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My Cast Iron Love Affair

Yesterday, my beautiful and talented wife Crystal said, "Hey - how about some fried rice for dinner?" Of course she was asking if I could go buy the fixin's from the store and make it for her. "Of course!" I said, and that got me thinking.

Over the last several months I'd been cooking with cast iron, just as a lark. I never really had any special affinity toward the utensil (like I do my knives), but I'd heard stories about cast iron's greatness, and began making some pretty good frittatas, tacos, and quesadillas using cast iron. For Christmas, Crystal bought me a lovely hardback cookbook called Cast Iron Nation by the folks at Lodge (the premier American manufacturers of cast iron) and her nudge further kindled my attraction.

On one Master Chef TV episode, I remember a competitor saying, "No color - no flavor." Gordon Ramsay agreed. I've always been careful to treat my non-stick cookware nicely, and never subject it to excessive heat. But maybe that's kept me from becoming a competition-worthy cook - not enough color. But wait! Enter cast iron. It is literally indestructible, and loves to run hot.

Based on this blazing epiphany, I decided to make the chicken fried rice in my 12" Lodge cast iron skillet. I got it literally smokin' hot (on the biggest gas burner with maximum flame), added some avocado oil (which has a high smoke point), and started with thinly-sliced chicken breast. It was noisy! It was hot! It was messy! It was fast! But immediately after all the excitement, I had, for the first time ever, browned and caramelized chicken just like a real restaurant. (Another trick I learned about stir-frying, is to make that hyphen last a few minutes. Stir. Then wait. Then fry. Then wait. Repeat. You get the idea.)

I was fearless. I didn't care about the spatter, steam or smoke. Next in was rice, which was a bit tricky and sticky, but I forged ahead, thoroughly browning it before stirring, scraping with a straight-edge wooden spatula and releasing those wonderful crispy charred bits. From a separate pan, I added a couple of gently-scrambled eggs, well-fried with browned butter. I turned off the heat, then added chopped scallions and soy sauce, which sizzled and smoked with a flourish. Done. And that was fun!

Dear wifey Crystal said, "This is probably the best fried rice I've ever had." I had to humbly agree.

But the way, cast iron cleanup is a breeze. No soap. EVER. Just take the cooled-down-but-still-warm pan to the sink, run under hot water, and use a stiff plastic brush to clean away the debris. Use a plastic or wooden spatula to gently scrape if necessary. Dry it with a paper towel, place on the burner for a minute, add a dash of oil, then spread with a paper towel. Done. Doing it this way builds a beautiful black non-stick patina that only gets better with use.

Thank you cast iron. Your ability to endure virtually anything short of a thermonuclear blast has emboldened me to become a better cook. (And thank you, Crystal, for making me a believer!)

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