Rich in Iron

My niece Maggie pointedly reminded me recently, “Aunt, you didn’t make fried chicken for us last winter when you were here.” The rest remained unstated, thereby allowing me to reach my own conclusion as to expectations.

There is nothing magical about my fried chicken, I assure you. I simply put flour, salt and pepper, and a hearty pinch of cayenne pepper into a bag, toss the chicken into the bag, shake it all about, and fry it to a golden brown in a mixture of vegetable oil and butter. I then place the chicken into the oven to finish cooking for about an hour. The result – hopefully – is very tender, fall-off-the-bone chicken that truly sticks to your fingers.

The thing is, no one else wants to make it. Why? It’s a frigging messy job, and there’s no two ways around it. As the chicken fries, the grease pops and snaps, getting all over the stove, the floor, the microwave, and if I’m particularly unlucky, my arms. Flour ends up all over the place. An apron is a requirement unless I’m wearing clothes I care nothing about.

Furthermore, I find that as I get older and more forgetful, it is not unusual for me to forget to put the chicken into the flour. The last couple of times that I fried chicken, Bec was my overseer: Kris, I don’t think you put that chicken into the flour, did you? Probably not. So I dig it out of the grease and put it into the flour. Ina Garten doesn’t have these kinds of problems. (As if Ina Garten would fry a chicken for Jeffrey.) But remember, she has staff. Bec is my staff.

When we started spending entire winters in AZ, I had to decide what things I needed here – the operative word being needed, and not wanted. I have a storage room full of things I wanted in Denver that have been used once or twice and now gather dust. This home is too small for those kinds of shenanigans. The Kitchen Aid standing mixer was one; cast iron pans were another.

At first, I got by with my small 10-inch Lodge pan (always Lodge; I’m a fan). But the first time I invited our AZ family for fried chicken, it became abundantly clear that I needed a larger pan. I have a 12-inch Lodge cast iron frying pan in Denver and it didn’t take long before I had one here as well…..

I don’t use it much, and it takes up precious space. Still, in my humble opinion, certain things need to be cooked in cast iron, and chicken is one of them. And when you fry two chickens plus extra dark meat, you need a big pan. Or you will spend hours frying chicken, and that’s not fun.

Country western singer and Food Network chef Trisha Yearwood gives newlyweds a cast iron pan as a wedding gift. That might work in the south, but I’m pretty sure some of my friends would have looked puzzled at such a gift, preferring 600 thread count sheets instead. But I did make sure Court had a Lodge cast iron pan, and I noticed in our recent visit that it was sitting out on his stove, so I think he uses it.

If the cast iron pan is properly seasoned, food doesn’t really stick to it, and clean-up is pretty easy. To season a cast iron pan – both when you first get it and then on an ongoing basis as it is needed – you rub the inside with vegetable oil and place the pan in a 325 degree oven for an hour or so. Shut off the oven, and allow the pan to cool inside the oven before removing it and wiping it with a paper towel or cloth.

I was always told not to use soap to clean a cast iron skillet. In fact, many people insist that you should only use paper towels, salt, and elbow grease. Personally, here’s how I clean my cast iron pan: wait until it is cool; remove as much food and grease as you can with a paper towel; add some hot water and let it sit for a few minutes. Not too long, mind you. Use a scrub pad without soap to clean the bottom and sides of the pan; dry it completely with a paper towel or cloth. Sit it out on your stove overnight, or until such time as you can convince someone else to put it away for you as it is HEAVY AS CAN BE!

Because cast iron maintains an even heat for so long, I read recently that it is one of the best ways to make a homemade pizza. Preheat the pan for a very long time. Make your pizza crust. Carefully (and I’m not entirely sure how this could be managed, perhaps with a pizza peel) place your crust in the pan. Add your ingredients and bake in a hot oven. Voila. I’m going to try it sometime.

By the way, this blog post is NOT sponsored by Lodge!

Cooking Teachers

I’m not sure I can entirely remember what life was like prior to Food Network. This fact, of course, isn’t exactly surprising since I can’t remember where I park my car at the mall. The irony I’m afraid is that I CAN remember my home telephone number from when I was a 6 years old and the words to all of the songs from the 1960s. Sigh. Way to waste those important brain cells.

I guess our parents used those funny things called cookbooks. They didn’t have anyone to teach them to cook from their little black and white television sets. Well, except for Julia Child. And I don’t know about anyone else’s mom, but my mom didn’t particularly want to learn to cook French food. I would have liked to seen the look on my dad’s face should mom have plopped sole meuniere in front of him one night.

My mom says she learned to cook from my paternal grandmother (her mother died at a very young age). I learned to cook by watching my mother. And more recently from watching Food Network and PBS cooking shows.

It used to be that Food Network consisted almost entirely of actual cooking shows. Nowadays, you can find a few cooking shows on during the day, but nighttime consists entirely of competition shows. They don’t particularly interest me. So I mostly watch during the day. Ree Drummond, Trisha Yearwood, Ina Garten, Giada De Laurentiis. Others.

If I’m to tell you the entire truth, most of the stars of the shows drive me crazy. I can’t imagine cooking showing as much cleavage as does Giada, if for no other reason than that I would undoubtedly splash my chest with hot bacon grease. I sometimes think that if Ina Garten says “How (fill in the blank) is that?” one more time, I will throw my coveted seasoned cast iron skillet through the television screen.

