Fun With My Cast Iron Skillet

It has been on my Christmas and birthday lists for a few years now, and I have to believe that the only reason I hadn’t received it until Christmas 2011 is that it is so difficult to wrap. I think the only reason I never picked one up for myself is that it is so difficult to. . . well. . . pick up. This thing is heavy.

My first cast iron skillet.

Perhaps the only reason that I finally received one last year was that my dear family had realized that a steady diet of kitchen experiments had packed more flab onto my upper arms than muscle. Maybe now I can tone my arms AND cook a delicious meal, all at once. Maybe now that my wedding dress is hanging in the corner, and the only area of my body that can’t be corseted, bustled, pulleyed, pushed or levered into an optical illusion of perfection is my arms. . . perhaps that’s the reason I decided to start using the cast iron skillet on the regular.

. . . Oh how I long for midsummer weather right now. Maybe after spending two beautiful (and chilly) weekends in the wide open spaces of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley, I was feeling a little country.

Or a little campy.

Or I was a little tired, from scoping out outdoor wedding venues all day long for two Saturdays in a row.

Maybe I just wanted to whip up some comfort food for me and my honey, and what better way to do it than with my brand new cast iron pan? Whatever the reason, I got to seasoning my skillet on Sunday morning, and I decided I was going to put this beast of a cooking vessel to good use.

While the skillet hung out in the oven, I did my research so I would know what I was dealing with. Known for its durability and heat-retention properties, cast iron cookware has been a kitchen essential for centuries. A cast iron pot can be used over an open flame, on the stovetop and in the oven. I assume is works on the grill, although that is another domain I have not yet conquered. Cast iron skillets are great for certain dishes because they distribute heat evenly and retain it well.

The first step to using cast iron cookware is seasoning, which builds a natural non-stick coating on the pan. My cast iron skillet came pre-seasoned, but the instructions suggested that I season it again before use to ensure the best results. I found a lot of different methods on the web for seasoning the skillet, so I kind of combined them into the method that I used. First, I wiped down the skillet to remove any dust or dirt that may have accumulated on it while it lived in my cupboard for the last month. Then I preheated the oven to 350 degrees F. Next, I poured in the pan enough vegetable oil to coat the bottom to about a quarter of an inch. Using a folded paper towel, I coated the interior sides of the skillet with oil from the bottom of the pan. I placed the skillet in the oven for 15 minutes at 350 degrees F, then I turned down the heat to 200 degrees F and baked for an additional 45 minutes. Finally, I used two potholders to carefully remove the skillet from the oven and onto a trivet, where I let the skillet cool completely before use.

It worked great!

The first dish I tried was a frittata. I have wanted to make a frittata for years but I never had a pan that was stovetop and oven safe. Isn’t that sad? So I was all over this Tyler Florence recipe for a basic frittata. I omitted the ham and added about one cup of halved grape tomatoes, a few tablespoons of chopped fresh basil and a few handfuls of fresh spinach to the pan to wilt before adding the egg mixture. And of course I sprinkled cheese on top because I won’t have eggs any other way.

I loved taking the pan from stovetop to oven and then out again to see the beautiful result. Here are the before and after shots:

The frittata is done when it has puffed up in the pan and it is golden brown on the edges. Isn’t that just lovely? I served the frittata with a little side salad and I felt fancy like the Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten. Except I wasn’t hosting a ladies’ brunch at my palatial home in the Hamptons. I was watching Game of Thrones with Kyle in our cozy little home in Woodland Heights. But I felt fancy, I tell you!

The only downside is that if you thought this skillet was heavy before, you will seriously struggle to wrestle it out of the oven when it’s all full of egg and veggie goodness.

It’s like a garden party, on my plate, in January.

This was so much fun, I think I’ll take the skillet for a spin again tomorrow night. Next up: cornbread. But don’t worry, I have found a whole list of healthy cast iron skillet recipes so I won’t only cook (creamy, cheesy, buttery) comfort food all the time. I’ll quit at cornbread and then move on to a nice low fat, seasonal vegetable dish, with extra iron skillet bicep curls.

But first. . . cornbread.

Yum!

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Veggie Mess a la Millie’s

Millie’s Diner is arguably the best brunch spot in Richmond and everyone knows it. Millie’s starts serving brunch at 10AM on Saturday, and a line starts to wrap around the corner of the tiny beloved restaurant by 9:30 every Saturday morning. If you want to get a table on Saturday or Sunday morning, you either get there early and wait 30 minutes until they open or you get there later and wait up to an hour until a table opens up. Believe me, it’s worth the wait.

