- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 28, 2003

For many of us, our treasured cast-iron skillets were passed down from an earlier generation. I remember how I came into my first piece, but it wasn’t a family affair.

Long ago, a friend had to leave New York City, where we were both living, to return to his home to Louisiana to settle a personal matter. He asked me to look after his apartment, belongings and beloved stereo set. Three months later, he returned, grateful for the favor.

“Take anything you like,” he said, nodding toward his vast record collection. “You deserve it.”

“Not the records, Charlie,” I said. “I want your black cast-iron omelet pan.”

His aunt had passed the skillet to him for his bachelor pad. He stared, cringed and gulped, but it was too late. The offer was on the table, and so was the skillet. I still treasure that black beauty as the centerpiece of some half-dozen pieces in my collection of cast-iron cookware.

Cast-iron cooking was and is a way of life. Since the days of the earliest settlers, traditional cooking and cast-iron cookware have been part of American culture. As different sections of the country were settled by people with unique customs and cultures, regional cuisines developed that were primarily cooked in cast iron.

• In New England, the Pilgrims and the immigrants who followed gave us the New England boiled dinner, Yankee pot roast, Boston baked beans and Maine clam chowder. The one-pot meals that literally cook themselves were the order of those early days and are with us still.

• In the early days of Appalachia, the wood stove accommodated cast-iron skillets for frying and a “Dutch” cast-iron oven for roasting meats and baking bread. Country and Southern recipes still include baked and fried country ham with red-eye gravy, Southern fried chicken and fried green tomatoes, country cured hams, homemade jams and stone-ground grits and cornmeal dishes.

• The Charleston area of South Carolina is known for its game as well as seafoods, including oysters, shrimp and crabs. Rice pilaf is prominent in the cuisine, and okra, grits and corn bread are also defining dishes made in heavy black skillets.

• The cowboy impact on the West and Southwest was fueled in cast-iron cookware in the chuck wagons. They cooked their game, chilies, beans and biscuits over hardwood fires and created a prairie cuisine that is still a part of Southwestern culture.

• The Louisiana Delta has a treasure of unique food ways, all adapted to cast-iron cookware. The French explorers began arriving in the 1700s, and we can thank them for etouffee, cassoulets and bouillabaisse, the forerunner of Louisiana gumbo. The West African slaves brought with them knowledge of the sugar cane and rice plantations and also introduced okra, a key ingredient in gumbo.

When French-speaking Canadians, now known as Cajuns, fled Nova Scotia, they used their creative ways with lobsters to cook crawfish. The Spanish immigrants couldn’t reproduce their paella, so they substituted ingredients at hand and came up with jambalaya.

Louisiana sausages and meats, such as andouille, tasso and boudin, are all evidence of the German influence.

One of the most important things about cast iron is its durability. Because cast iron heats evenly and retains heat better than today’s aluminum and stainless steel, food can be prepared at lower temperatures. Seasoned properly, cast iron creates its own nonstick coating.

Seasoning is a process where the pores in cast iron absorb oil to create that satiny finish. Aged pieces already have the smooth black patina that gives cast iron its unique cooking surface, but most new cast-iron utensils don’t come that way.

Here’s one way to season a new pan: Fry only bacon in a new skillet for a month or so, and don’t wash it after using except with hot water and a brush. It does wonders for the pan, but cardiologists frown on this method. Here’s a more traditional way to do it:

Wash, rinse and thoroughly dry the new skillet (or other piece) to remove the protective wax coating.

Put a tablespoon of solid vegetable shortening in the utensil, but do not use a salted fat such as butter or margarine. Warm the pan to melt the shortening, then use a cloth or paper towel to coat with oil the entire surface of the pan, inside and out, corners, edges and lids.

Allow the cookware to heat upside down in the oven for one hour at 350 degrees. It’s a good idea to place aluminum foil on the bottom of the oven to catch any drippings.

Turning the piece upside down prevents the oil from building up inside the pan.

Using oven mitts, remove the utensil from the oven and wipe it with a paper towel. Store in a dry place.

A third way is to buy a new pan already seasoned. Just this year, Lodge Manufacturing Co. in South Pittsburg, Tenn., which has been in operation since 1896, began marketing a line of pre-seasoned pans. Lodge also makes unseasoned skillets, Dutch ovens, chicken fryers, griddles, bake ware and serving ware. For more information, call 423/837-7181 or go the Web site: www.lodgemfg.com.

Louisiana jambalaya

Jambalaya is perhaps the best-known rice dish in America. When the early Spanish settlers came to New Orleans, they brought with them the recipe for paella. They quickly learned to adapt a version using local ingredients.

Oysters and crawfish replaced clams and mussels. Andouille sausage took the place of jambon, or ham. Since the main ingredient in the dish was rice, the dish was named “jambon a la yaya.” Yaya is a word for rice in some African languages. The rest is history.

1 pounds chicken tenders

teaspoon salt

teaspoon ground black pepper

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

3/4 pound smoked turkey (or andouille) sausage, cut into -inch slices

2 medium onions, chopped

1 large green bell pepper, chopped

1 cup chopped celery

1 clove garlic, minced

2 cups uncooked long-grain white rice

to teaspoon ground red pepper

2 cups chicken broth

1 cup sliced scallions

1 medium tomato, seeded and chopped

Celery leaves for garnish

Season chicken with salt and black pepper. Heat oil in large pan or cast-iron Dutch oven over high heat until hot. Add chicken, stirring until brown on all sides. Add sausage and cook 2 to 3 minutes.

Remove chicken and sausage from pan and set aside. To same pan, add chopped onion, green pepper, celery and garlic.

Cook and stir over medium-high heat until crisp-tender. Stir in rice, red pepper, broth and reserved chicken and sausage.

Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer 30 minutes. Stir in scallions and tomato. Garnish with celery leaves. Serve immediately. Makes 8 servings.


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