Why You Should Invest In Cast Iron Kitchenware

TRISH DESEINE has found the KITCHEN ACCESSORIES for all seasons, and shares THREE RECIPES to try while using them …



Have you ever excitedly started unpacking a deluxe food processor from its polystyrene nest only to suspect with horror that even if you did have room for all the bits, you will probably never try each one? And have you ever dreamed of owning a magical cooking machine which would take away the stress of perfecting technique and with it, the risk of failure, and then become paralysed by the supposedly liberating, but ultimately daunting possibilities when you read the blurb?

I know home cooks blissfully happy with their Thermomixes but for me these machines put us too much at a remove from the vital enjoyment (not to mention control) of touching, smelling and seeing what’s going on. Gadgets that promise you instant chef-level skills are the cellulite-zapping wonder cream, the six-pack-in-six-days magic powder of cooking. It’s all very well and natural, as you cook and progress (or not) to identify the odd piece of equipment whose beauty or superior design will enhance the pleasure of a task already mastered, but never forget, the skill, the capacity, to cook lies in your mind, your senses and your hands. It is my firm belief, strengthened by witnessing many brimming-overs, flaring-ups, curdlings, carbonisings and downright explosions – that too much pro-equipment tomfoolery spoils the dinner – and sometimes the walls, the ceiling, the blowdry and the shoes.

I am in an intensely nomadic phase of my life. I’m hoping that phase will not stretch too far towards a decade, but for the moment, as my absolute core cooking equipment collection is housed in someone else’s already well-stocked kitchen, I have had to be very strict about what can and cannot fit in there.

Three items I have never been able to do without are my handsome cast iron casserole dishes (or cocottes in French) and my American cast iron skillet. Not only do they make cooking fun, they look perfect poised on the old range in my west Cork cottage kitchen. The pots are by Staub (available at Arnotts), the now cultish French manufacturer originally from Alsace. Created in the 1970s by French dandy and ex-actor Francis Staub, described in a New Yorker profile as having “the air of a lounge singer at peace with a hangover”, the company nearly disappeared after the arrival of microwaves. But in the 1990s (when my love story with it started) cast iron became popular again and Francis went on to handsomely sell out and enjoy life as a free man in 2008. I still remember a wonderful celebratory lunch with him and a lot of champagne in Deauville’s toile de Jouy-clad grande dame of a hotel, Le Normandy. Francis explained “la reaction Maillard” to me (the chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars), why it and the quality of cast iron were so important to the flavour of braised dishes, and how the little nipples (there’s no other word for them, seriously) on the inside of his cocotte’s lids made the condensation from the ingredients drip evenly into the dish, rather than simply running down the sides.

I love my cast iron pots and pans for their air of sturdy faithfulness and the fact that dishes past have all left their mark in the layers of seasoning. In an age where we have become obsessed with applying operating surgery-level hygiene norms to our own kitchens, my reassuringly crusty black pots give me faith in my own immune system. Pragmatically, they are handsome enough to go from hob or oven to the table – even skillets increasingly appear on our tables full of anything from curries to shakshuka to a super-trendy, puffy breakfast pancake, the Dutch Baby. Forget the plastic gadgets, if you haven’t already, it’s time to make a cast iron kitchen investment.

Cherry Clafoutis

The super easy cast iron dessert is good old clafoutis. Cherry is the best-loved version but try a mix of red fruit or even peach or apple if you like …

For 6. 10 minutes preparation / 30-40 minutes cooking

500g cherries, washed, stalks removed, stones left in (warn your guests!)

30g butter

4 eggs

180g caster sugar

180g plain flour

500ml fresh, full fat milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C. Butter the dish, beat the eggs with the sugar until light and foamy, then fold in the sieved flour. Pour the milk in gradually and whisk until the batter is smooth. Add the vanilla.

Set the cherries into the dish and pour the batter around. Bake for 35/40 minutes until the batter is set and the top of the clafoutis is golden.

Serve warm or cold, dusted with icing sugar.

French Daube De Boeuf

A fitting use for a Staub cocotte, this beef stew with notes of clove and orange traditionally uses corrida bull meat, hence the need for a long marinade and slow cook.

For 6/8. 4 hours marinating / 3-4 hours cooking

1kg beef shin

Zest of 1 orange

1 cinnamon stick

2 bay leaves

1 handful flat-leaf parsley

1 sprig thyme

3 cloves

3 onions, chopped

3 carrots, peeled and chopped into small chunks

1 stick of celery, sliced

4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

150g bacon, chopped

750ml red wine

100ml cognac

100g plain flour

3-4 tbsp olive oil

2 tsp tomato purée

1 litre good beef or veal stock (or water)

Cut the beef into chunks and put in a large bowl with the orange zest, cinnamon, bay leaves, parsley, thyme and the cloves. Add the onions, carrots, celery, garlic and bacon. Pour in the bottle of wine, season well with salt and pepper then add the brandy. Leave to marinate for 3-4 hours, overnight if possible.

Remove the marinated meat from the bowl with a slotted spoon and pat dry with kitchen paper. Toss it in the flour so that the chunks are thoroughly dusted.

Heat some oil in a cast iron pot and brown the meat all over, turning it a couple of times. Do this in several batches to avoid crowding the pan and stewing the meat. Add the tomato paste and stir well. Pour in the marinade with the vegetables and spices and top up with the stock so that the beef is just covered with liquid.

Cover and leave on the hob at a very gentle heat for 3-4 hours, keeping an eye on it and stirring from time to time. Alternatively bring to a slow simmer on the hob and then cook in an oven set to 120°C-130°C for the same time.

Serve with steamed potatoes or creamy mash or polenta and some leafy green vegetables.

Pigs Cheeks Braised in Cider and Fennel

A cheerful favourite. Add some apples to the pot 10 minutes before serving if you like.

For 6-8. 10 minutes preparation / 90 minutes cooking

2 tbsps olive oil, plus extra for frying

50g butter

1kg pig cheeks

4-5 shallots

1 tsp fennel seeds

750ml dry cider

200g button mushrooms

2 or 3 firm apples, peeled, cut into quarters

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 160°C/325°F/gas mark 3.

Heat the oil and butter in the casserole with a lid. Brown the meat with the shallots for a few minutes, then pour over the cider and scrap the bottom of the pan to deglaze, bring to the boil and cover. Transfer to the oven and cook for 90 minutes.

20 minutes or so before serving, fry up the mushrooms in a little olive oil and add them to the casserole.

Serve with fresh pasta.


This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this don’t miss our next issue, out Thursday May 4.

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