One of Millie’s signature dishes is the Devil’s Mess, and the restaurant offers a Veggie Mess for patrons who would rather skip the sausage. The dish is a mess of scrambled eggs mixed with vegetables, curry, and melted cheese. It comes in a massive portion that is best when accompanied by a bloody mary or mimosa. Because I love brunch for dinner, and because I have cut our restaurant dining budget in preparation for our super awesome anniversary vacation, I decided to make these at home one night. They turned out almost as good as the real thing.

Veggie Mess, a la Millie’s Diner

This will be another one of those walk-you-through-the-recipe recipes, because I made it up as I went along, while Kyle faithfully took meticulous notes.

What a guy. 🙂

Start with the following vegetables. Sauté these in 2 Tbsp olive oil over medium heat:

  • 1/2 yellow onion, diced
  • 1 large carrot, diced
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced

Beyond this point, you can add whatever vegetables you want. I chose enough ingredients to make two huge heaping servings. Most people would say this recipe yields three entree size servings, but I was trying to be authentic. And at Millie’s, they pile on the veggies and eggs. When the onions, carrots, pepper and garlic are tender, remove them from the pan to a small bowl and mix in the other ingredients:

  • 2-4 oz of marinated artichoke hearts (a small jar)
  • 2 oz can of sliced black olives
  • 1-2 handfuls of spinach
  • (I would add diced tomatoes here  if they were in season right now, which they’re not, and in my opinion it’s a worthless addition unless it’s summer.)

Now you’re going to start the scramble. Whisk together 6 eggs and 1/4 teaspoon of baking powder. This is my Mom’s trick for making nice fluffy eggs. Divide the mixture in half, and pour one half into an oiled pan over low-medium heat. Gently scrape the bottom of the pan as you move the eggs around with a spatula. When they start to look like this. . .

. . . it’s time to add the vegetables back to the pan. Divide the vegetable mixture in half, and add the veggies to the pan. Continue to scramble the eggs while incorporating the other ingredients. Add to the egg-veggie mixture:

  • 1 teaspoon curry powder (more or less depending on taste)
  • salt and pepper

Cook for just a minute or two more and remove the mess to a foil-lined baking sheet. Preheat the broiler. Repeat the scramble for the other half of the eggs and half of the vegetable mixture. When you’re finished, sprinkle on top of each mess:

  • 1/4 cup shredded cheese (I used colby jack and I probably used more than 1/4 cup if we’re being honest here)

They should look like this. . .

A coworker of mine rarely sits at a table at Millie’s, opting instead for a seat at the bar so he can view the open kitchen. It turns out that sitting at the bar has its perks, like the ability to pick up little-known local restaurant trivia. My coworker let me know that at Millie’s, they finish every dish under the broiler for a minute or so. Every. Single. Dish. Including the Veggie Mess. Insider info, score!

So now you’re going to place this under the broiler for one minute, for the sake of authenticity. It will look melty and delicious like this. . .

Slide onto a plate and dig in!

Judging by the absence of patrons lining up outside la casa de vegology every Saturday morning, my version is not a Richmond classic just yet. Kyle stood in line for about 40 minutes for this dish though, so I’m calling it a success.

Recipe inspired by Millie’s Diner in the historic Church Hill neighborhood of downtown Richmond, VA.

The Black Sheep

I am kind of embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t been to The Black Sheep until this weekend. It has been on my list of restaurants to visit for a really long time now, but I never can to make it out there to give it a try. Carissa always talks about how much she loves to get brunch there with her mom, and she has raved about the French toast on more than one occasion. It seems like everyone I talk to loves this place, and I’ve been missing out for awhile. I think the problem is that Kyle and I always want to walk to brunch on the weekends, and with so many great options nearby, it’s hard for us to hop in the car for the 2.3 mile drive to this gem of a brunch spot. I opt to use the word “gem” because The Black Sheep is a diamond in the rough, situated on a quiet corner in the quaint yet rough-around-the-edges Carver neighborhood of downtown Richmond.

We arrived at 9:15 and had our choice of tables in the small dining room. We chose a beautiful wooden table in the back of the restaurant which backed up to a rustic looking sub wall that looked salvaged and was used to separate the dining room in the front from the registers and prep area in the back. I immediately noticed that each table had a different quirky set of salt and pepper shakers; this is definitely an idea that I’m going to borrow when I have my own cafe someday. Ours were cute little gourds.

