Friday, July 25, 2014

Cast Iron History

What is it about cast iron pots and pans that both elevates and deepens flavors?  Cook or bake in cast iron cookware and cornbread, beans, cassoulet, roasted meats, braised greens  and even cakes are more beautiful, fragrant and delicious than foods cooked in glass or aluminum.  Perhaps it is the heavy weight that evenly distributes heat or maybe it is the unexpected presentation of cast iron that goes straight from oven to table, but foods prepared  in that heavy cookware seem to invoke a sense of comfort.

Heirloom Cast Iron Cookware Makes Food Taste Better
Not that we can totally claim cast iron cookware as our own, but Southern cooks treasure these durable pieces and often pass them to the next generation.  Many years ago, my maternal grandmother, Lora Bolick Minton, gave me her large cast iron skillet.  Although it has a lid, I seldom use it, since I usually reserve this pan for cornbread.  Seasoned from years of baking, it is a very heavy skillet and requires both hands to flip perfectly browned cakes onto serving plates.  Years ago, I mistakenly scoured the pan and my next cornbread attempt split in half, with one side landing on the serving plate and the other splatting on the kitchen floor.  After that traumatic experience, I learned to wipe the skillet with a damp cloth and appreciate the years of seasoning in its black interior.

With green beans in season at Heart & Sole, I pulled another inherited treasure from the shelf this week.  In traditional Southern style, Richard's grandmother, Dollie Smith Barlow, used a cast iron pot to cook her beans over low heat for hours.  The family joke was that "Mu" often burned her beans and her home always had a faint hint of scorched bean smell.  I love this particular pot because it is versatile, beautiful and has an intriguing story.  In the mid-1930s, Dollie's family built a stone house and while her husband and children worked to clear the land, Dollie built a fire and filled her pot with wild blackberries.  With the handle and a hook, she suspended the pot over the fire and cooked the blackberries, sweetened with a little sugar, until they were thick and delicious.  Her children remember taking breaks from their labor to grab a homemade biscuit, leftover from the morning's breakfast, and dip it in the blackberries for a makeshift cobbler treat.  Although I have never placed the pot over an open fire, I often picture those children, blackberry juice dripping from their chins, when I use it to cook beans.
Top beans with squash and potatoes for a one-pot meal

Southern-Style Green Beans

3 slices smoked pork side meat
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 large sweet onion, diced
2 quarts canned green beans or 3-4 pounds fresh, washed and strings removed
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon garlic granules
1/4 teaspoon onion granules

Heat oil in a large Dutch oven (cast iron is best), slowly cook side meat until fat renders.  Remove meat or leave in pot.
Add onion and stir to coat with oil, cook until tender, about 4 minutes
Add beans (if fresh, break into desired lengths)
Cover beans with water
Add salt, several grinds of black pepper, garlic and onion granules
Optional: Dash of red pepper flakes for a spicy kick

Place lid on Dutch oven and cook beans over medium heat until they are tender.

*For a vegetarian version, increase oil to 2 tablespoons and omit pork.