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Foie gras taste on a Big Mac budget

Dr. Dirtydishes, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Cast Iron Skillet

It’s finals time, and consequently doing the dishes isn’t a priority here in the South Loop. So, rather than just clean my (or my roommate’s) dishes, I’ve just decided to make use of a cooking tool I usually ignore: my cast iron skillet.

I kind of hate my cast iron skillet. It’s big and clunky and hard to find a good place to store it. Plus, has a sort of perpetual greasiness (which it’s kind of supposed to). And I have no fond memories of trying to season it when I brought it home brand new. Having to coat it in oil and then bake it in my oven while it emitted unsavory fumes did not endear me to it.

And I can never quite figure out how one should properly clean it. A good scrubbing will destroy a lot of the effort you’ve put into seasoning it. But not involving at least a little dish soap is just a bit too icky for me. So I find myself trying to gingerly get it to a satisfactory state of clean while not eating away at the layers of seasoning I’ve slowly built up.

But last week, although I already partially planned to attempt to use the cast iron skillet for my second go at a Julia Child steak, the unclean state of my two nonstick skillets made it even more appealing. So, I dragged the cast iron hulk out of the cupboard and reluctantly clunked it onto the burner. To my delight, it worked beautifully. The steak didn’t stick hopelessly to the pan (no doubt helped by the massive amount of oil and butter Julia calls for), nothing charred, and it seemed like more browned bits stuck around in the pan to help the sauce along. This time I went for the shallot (although I used Julia-sanctioned green onions) and white wine (and butter) sauce. Except for the onions getting a little more brown/black than I would have liked, it was heavenly.

So, one cast iron victory behind me, I had ingredients for fajitas in the fridge and two dirty nonstick skillets. What the hell, right?

I prepped earlier in the day, slicing the veggies (how did I get along before a V-slicer?) and skirt steak, marinating the steak and shrimp, and making the guacamole (McCormick’s Produce Partners mix is awesome). The shrimp was an alteration to Dave Lieberman‘s recipe (from his excellent cookbook, Young and Hungry), and I was a bit worried about whether the shrimp would work in place of chicken, but I already had it on hand, so it wasn’t going to be a big waste.

Now it was time to show my successful steak preparation wasn’t a fluke. With my unshakable fear that stuff would stick (until I had the skillet properly seasoned, it was pretty bad, and my cast iron grill pan still isn’t there), I put perhaps a bit too much oil in. But I dumped my mound of veggies in and hoped for the best. And, I have to say, I don’t think I’ll ever make fajitas in anything but my cast iron skillet again.

Far from sticking or charring as previous meals had, the onions caramelized beautifully at a perfect pace. Some of the peppers got a fantastic char on the skin. I barely touched the veggies except to give them the occasional stir to make sure things were cooking evenly. I don’t remember the veggies cooking so well before, and I’ve made these fajitas quite a few times.

The meats went quickly, but didn’t get tough. The cast iron skillet didn’t seem to suffer from my evil electric stove’s hot spots. And, for perhaps the first time in my culinary ventures, I didn’t overcook the shrimp. Plus, the marinade worked just as well on the shrimp as it does on chicken and steak.

I’m not sure if it’s that I’m more confident and experienced in the kitchen than I used to be or that my skillet has finally achieved a level of seasoning that’s conducive to not sticking and charring, but I hate my skillet a little less now.

Now if we could just figure out how to make me love my cast iron grill pan…

Check out the Flickr stream to watch the cast iron magic unfold.

-Michonne
Chicago

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