A trip to the Lodge Factory Store in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, is a dangerous thing, if you have more cast iron cookware than every other kind combined. My wife Melanie Jane and I went there in December with the purpose of buying Christmas presents for her family, and we came back with seven pieces of cookware, and only four of those were presents.
Pictured is a commemorative skillet for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in Tennessee and North Carolina. It’s the most biodiverse park in the country, and the most biodiverse temperate area on the planet. It’s also surrounded by some of the worst tourist traps in the world.
We bought as presents some of the Wildlife Series skillets, which had Mallards on the back of them, some real cast iron ducks at that. The link will take you to a complete set of the most useful pieces.
I once ran into the top Lodge marketers, at of all places, Salt Lake City in Utah, at an outdoor trade show. In amongst all the ultra light weight camping equipment was a display of cast iron which probably came in at about a ton. I had to check out the Dutch ovens and skillets, which made up most of the display.
I identified myself as being a fellow Southerner, and asked them what the hell they were doing with all this cast iron at a high tech outdoor show. They laughed, and waited until every Western looking person was gone, and one of them said very quietly, “Half the people out here still think they’re cowboys, and have to have our skillets and Dutch ovens. It’s one of our biggest markets.” The new Lodge cast iron care brochure is in nine languages, by the way.
What did I buy in December? My fourth Dutch oven, and I have only had to chase cows on foot.
These are the last two tools in the catalog of devices needed to cook in a brick oven. One is the first tool needed, the other one of the last, but also one of the most important. We’ll begin with my trusty industrial sized mop.
My wife eventually gifted this mop to me after she found it to be too big and bulky to use in our house. I immediately drilled a hole through the handle, tied a piece of accessory cord threaded through the hole into a loop, and hung it on the rafters on the oven. It’s been there ever since.
The mop is the final cleaning tool used before baking either bread or pizza in a brick oven, as the baking is done directly on the brick surface of the oven. The brush takes away the larger bits and pieces, and the mop finishes the job. Usually two passes with the mop is necessary to provide a surface suitable and clean enough for cooking. Some dispensation must be made to provide a way to rinse the mop off between passes-I have a lawn hydrant adjacent to my oven.
This mop occasionally gets set on fire while making pizza in a 900 degree F oven, but the cotton part can be replaced, and has been. I think these are still made in the US, and can be found fairly easily. I also use it for mopping the slate top on my Rustic Cabinet, which is connected to my brick oven. Would also be great swabbing the deck of an eighteenth century frigate.
The first tool anyone starting a fire in a brick oven is going to resort to is a fireplace poker. This one was made by an Amish blacksmith in Ohio. It’s the best I have ever seen, as it can multitask. It’s thick steel and hook end make it perfect for lifting the lids on cast iron Dutch/Camping ovens. Best used with a pair of welding gloves, as it’s only drawback is that it can only reach so far into a brick oven. That’s when the scraper comes in handy.
So gear up and get to cooking. We plan on doing just that again this weekend, unless we get walloped by the tropical storm that is currently lurking on the Gulf Coast. Our current forecast is for two to four inches of rain. Guess that’s why I put a roof over my oven.
I may be the only person in North America who puts dried mushrooms on my Christmas list every year. First on the list are Morels, as they are something of an extravagance, and are five times more expensive than dried Porcini mushrooms.
I always get Morels from the Left Coast, from Pistol River Mushrooms in Oregon, and the quality is always superb. My two favorite Morel dishes are Turkey Breasts in Morel Cream Sauce, and this Morel Omelette. As it was a holiday this July 4th, why not go for the gold?
2-3 large Morels, rehydrated and chopped
1 sweet Pepper, chopped
3 Scallions, chopped
1/4 cup diced Ham
1/2 cup shredded Cheddar Cheese
Salt and Pepper
Diced tomatoes are also great in this, but I forgot to add them. Begin by cooking the pepper and the white part of the chopped scallion in olive oil. Then add the morels. In the meantime, mix the rest of the ingredients together, including the green parts of the scallion. When the veg is cooked, pour in the egg mixture, and have a 400 degree F oven ready. No omelette folding or flipping here.
After the egg mixture has started to set up, throw the whole thing in the oven. Have a cup of coffee and chicory, and listen to Beethoven or Wagner. Then take it out when it’s firm, and serve a couple of people with this. An English muffin goes well with it.
I never use all of the Morel water, as it is always full of grit from the wild harvested fungi. I should start using the method described by Marcella Hazan in the priceless Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. There she describes how Italians will filter dirty mushroom soaking water through paper towels or a fine strainer, and save it for soups and stocks. Now that’s what you call a food culture.
Pot lids are the most underutilized kitchen tools. They save energy, and can also improve greatly the quality of a dish. If you want the pot to boil faster, put a lid on it.
