It’s the middle of April. There are eighteen inches of snow outside our cabin in the Rocky Mountains. It’s stay-in-place quarantine time so there is nowhere to go anyway.
We watched a coyote run by in the early morning hours yesterday, on the hunt for something to fill his stomach, followed by four more.
Today, a family of deer bedded down among the pine trees on the southern hillside. What we actually saw was heads and ears, their bodies completely blanketed in white powder like a downy duvet.
The pine needles are so heavily laden that they create avalanches when they unburden themselves from the top, cascading down through lower branches in bulky snow burst plops.
All of this is pretty to look upon, but we must occasionally venture from the fireplace to don boots and hats and gloves and shovel out the drive, now a pileup growing foot by foot instead of inch by inch. Back inside, we shake off the snow and head to the kitchen. It’s time to refuel with something hot, hearty, and with ingredients almost always on hand.
Our quarantine comfort food go-to is an improved reboot of a childhood staple–grilled cheese sandwiches. But this is not some processed-cheese-slices-between-layers-of-white-bread kind of sandwich. I’m talking GrilledCheese. With caramelized onions, bacon, and fresh spinach [or apples].
It’s a simple how-to with satisfying returns.
GRILLED CHEESE WITH CARAMELIZED ONIONS [and More]
1 whole large onion, halved and sliced thinly
Grated mix of meltable cheeses such as Gruyere, cheddar, or whatever is on hand
Thick sliced bacon, if desired, or use crisp apple in thinly sliced wedges
Fresh baby spinach
4 slices hearty bread such as rye or sourdough
Fry bacon slices [if using], set aside, and drain grease from pan.
Add some butter to heavy skillet [cast iron!] and slowly sauté sliced onions over med-lo heat. Onions will brown slowly. Stir occasionally. It can take 20 minutes, so be patient. The crucial step is tocaramelize those onions!
Place grated cheese in bowl.
Add the browned onions and mix together thoroughly.
Pile onion/cheese mix onto each slice of bread.
Top with bacon [optional] and spinach. For a meatless version substitute very thin slices of raw apple for the bacon.
Press sandwich halves together.
In cast iron skillet, place sandwich into melted butter and heat to grill bread on both sides. It’s helpful to press down with heavy spatula to squish insides together. Turn over carefully.
When bread is toast-y and cheese is melt-y, serve at once.
Enjoy with a Mediterranean salad of chopped tomato, cucumber, red onion or scallion, black olives, and feta or goat cheese. Glass of wine–always nice.
Afterward, poke the fire, add some wood, lay down on sofa with a book or for a shelter-in-place power nap.
A solid Dutch oven, a cast iron skillet, and an excellent knife with a fine blade–the good life. –Anonymous
Cast iron cookware is one of the things to have in your life–but only if you love it.
An iron skillet is a link to the past [one of the oldest cooking tools in any kitchen], relevant to the present and can be passed into the future. It connects you to the people who used it before–to the everydayness of their lives.
Cast iron is durable on top of the stove and inside the oven. It retains the flavor of foods cooked in it and is considered to be superior for cooking in general. Cast iron grabs heat and holds it. It is not Teflon, something you throw away when it becomes scratched and used. Cast iron will outlive you and begs to be passed on.
There aren’t many things in modern life that are passed down through generations and remain both beautiful and useful. –Ronni Lundy, historian of Appalachian food
Older cast iron is considered by purists to be superior. It is made with higher quality raw materials and the interior surfaces are smoother. A good vintage pan will be completely black in color and almost glassy in the texture of its’ interior surface. Seasoned right it becomes nonstick. Pitted surfaces on newer cast iron allow food to stick. It’s also more difficult to season.
Several summers ago, I met “Cast Iron Don” in an antique mall in Saugatuck, Michigan when my daughter and I were on a mom/daughter getaway. Don is a consummate collector of vintage cast iron, owning more than 100 pieces. He uses only two.
Don offered a wealth of cast iron history and information when he spotted my interest in a marked “Griswold, Erie, PA” skillet for the reasonable price of $17.00. He said it was the best-priced-name-brand-cast-iron-piece in the whole market.
