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Mar 19, 2007

That Pan of Mine

I subscribe to Cook's Illustrated not only for the straightforward, homey advice on how to cook the perfect waffle (the trick is to make the batter with yeast the night before and let it rise in the refrigerator) or the ideal baking cocoa (surprisingly, the last time I checked it was Hershey's unsweetened) but for the simple drawings inluded in each issue. And I think it was in this unassuming mag that I was first intrigued by the idea of cast iron.

[Well, perhaps that's not entirely true. I vaguely remember my aunt warning us not to wash her cast iron pans with soap and water because it would ruin the 'season.' She lives in Barre, Vt., and it seems quite appropriate that her restored farmhouse kitchen, perched on the edge of 300 forested acres, should be well-outfitted with various cast iron articles.]

Cooking something in a cast iron pan brings the frontier to the modern day. It may seem as though I am simply saute-ing chickpeas and chard, but really I am boldly cooking a corn pudding over a sputtering, damp fire, turning a rabbit on a spit with my free hand, and pushing the sweaty hair out of my eyes with an elbow.

Last spring, newly moved to the city, I checked out the wonderful Cookin', just around the corner on Divisadero Street. The store is crammed and jammed full of used kitchenware and appliances (some of which -- the china, tea sets, and silver -- I coveted greatly) and is a nice way for the cook and entertainer in all of us to while away a few hours. That particular day we were on a mission to find a cast iron frying pan -- luckily, it was just the spot to go. Of course, we didn't want to break the bank, and eventually settled on a $40 "Lodge" brand, heavy specimen and carted it home with strict instructions about how to lightly oil first with vegetable oil before attempting to cook anything with it.

And this is why cooking with cast iron make me think of carving out an existence in a vast and unexplored land, disaster looming at every turn, hungry wolves scratching at the door: it's very, very difficult. Especially if you've grown up cooking on non-stick.

Countless cloves of garlic were sacrificed and slabs of tofu were burned beyond recognition during the early, experimental days with the pan. There were a few tears shed in frustration, and the occasional throwing-up of hands. Soy sauce residue sometimes had to be scraped from its surface, and oil re-applied. Honestly, some days I longed for Teflon -- carcinogins or no -- to get me through the stormy transition.

But this was nearly a year ago. During the ensuring months I reached not simply a truce with my little cast-iron pal, but a real understanding -- I'll pay attention to him while he's in action, and he will reward me with lovely, immaculately-cooked stirfrys and steamed broccoli. I won't let him get overheated (bad for his complexion, you know), and he will allow me stacks of perfect pancakes. I'll make sure to butter oil him up on a regular basis, and in return he'll whisper sweet nothings of deglazed delights into my attentive ear.

In short: I think I've made a friend for life.

The New York Times agrees with me, and for the cost-conscious, it's perfectly fine to buy a used pan rather than new. The beauty of cast iron is that is should last nearly forever; I like to think of all the history contained within its smooth black depths. Plus, there's that whole Laura Ingalls Wilder element to make one feel truly adventerous, even when just cooking up a quick mess of green beans.

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