Grilled Grilled Cheese Spring Sandwich

Late last year I bought a slab of cast iron from the local home improvement mega store. The idea was not to buy a quality cooking griddle, but instead supplement my outdoor grill with a reasonably inexpensive multi-purpose cooking surface.

Delicate grill items, like veggies or fish are fine on aluminum foil, but I figured an outdoor flattop would be so much better.

If I recall correctly, I spent less than thirty dollars on a reversible barbecue griddle. The one I found that fit my dimensions was meant to match into a specific model of barbecue, but on its own sits just fine atop the grill I own.

I seasoned it up with a triple round of oil and heat. Smiled contentedly at my own ingenuity. Stored the griddle in inside the grill and then … winter hit.

Yesterday at lunchtime I was working from home, as usual. As I rummaged through the kitchen I discovered a loaf of freshly baked sourdough, some leftover Easter ham, a big block of cheddar cheese, and an abundance of painfully beautiful spring weather.

Inspiration struck.

I fired up the grill. Brushed the grill plates down a little (still crusty from the over-the-winter storage). And put some fresh oil on the slab of home improvement store cast iron.

I was rewarded for my efforts with a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, fresh off the backyard grill. Hot. Fresh. And in the fresh air.

Ain’t spring grand?

Ten Sweet Desserts Made Sweeter By Cast Iron

If your Easter weekend was anything like mine, it involved a lot of food.

And like many holidays it also happened to involve a lot of sweet desserts. Here’s hoping you got your fill of flavourful delights this year. And for next time, here is some inspiration for how to get you holiday sugar rush with help from your cast iron pans.

1. Cobbler. Almost any fruit will do, but peach or apple slices baked with a crumbly sweet streusel topping can be scooped right from the oven to waiting dessert dishes.

2. Apple Pie. With a flaky pastry crust, a cast iron pan makes for a natural pie pan.

3. Dutch Baby. Call it popover or German pancake, or maybe even a Bismarck, this puffed pastry dish in a cast iron pan is delicate and tasty.

4. Ollie Bolen. My Oma’s recipe for these small, sweet apple fritters was passed down through the generations and we deep fry in our Dutch Oven for New Years every year.

5. Funnel Cakes. Fried in a few centimeters of oil, swirly sweet funnel cakes topped with powdered sugar remind me of being a kid at the summer carnival.

6. Coffee Cake. A standard cake doesn’t do great in cast iron, but the dense, crumbly consistency of a traditional coffee cake works just great.

7. Brownies. Thick and chewy bars of chocolate baked right in a big old skillet. No excuse required.

8. Cinnamon Rolls. Sweeten your sourdough bread recipe and then roll it with butter, cinnamon and sugar. Baked up golden and caramelized are great plain or drizzled with cream cheese frosting.

9. S’mores. No campfire required, a graham cracker, chocolate and marshmallow open faced sandwich toasted under the broiler on a cast iron skillet is a close second to the camping version.

10. Skillet Cookie. A big lump of cookie dough smashed into a small 6 or 7 inch cast iron pan, served hot from the oven and topped with whipped cream and drizzled with chocolate syrup and sprinkles is a sharable hit for kids of any age.

People like lists. I like people. So I’m giving the people what they like. I ran a blog for 16 years and one of the most popular posts ever on that blog was a list of “100 things” that I’d compiled and posted. I’m trying to recreate something similar over the next couple months for the cast iron guy blog. This post will eventually form part of that mega list.

Savoury Avacado Chicken in a Cast Iron Wok

I’ve read all manner of reviews about one of the epic cast iron pieces in my collection, the fourteen inch wok, and it turns out the idea of a big and heavy iron wok is divisive and controversial.

A traditional wok (which I do not own) is an agile tool. It is light. It’s meant to be brought up to screeching hot temperatures in which food is moved, flipped, agitated, swirled and stirred with motion of both a scoop in the hand and by tossing and lifting the wok itself. Wok cooking is truly an art form.

It does turn out however that a residential gas stovetop with modest ventilation is not an ideal place to cook in a traditional wok. On the other hand, a wok-shaped bowl of cast iron is pretty darn good enough to replicate some of the properties of a wok. In fact, having spent the last two years learning how to cook well in my cast iron wok has been a remarkably rewarding experience.

And a tasty one.

