creating a surface that is virtually nonstick.

“It still needs to be cooked in and loved, but that gives you a nice head start,” Hearne said.

Ramekins Cooking School instructor Lisa Lavagetto loves her antique, cast-iron pans so much that she gave a class last summer featuring recipes adapted from the “Cook it in Cast Iron” by Cook’s Country.

“Don’t get me wrong. My regular pans are All-Clad, but you can’t get the same heat and the same sear,” Lavagetto said. “It’s fun to be able to teach people how to take care of them. A lot of millennials think you really have to scrub them with chemicals.”

In the class, Lavagetto showed how to cook a simple olive bread in a Dutch oven, which creates a nice, crisp crust and good flavor.

“I do a lot of fruit desserts in them — crisps and crostatas — and throw them right in the oven,” she said. “And they cook so beautifully.”

Because the surface of the pan is sealed with fat, it can imbue savory dishes with an extra layer of flavor.

“Southerners do a lot of stews and braises, and that’s where they pick up all that wonderful flavor,” she said. “I actually slow cook in them in my oven. I will do a braised pork butt for pulled pork. I put it all in there and turn the oven to 265, and it will slow cook.”

In the summer, Lavagetto throws her cast-iron skillets on the grill to cook delicate fish and veggies. That way, the pieces don’t fall through the grates.

One of the myths about cast-iron pans is that they are difficult to keep clean and seasoned. But it’s really not that hard, as long as you don’t make the mistake of putting them in he dishwasher or soaking them for a long time, which will inevitably lead to rust.

Because the pans have a metal handle, allowing them to move easily from stovetop to oven, you should always use two, strong pot holders when you remove them from the oven to avoid burns and keep a steady grip.

“If you drop cast iron, it will break,” Lavagetto said. “And you definitely don’t want to drop it on your foot.”

To clean, Lavagetto simply puts some really hot water in the pan, then goes at it with some rock salt or a mesh scraper specially designed for cast-iron pans. Some people also use a small mount of mild dishwashing soap.

“The little mesh thing doesn’t damage the surface, and it doesn’t hurt your seasoning,” she said.

Then she dries the pan by hand and puts it on the stove on low for 20 minutes.

Every few times that she cooks with a pot, she will wipe the pan with a thin layer of neutral oil like canola before drying it on the stove. Then she wipes the surface with a paper towel after it dries. To store it, she stacks the pans with paper towels between them so they don’t clink around or get scratched.

“Think about how many years they have existed — that comes from taking really good care of them,” she said. “My kids aren’t after the diamonds or the crystal. They are fighting over the cast-iron cookware.”

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The following breakfast recipe is from Julie Hearne’s “The Cast Iron Skillet, Big Flavors Cookbook.”

“Tri-colored potatoes — a mixture of red, blue or purple, and yellow varieties — make for a colorful Sunday breakfast dish that goes well with oven-baked crisp bacon and coffee cake.”

Smoked Salmon Hash with Tricolored Potatoes

Makes 6 servings

2 pounds small tricolored potatoes or small Red Bliss potatoes

3 tablespoons butter

1 cup chopped yellow onion

3 tablespoons olive oil

½ cup chopped apple, skin on

¼ cup chopped roasted poblano chiles or canned green Hatch chilies

¼ cup heavy cream

8 ounces smoked salmon

¼ cup chopped parsley

— Salt and freshly ground black pepper

— Sour cream, for topping (optional)

— Chopped green onions, for topping (optional)

In a medium saucepan, cover the potatoes with cold water. Bring to a boil, then turn down heat and cook until potatoes are fork tender, about 10 minutes. Drain and cool slightly, then coarsely chop.

In a 10- or 12-inch skillet, melt the butter, add the onions, and cook for 3 to 5 minutes.

Add the olive oil and the chopped potatoes and cook over medium heat until the potatoes are lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Add the apple, chiles, and cream. Continue to cook for 5 minutes and remove from heat. Break the salmon into 2-inch pieces and place on top of the potatoes. Sprinkle with parsley, salt, and pepper; top with sour cream and green onions; and serve.

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The following three recipes are from Lisa Lavagetto, instructor at Ramekins Culinary School in Sonoma.

Grilled Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta

Makes 8 servings

2 pounds Brussels sprouts

6 ounces pancetta, cubed into ¼ inch cubes

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

Bring a large pan of salted water to a boil. Trim the Brussels sprouts of any yellow leaves, but do not cut a cross in the stalk end. Cook the sprouts in the boiling water until tender crisp — about 6 -7 minutes. Drain sprouts from the pan and place in an ice bath to stop the cooking process. Drain once again from the ice bath and when the sprouts are cool, halve them lengthwise and set aside.

In a large sauté pan, cook the pancetta until golden brown and crispy. Remove pan from heat and drain all but 2 tablespoons of the pancetta fat from the pan. Set the pancetta on paper towels and set aside.

On a cast iron grill pan, add the pancetta fat, a bit of butter and the Brussels sprouts and grill cut side down until golden and crispy. In a bowl, add the sprouts, pancetta, and thyme leaves and serve.

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Olive Bread

Makes 1 round loaf

2 ½ cups of all-purpose flour

¼ cup fresh basil, chopped

1 tablespoon of baking powder

½ teaspoon of salt

1½ cup of Parmesan cheese, coarsely grated

1 cup of whole milk

½ cup of sour cream

1 large egg

5 tablespoons of olive oil

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 cup of Kalamata olives, halved

Adjust rack in oven to middle and heat to 450 degrees. Grease a 10-inch skillet or Dutch oven.

Whisk together the flour, basil, baking powder and salt. Stir in 1 cup of the Parmesan and stir until all the cheese is well coated with the flour. In another bowl, whisk together the milk, sour cream and egg until smooth.

Cook the oil and garlic in the skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat until fragrant. Pour oil mixture into the milk and whisk until combined.

Stir milk mixture into the flour mixture until just combined and then fold in the olives. Mixture will be heavy and thick. Do not over mix!

Scrape batter into the Dutch oven and smooth the top. Sprinkle the remaining ½ cup of Parmesan over the top. Bake until loaf is golden and a toothpick comes out clean, roughly 20-25 minutes. Rotate pan in oven after 10 minutes.

Tranfer pot to wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove bread from pan and allow to cook for another 10-20 minutes and serve.

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Lamb Meatballs with Yogurt Sauce

Makes 8-10 servings

For Yogurt Sauce

1 cup of plain Greek yogurt

3 tablespoons of mint, minced

2 tablespoons of olive oil

1 garlic clove, minced

½ teaspoon lemon zest

½ teaspoon lemon juice

For Meatballs

1 pound ground lamb

4 green onions, finely chopped

1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon of ground coriander

1 teaspoon of cumin seeds

1 teaspoon of ground ginger

¼ teaspoon of ground allspice

¼ teaspoon of ground cloves

¼ teaspoon of ground black pepper

— Salt to taste

¼ cup of fresh cilantro, chopped

¼ cup of white sesame seeds

2 tablespoons of lemon juice

For yogurt sauce: Combine all the sauce ingredients in a bowl and season with salt and pepper to taste, Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

For meatballs: Mix all the meatball ingredients in a bowl and blend together well, being careful not to overmix.

Roll into meatballs, about 35 to 40, depending on the size. (small meatballs for appetizers, larger ones for entrees.)

Heat a cast iron skillet and add olive oil. Brown meatballs on all sides for 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter and serve with the yogurt sauce.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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