Here we have two distinct styles of lids, the left American and cast iron, and the right copper and French. The American is made by Lodge, the French by Bourgeat. They will be judged by aesthetics, construction, and versatility.
There’s nothing more attractive in the kitchen than a French copper pot with a riveted copper lid. The French are off to a fast start. I once sat next to a fabulously dressed woman at a French movie during an International conference at the University of Illinois. Her three friends were equally well attired, and they spoke only French. I saw her again the next day, heading one of the conference sessions. Turns out she was the French Minster for Culture under President Mitterrand. France 1, US 0.
The US turns this period into a rout. Cast iron lids can make a pan into a semi-pressure cooker, especially those on Dutch ovens. As a student of mine said, who was a professional cook, “Nothing lasts forever, but cast iron lasts forever.” France 1, US 1. Into extra time.
This extra time is going to be a beast. The French lid is like the AK-47 of lids- it fits our pots and theirs. But then off the bench comes the best US all rounder–the cast iron skillet lid.
Is it a skillet or a lid? False choice–it’s both. Too bad it’s not a striker, as it’s shot bounces off the post with a few seconds to go in extra. Could this be decided on penalty kicks?
Not if I have anything to do with it. As Jon Stewart famously said after an actual World Cup was decided on penalty kicks, that was like deciding the NBA championship “with a game of horse.” Buy some of each, and like Scarlett O’Hara, you’ll never go lid-less again. I think that’s what she said.
This 1886 design is so perfect that it is still being made today, and has become the standard meat grinder. (This one has the 1886 patent date on it.) Though this is the hand crank version, there is a pulley available that can be used to hook this up to an electric motor. I happened to see one in use during a cooking show set in Cambodia, where an entire sausage factory was being powered by just one of these grinders.
One of the benefits of this being the standard is that one can be had on the cheap, and I paid fifteen bucks for this one. Someone had put the cutter on backwards, which had made it non-functional. I re-ground and sharpened it, and put it back on the right way. There are also innumerable attachments.
Here’s a vintage grinder plate, a used one, and a new one. The one with the large holes is used with the somewhat deadly looking sausage stuffers, which allows anyone to go crazy making sausage. That’s why I have intestines in my fridge, aka sausage casings.
There’s an even larger version of this, the #33, which is handy if your name is Dr. Lecter.
“If chickens were rare, it would be the most expensive meat in the world.” So said one of the real estate barons in Birmingham. No dish is more Southern than chicken, but instead of fried chicken, let’s go with roasted. Marinate overnight, then roast with the vegetables, and make a gravy with the pan juices–called “drippings”in the South.
For the Saumure (That just means marinade, but everything sounds better in French)
Two quarts Water
Two Tablespoons Sea Salt
Spices-Cloves and Allspice
Herbs-Thyme and Bay Leaves
Boil this, let it cool, and give the bird an overnight bath in the fridge.
For the Herb Butter
Softened Organic Butter (Quantity depends on the size of the bird)
Fresh Thyme and Parsley
Scallions (I grew those)
Grab your favorite roasting pan/pot (mine is cast iron), and put the thoroughly dried chicken right in the middle. Arrange the vegetables around it. Massage the bird with the herb butter, and put it in a 375 degree F oven. Most birds will be done in an hour, or a little more. Then comes the fun part.
After testing for doneness with the old thigh prick method, set the bird on a platter to rest. If the potatoes are not done, put them on to boil. Strain the pan juices and make an old fashioned gravy with a butter and flour roux, milk, and the strained drippings. The gravy will definitely need pepper, and possibly salt as well. The potatoes can be served whole or mashed. Add a vegetable side dish or two, and become the happiest eater that you have been in a while. So much for fried chicken.
This mammoth version of a fire pit actually doubles as an outside hearth, which can be used like a similar arrangement in many colonial kitchens. The key to the set up is the crane from which that dutch oven is hanging.
The crane, like those in colonial kitchen open hearth fireplaces, makes all the difference. The cook can’t immediately control the temperature of a wood fire, but they can control the amount of heat that reaches a pot, by swinging it from side to side, or raising and lowering it up and down via an s-hook. Additionally, the rebar grid at the bottom allows the cook to sit a dutch oven directly over the fire, as in the first photo.
So there are at least three ways to cook here–on the fire, close to the fire, or swinging in the air. And if you just want to use it as a fire pit, the crane is on a hinge, and can swing completely behind the pit.
This was made from an old industrial grade propane tank, so it is recycled as well. An oak fell on it once, and I mean a big one, and it knocked the pit into the ground up to the top of the legs. The only damage was to bend the crane support slightly. We pulled it out of the ground, moved it, and I twisted the support slightly around, and put it back to work. Now that’s rustic.