A Harte Appetite: Cast Iron Skillet

Jun 22, 2020

“Don't throw the past away.  You might need it some rainy day.  Dreams can come true again, when everything old is new again.”  So go the lyrics to one of the late Peter Allen’s songs, which he once performed on the stage of the Radio City Music Hall, joining the Rockettes’ kickline in the process, the first man ever to do so.

Allen’s characteristic flamboyance shouldn’t obscure the fundamental truth of his lyrics.  Sooner or later, it seems, what was dated is suddenly current, whether the flip phone, mid-century modern furniture, or the plot of every Hallmark Channel movie.

In the culinary world there is no better example of the principle than the cast-iron skillet, an implement with ancient roots that has made a comeback in contemporary kitchens.

The Chinese invented the process of making cast-iron cookware around 500 B.C.   In the early 18th century Abraham Darby, an Englishman, revolutionized the process of making cast-iron cookware and thanks to him cast-iron pots and pans, whether skillet, Dutch oven, griddle, or waffle iron, became dominant in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Well into the 20th century, cast-iron skillets remained popular.  By the 1960s and 70s, however, with the emergence of Teflon-coated aluminum and stainless steel cookware, the popularity of cast-iron pots and pans declined.

But like many cooks I’ve recently discovered, or rediscovered, the virtues of cast iron.  It’s because though ironically not a good heat conductor, cast iron can withstand and retain very high temperatures, making it ideal for producing seared meat, crispy chicken skin, and crusty cornbread.  It can even perform its magic on pizza, chocolate chip cookie dough, and mac and cheese.

If you don’t already own a cast-iron skillet, I urge you to get one (they’re ridiculously inexpensive) and find out why after all these years it’s still hot.

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Steak au Poivre

Intense heat is the secret to the succulent steaks you get at a steakhouse restaurant.  This recipe, adapted from the Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook by Dominique deVito, shows how you can achieve the same effect at home.  Just be sure to stand back when you ignite the Cognac.

2 boneless 8 ounce strip steaks
salt
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
2 minced shallots
2 tablespoons butter
⅓ cup Cognac
½ cup heavy cream

Pat steaks dry and season with salt on both sides.  Coarsely crush peppercorns and press evenly into both sides of steaks.  Heat a  skillet on medium-high until hot.  Add oil and coat bottom of pan.  Add steaks and sear for three minutes on both sides (for medium-rare).  Remove steaks from pan and transfer to a 200-degree oven.  Reduce skillet to medium heat.  Add one tablespoon butter to pan.  Once melted, add shallots, stirring up any bits from the bottom of the pan and cook for three minutes.  Pour Cognac into pan, swirl it around, and ignite.  Once flame has subsided, continue to cook, stirring constantly, until almost boiling.  Add cream and any juices from the steaks, reduce heat and cook until slightly reduced.  Stir in remaining tablespoon of butter and pour over steaks.