Cast iron cookware was made in the U.S. from the 18th century to the first half of the 20th century. Griswold, Wagner, and Sidney were brand names casting pans in foundries, which also made farm tools and weapons. Each piece was poured and polished by hand which took hours of human labor, but produced a notable difference. They were lighter, thinner, with a smoother interior.
Today, some cast iron pans are being made this way but, with labor costs as they are, prices are in the hundreds of dollars for a contemporary artisanal skillet. For the fun of a treasure hunt you can find vintage cast iron in your relatives’ kitchens, garage sales, estate auctions or flea markets at a fraction of the cost of anything new. Many of them will already be seasoned.
Well-seasoned cast iron is the equivalent of a broken in pair of well-loved jeans. This is what makes it both beautiful and utilitarian.
Cast iron is porous. To make a nonstick cooking surface it needs oil for protection. Seasoned correctly, oil bonds with the iron pores. When exposed to heat, the polymer chains link and form a durable, slick coating surface.
Back in Michigan, Cast Iron Don has refined his own techniques for rehabbing antique ironware. I don’t recommend any of his rather dangerous methods. Vats of lye, boiling water, hoses, and protective wearing apparel require a lot more time and caution than most consumers need to muster.
Rusted or mistreated skillets can often be restored with a simple steel wool scrubbing before re-seasoning. Or, use coarse salt mixed with oil and rub mixture around with a paper towel. For a super tough buildup of dirt and grime, place pan in a self-cleaning oven for one cycle. Sediment flakes off and can be wiped away.
After cleaning, the important next step is to season iron correctly.
Animal fat! Use lard, bacon grease or Crisco. [Do not use vegetable based oils because they leave a sticky residue and you have to start over, so no olive oil.]
Coat the entire surface including edges. Place upside down in 500 F. or 260 C. oven over a piece of foil. Bake 1 hour 15 minutes.
Cool gradually in oven with door ajar. Once thoroughly cooled, wipe off any excess oil.
Cast iron needs to be cleaned in a specific way.
Do not soak in water, put in dishwasher, or use soap.
A hot water rinse using a stiff brush to clean off residue will keep seasoning intact. If necessary, use a small plastic scraper first.
Dry completely. I always air-dry, but my daughter puts her cast iron on the stove over a low flame, briefly, to evaporate water.
If necessary, wipe with a thin coat of oil and buff with paper towel.
hot water and scrub brush
use plastic scraper if necessary
Use your cast iron often. For everything! Consider it an heirloom to be passed on and on and on from generation to generation. Embody it with your own family’s cooking lore. Someone else may get a taste of it down the road…
Two classic cast iron skillet recipes:
DUTCH BABY, SWEET – serves 2
Start with ingredients at room temperature.
In a bowl, whisk together 3 large eggs.
Then whisk in ½ C. flour, ½ C. milk, 1 T. sugar, ½ tsp. vanilla, and a pinch of nutmeg and salt.
Melt 2-3 T. butter in 10-12 inch cast iron skillet by placing in oven at 425 F. [220 C]. Watch so butter doesn’t burn! As soon as butter melts, pour in the batter.
Bake for 15-20 minutes until puffy and golden.
Cut into wedges and serve immediately with choice of toppings: maple syrup, confectioner’s sugar, confiture [jam], cinnamon sugar, or fresh berries.
Makes an excellent, light, breakfast pancake.
batter on the left and ready to melt butter on the right
whisk ingredients by hand or in blender
pour into prepared skillet
ready to bake
DUTCH BABY, SAVORY
In a large bowl, whisk together 1 C. + 2 T. flour, ½ tsp. salt, ½ tsp. pepper.
In a separate bowl, combine 8 large eggs and ¾ C. whole milk.
Whisk wet ingredients into dry until just combined.
Stir in 2 T. fresh thyme, 2 T. minced chives [or parsley or tarragon].
Melt 2-3 T. butter in 12-inch cast iron skillet until it smells nutty and brown. Swirl to coat sides and bottom of pan.
Pour in batter. Scatter ¾ C. freshly grated Gruyère or Parmesan cheese over top.
Bake 15-20 minutes at 425 F. [220 C.] until puffy and golden.
Serve with lemon wedges and Siracha sauce. Both add a lot of flavor!