I sensed that my immune system was working overtime, even though I didn’t really feel sick, so I ordered an orange juice with my coffee. I ended up coming down with a major upper respiratory infection within 12 hours of brunch, so it turns out that my suspicion was dead-on. I still think the OJ helped a little though. Not only did The Black Sheep offer a collection of mismatched salt and pepper shakers, they had a variety of coffee mugs as well. Mine was Hawaiian.

The Black Sheep has a menu that changes seasonally and we found plenty of vegetarian options at reasonable prices. Kyle ordered the No Mas Huevos Nuevos ($8), “two eggs served with a wheatberry & black bean chili, topped with an avocado salsa, served over a griddled jalapeño gritcake.”

The chili was sweet and spicy, the avocados and scallions offered a creamy and fresh complement to the chili and eggs, and the gritcake was a delicious anchor for the dish. We think the garnish on top was homemade crispy flour tortilla strips. Kyle’s take on this dish: “MmmWow,” mumbled while munching down large forkfuls.

I had the Red Flannel Hash ($8), “two eggs served over roasted beets & roasted carrots combined with red potato, red onion, red pepper and parsley” with a lightly dressed mixed lettuce salad and a perfect slice of baguette.

click to see the beautiful color contrast!

 

The vegetables were nutty and sweet and perfectly cooked: not too crisp and not too mushy. There was plenty of hash to accompany both the eggs and the salad. While I rarely comment on a side of bread, this baguette was noteworthy. It might have been the most perfect baguette I have ever tasted, warm with a thin and crispy crust and a soft-crisp interior that featured the ideal balance of air pockets and crumb. It was heaven and it was only an accompaniment. Do they make their bread in house? Can I order some to take home? I’m still dreaming about this baguette – I have never in my life been so passionate about bread before this brunch experience.

Well I obviously loved it, but how did Kyle feel?

“This far exceeded my expectations.”

“This chili is so. . . . awesome!”

“We are definitely doing this again.”

“Let me get the check.”

Score!

If you are in the RVA area, get thee to The Black Sheep ASAP.

Tomatillos!

That word is so much fun to say, I have to accent it with an exclamation point.

I picked up these tomatillos last week at the farmers’ market and couldn’t wait to get in the kitchen.

After a bit of research, I found some creative ideas online and I also had a recipe that had been calling my name from the bookshelf for a while. The tart green tomatillos sat on my counter in their papery husks while I searched for inspiration. I had purchased the last little container of tomatillos from the farmer’s stand, and because they were so delicate and so rare this time of year, I wanted to make sure I gave them the dish that they deserved.

Tomatillos look like small green tomatoes, but they taste quite different. Because the tomatillo is covered by a papery husk, the fruit itself has a smooth skin and is free of blemishes. Their insides are white and less juicy than a tomato. They taste tart when eaten raw, however I read that they can be very inconsistent in flavor; some are sour and tangy, while some are mild and sweet. That reminded me of a box of assorted chocolates, which made me even more excited for the challenge.

I have been holding on to this recipe for nearly two years, trying to muster the courage to a) use tomatillos for the first time, b) bake something in a pumpkin for the first time, and c) spend three hours in the kitchen for one dish. Item (c) would not be a first for me, but it definitely takes some energy and concentration to pull off. Because I didn’t want to turn the entire apartment into an oven by cooking hot stew all afternoon, and because the recipe isn’t exactly seasonally appropriate, I decided to hold off on Spicy Fall Stew Baked in a Pumpkin. That I can look forward to for just a couple months more. Instead I decided to go with a classic that we could enjoy in a variety of dishes all week: Salsa Verde!

I can thank Tyler Florence for guiding me through this meal. I used both his salsa verde recipe and his roasted corn recipe to make these delicious summer tacos.

Roasted Tomatillo Chile Salsa (adapted from Tyler Florence, Food Network.com)

Ingredients

8-10 tomatillos, husked and halved

1/2 white onion, quartered

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 jalapeno, seeds and ribs removed, diced

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup fresh cilantro

1/2 lime, juiced

Preparation

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

2. Cover a baking tray with aluminum foil. Roast tomatillos, onion, garlic, and jalapenos on baking tray in oven for 10-12 minutes.

3. Transfer the roasted vegetables and any juices in the bottom of the tray to a food processor. Add the cumin, salt, cilantro, and lime juice and pulse until the mixture is smooth.

And it was delicious. Here are some of the dishes I used it in this week:

Black Bean and Corn Tacos with Roasted Tomatillo Chile Salsa

I found these great whole wheat wraps for these tacos:

First, make some oven roasted corn on the cob. I couldn’t believe how easy this was and how much better the corn tasted when it roasted in its own juices.