Our challenge in the wok has been learning to cook dishes that have a curious cultural legacy here in North America. Not everything cooks well in a wok. Woks have a very narrow purpose even in experimenting across cultural recipes. Again, this may be a sensitive topic for some, but as a result of colonial history and inequalities among those who settled here over the generations, in the twenty-first century we have what I understand is a unique form of cuisine: North American Style Asian food. Or as one of my running pals who hails from Hong Kong reminds me frequently “not real Chinese food.”

What I’ve read is that cooking styles and spices mingled with availability of ingredients and limited by tastes linked back to various European ancestries meant that traditional cooking was almost impossible. Immigrants who crossed the Pacific rather than the Altantic set up restaurants as a means to make a living and a life here. They found that they needed to invent dishes that brought the knowledge and experience from their homelands but would be palatable to western tastes (so people would buy and eat it) so dishes like General Tao’s Chicken, Chop Suey, or Ginger Beef became locally known as “Chinese food” but were never dishes that one would actually find in China.

Fast forward to my kitchen, and decades of savouring those shopping mall food court noodle and rice clamshells of spicy goodness. A cast iron wok in my kitchen and a very Canadian-style of recipe that brings together a mish-mash of cultural and regional styles, ingredients, and flavours that results in many various stir-fry-style dishes something like Savoury Avacado Chicken:

The Recipe.

First, mix up the following as a deglazing sauce and then set aside.

125 ml water
15 ml of cornstarch
small packet of chicken bouillon powder
15 ml of lemon juice

As you heat up the wok to get it screaming hot, mise en place your main ingredients, frying in succession the chicken, then the peppers and mushrooms, then adding the spices and diced avacados until it all comes together into a lovely stir fried jumble.

vegetable oil and/or sesame oil for pan
450 grams chicken breast meat (cubed)
handful red bell pepper (diced)
handful white mushrooms (sliced)

10 ml curry powder
salt and pepper to taste
1 large avacado (diced)
toasted sesame seeds to garnish

Deglaze the whole thing with the boullion/lemon juice mix from earlier, and serve over rice garnished with a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds.

Thus, the controversy of the cast iron wok: not an authentic wok, sure, but I’m not cooking authentic recipes. It all evens out, right?

Cooking an Easy Stovetop Paella

I want to tread carefully into the waters of writing about certain foods. Food always … always, always, always… has rich cultural roots that wrap around people and their own personal and shared histories. I respect that.

I write this because I am aware that some (if not all) of the recipes I make and (often) write about online are steeped in the cultures of other people. And I share these recipes, writing about them here and other places, simply to express the joy I’ve been given in learning to cook those things (and then sharing the results with my family.) It is a way for me to attempt to honour and more deeply understand those cultures, and hopefully pass along that respect. It also makes me long to visit the homelands of these dishes and see how accurately the recipes have traversed time and distance to reach me here in the middle of the Canadian prairies.

For example, Paella.

To me Paella is a dish that feels like it has deep cultural roots, well-known and tracing back through Spanish origins.

We inherited a paella recipe somewhere along the way that recipe has become a regular staple in our kitchen. It’s one we thoroughly enjoy making and eating even though I cannot lay claim to even a single drop of Spanish blood in my veins.

Our Paella Recipe

1mL saffron
1mL salt
1mL paprika

500g boneless skinless chicken thighs (chunked)
150g chorizo
sausage (chunked)
1 whole red bell pepper (diced)
1 medium yellow onion
1 tablespoon of minced garlic
2 tablespoons fresh parsley
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1 cup Arborio
rice
125mL (cheap) white wine
175mL chicken stock

olive oil for pan

The broth and the saffron need to come together for a start.

The chicken then needs to be browned, and separately sweat the onion and pepper. I do this in batches in the same four quart braiser and everything turns out just a little nicer.

The veggies all in the pan, the tomato paste and garlic should be mixed in and fried up together to coat. Shortly after drop in the rice and let that coat up and come together with everything else in the pan. These two steps shouldn’t take more than a couple minutes.

The saffron broth, wine, water, spices, chorizo, and cooked chicken now all go into the pan, come to a light boil, and then are simmered while covered to let the rice cook. You may need to stir this every five minutes or so just so the rice doesn’t get too crunchy on the bottom of the pan.

Stir in the parsley when the rice is cooked and let it stand for a few minutes to set up before serving.

This becomes a rich and delicious one-pan meal and it definitely makes me hope that some day I’ll find my way to Spain to compare it to a more traditionally authentic version of the recipe.