But I have learned things from all of these Food Network and PBS cooks that I think has made me a better cook. Here’s a few of the things I have learned…..

Ina Garten: As annoyed as I get when the Barefoot Contessa instructs us to use “really good wine” or “good vanilla” or, as in one recipe, “really good saffron” (as if you should spend even more on an ingredient that already requires you to pawn your wedding ring to buy), I have learned that she is right that the better the ingredients, the better the final result. But the way I look at it, it doesn’t mean you have to fly to Madagascar to pick up a bottle of vanilla. It means, if possible, buy real vanilla extract as opposed to vanilla flavoring.

Paula Deen: Paula’s use of butter is (and I think was meant to be) ridiculous. But she taught me not to be afraid to use butter in my recipes. It simply tastes better. I also learned the easiest way to prepare collard greens – fold them in half and pull the leaves off the stem in one fell swoop.

Giada De Laurentiis: Despite my constant annoyance with her cleavage and the fact that she won’t simply say “spaghetti” or “fettucine” the way we do, she has taught me to use the freshest ingredients possible. Recently, she made a pasta red sauce that looked delicious, and she threw the rind of a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano into the sauce to flavor it. I will definitely give that a try. Giada also uses a lot of fresh fennel, and once I gave it a try when using one of her salad recipes that included fennel and grapefruit, I was hooked. Yum.

Ree Drummond: The Pioneer Woman has given me permission to use store-bought ingredients. Though Ina Garten must turn her nose up at Ree Drummond, I love that Ree will open up a box of chicken broth or use a jar of store-bought pesto.  If she can do it, so can I! It makes me happy to see her use her cast iron skillet so often because it’s one of my favorite cooking utensils. I couldn’t live without it. I love her 16-minute meals. Next to Lidia, I probably use more of the Pioneer Woman’s recipes than any other.

Lidia Bastianich: I left Lidia until last because, well, you know. I want her to adopt me. She speaks to me. For example, the day after I burned my hand because I grabbed the handle of a pan that I had taken out of the oven a minute or so before, she told me, “Kris, make sure when you take something out of the oven, you place a towel on it to remind yourself and others that it is hot.” (Well, she might not have directed it specifically to me, but she said it on her show the next day, and I know she meant it for me.) She has taught me not to fear anchovies but to embrace them as a rich and salty seasoning that melts in your fry pan and therefore won’t scare others, who will simply wonder why your sauce is so good. I also learned to salt my food as I cook, every time I add an ingredient or move to a new step. (If you fear oversalting, place the amount of salt you want to use in a little bowl and take from that. That’s what Lidia told me.) And maybe my favorite instruction from her is, “Clean hands are your best kitchen tool.” Amen.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Lidia recipes…..

Pasta with Baked Cherry Tomatoes, courtesy Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy, Lidia Bastianich

3 pints cherry tomatoes, halved
½ c. plus 1 T extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 c. fine dry bread crumbs
1 t. kosher salt, plus more for the pasta pot
¼ t. pepperoncino flakes, or to taste
1 lb. spaghetti, gemelli, or penne
10 plump garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 T. chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 c. loosely packed fresh basil leaves, shredded
½ c. freshly grated pecorino (or half pecorino and half Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano) plus more for passing
4 oz. Ricotta or ricotta salata

Arrange a rack in the center of the oven, and heat to 350 degrees.

Toss the cherry tomato halves in a large bowl with 3 T. olive oil. Sprinkle over tomatoes the bread crumbs, salt, and pepperoncino; toss well to coat the tomatoes evenly. Pour the tomatoes onto a parchment-lined sheet, and spread them apart in a single layer. Bake until the tomatoes are shriveled and lightly caramelized (but not dried out), about 25 minutes in all.

Meanwhile, fill a large pot with salted water, and heat to a rolling boil. When the tomatoes are nearly done, drop the pasta into the pot, stir, and return the water to a boil.

As soon as the pasta is cooking, pour the remaining olive oil into a big skillet, set it over medium-high heat, and scatter in the sliced garlic. Cook for a minute or two, until it is sizzling and lightly colored, then ladle in about 2 c. of the pasta cooking water, and bring to a vigorous boil, stirring up the garlic. Let half the water evaporate, then lower the heat, stir in the chopped parsley, and keep the sauce barely simmering.

As soon as the tomatoes are done, remove them from the oven.

When the pasta is al dente, lift it from the water, drain for a moment, and drop it into the skillet, still over low heat. Toss pasta quickly with the garlic-and-parsley sauce in the pan, then slide the baked tomatoes on top of the pasta. Scatter the basil shreds all over, and toss everything together well, until the pasta is evenly dressed and the tomatoes are distributed throughout. Turn off the heat, sprinkle on the grated cheese, and toss once more.

Serve immediately.

pasta with baked tomatoes

Nana’s Notes: I cut the recipe in half by simply halving the ingredients. I used fresh tomatoes out of my garden, which I’m madly harvesting. The only cheese I used was Parmigiano. The meal was delicious. Thanks again Lidia.