Next remove the corn kernels from the cob.

Heat some black beans over the stove and warm the tortillas. While the beans and tortillas are warming, prepare the following toppings:

  • diced tomatoes
  • diced avocado sprinkled with lime juice
  • grated monterey jack cheese
  • roasted tomatillo chile salsa

Lay out a buffet of ingredients and assemble your own tacos. This is one of my favorite warm-weather meals! 🙂

Green Eggs No Ham

I used some of the tomatillo salsa on this tasty breakfast that I am calling Green Eggs No Ham Sandwiches:

Here are the ingredients. I am sure you can figure out how to put them together:

  • Two slices of Arnold’s Health Nut bread, toasted
  • 1/4 cup baby spinach, chopped
  • Two cage-free organic eggs, fried (not too hard, not too runny)
  • Grated cheese (an amount that I will not admit to) – I chose monterey jack, Kyle chose cheddar
  • Salt and pepper
  • One messy dollop of roasted tomatillo chile salsa

I love Saturdays.

Summer Weekend

The progression of my mood over the weekend has started to pique great interest from my friends, my boyfriend, and my cat. Lately I have rushed home on Friday night, still fully entrenched in work week mania: over-caffeinated, detail-obsessed, and plan-crazy, like the multitasker I am required to be in my work life. Routinely on Fridays I have indulged in pizza and a large ( seemingly ever-larger) glass of wine, and collapsed in bed before the clock strikes twelve. I dream about timely task completion, effective crisis response, customer satisfaction and, occasionally, world domination.

Saturdays the mania ensues, as I drag Kyle out of bed for coffee, breakfast, and an early AM trip to the farmers’ market. And then as I peruse the stalls, smelling local fruits, chuckling at oddly shaped vegetables, and chatting about social plans for the week ahead, I calm down and begin to enter weekend mode. By the time I toss my market loot in the back of my car, I am a little less concerned about sales reports and delayed shipments. I am more focused on preparing fresh tomato sandwiches, locating the recipe for homemade pesto that I had tucked into a binder or notebook at home, and popping ripe raspberries into my mouth as I enjoy a glass of chilled Prosecco on the balcony.

By Sunday morning I appear to be a different person than I am on Fridays. I make fresh coffee, cook a delicious breakfast, and make lists. On Sundays I do cleaning, errands, and cooking, but not with the fervor with which I approach my job Monday through Friday (or anything I tackle on Thursday or Friday evenings). I am much more relaxed because on Sundays I have countless moments to myself, and the feeling that I can do whatever I choose all day long, free of meetings, phone calls, or deadlines, except the self-imposed ones.

This morning I saw the bottom of the bag of this Virginia roasted coffee from Dark Hollow Roasters, purchased at Ellwood Thompson, my local grocery store. I guess it’s time to buy some new coffee.

Pardon the poor quality of this photo, taken with my Blackberry. I never claimed to be an excellent food photographer, just an excellent food enjoyer! I didn’t even take a picture of my breakfast this morning because it looked so good that I couldn’t wait to eat it. But I’m still going to talk about it because you can make this breakfast in 15 minutes or less and get a restaurant-quality brunch for minimal effort (and cash).

Fried Eggs Over Creamy Polenta, Melted Provolone and Fresh Heirloom Tomatoes

Ingredients

3 ounces prepared polenta

2 tablespoons milk (you could use cream for creamier polenta, but I went with 1%)

1 tablespoon butter

2 large brown eggs

1 ounce of provolone cheese (about 1 thick deli slice or 1.5 thin slices)

1 thick slice of heirloom tomato

Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation

1. Mix the milk into the polenta on a microwaveable plate and cook in the microwave for 1-2 minutes on high, until just heated through. Let sit in microwave one minute and then remove to counter to set up a bit.

2. Heat the butter in a pan over low-medium heat. When the butter is melted, crack two eggs, one at a time, into the pan.

3. Add salt and pepper to the polenta. Put the provolone on top of the polenta and let it get melty. Top with a slice of tomato.

4. Flip the eggs and cook to desired doneness. I like mine not hard but not runny (I know, I’m picky) so I break the yolk before flipping and then cook an additional minute or two until the yolk is set but not cooked through.

5. Put the eggs on top of the tomato and add salt and pepper to taste.

6. Dig in before you even get a chance to snap a photo for your food blog.

I’m off to recipe plan for this evening. Kyle works on Sundays and I always make a big dinner on Sunday night that we enjoy together before my hectic work week begins. It’s one of the highlights of my week!