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Ironing your food

October 1, 2008 - Eric Paddock
Frank Chiodo, the owner of Chiodo’s Ferra Cucina restaurant on Warren’s west side, has a thing for iron — hence the name of his establishment: “Iron Kitchen” in Italian.

Chiodo — who runs a pretty good restaurant, by the way — not only collects iron cookware (with dozens of pieces hanging about in his place of business), but cooks with iron as well. You can see iron skillets hanging in the kitchen when waitresses sally back and forth to pick up orders.

Chiodo knows what he’s doing.

There just isn’t a ceramic or a metal that cooks the way iron cooks. It’s heavy; it’s dense; and it conducts heat the way Leonard Bernstein conducted the New York Phil.

I have two pieces of iron in my kitchen: a 14-inch skillet with a lid that I acquired at a retail establishment about six years ago, and a three-quart dutch oven with lid that I purchased at a garage sale about five years ago.

I wasn’t looking for a dutch oven that day. Like most garage sale mavens, I was just looking for a good deal on something I probably didn’t need and would ultimately end up in my own garage sale. But there it was, tucked in the back corner of a garage, its surfaces crusted with rust and the remains of its last meal. It was so foul-looking that guilt prevented the owner from attaching a price tag to it.

“Will you take two bucks for it?” I asked the overseer of corroded golf clubs, incomplete jigsaw puzzles, “gently used” clothing and tacky ceramics.

“Naw, I gotta git five for it.”

As it turned out, he was willing to “git three for it.” It worked out to something like 50 cents a pound.

The thing was outwardly disgusting, but I knew that precious gems are often extracted from worthless soil. I spent almost an hour using a heavy wire brush to remove the rust and petrified dregs of the last thing it cooked. Alas, in the process, the pot lost some of the “seasoning” that comes only with long-term use and misuse. I am happy to report that my dutch oven now looks like it was made from bituminous coal, the same way my skillet looks. And, like my skillet, it is naturally non-stick and will cook perfectly whatever you put in it. If you ruin something in cast iron, it’s your fault.

Iron kitchen stuff thrives on mistreatment. Temperatures that will ruin stainless steel and aluminum make cast iron smile and ask for more. My recipe for seasoning a new skillet is to simply coat the thing with vegetable oil, stick it in the oven and crank it up to about 450 until the oil goes away. Do this a couple times before you cook anything in it. Most of the ones you see in retail stores are marked “pre-seasoned.” Well, maybe, but do it yourself anyway.

A well-seasoned iron skillet will never need scoured. If you burn your bacon and eggs, resist the urge to reach for steel wool. If necessary, use that plastic brush you keep for scrubbing potatoes, or soak it for a while to loosen the fused food. Dry it completely after washing. I like to spray mine with some Pam for storage in my empty oven.

Someday I will inherit a 12-inch skillet that my grandparents handed down to my parents before I was born. How they came by it is lost in the fog of thousands of wonderful dinners over at least two generations. Someone told me that scientists haven’t been able determine the useful lifespan of iron skillets, because they’ve never found one that actually wore out from normal use. The Paddock family skillet is at least 100 years old and just as good (actually better) than the day it was forged in Nebraska. My great hope is that it will still be frying chicken 100 years from now. Next: Tasty pioneering


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