The Hot Pan of Endless Convenience

This is not the first time I’ve brought up my mushroom grilling wonder pan on this blog, and it is unlikely to be the last. A summer of backyard grilling and open-flame cooking has done nothing short of cementing my resolve celebrate a years-long (if accidental) effort to season a chunk of generic cast iron into one of the most useful pans in my cast iron collection.

Behold, the barbecue beast.

In fact, one of the first posts I wrote in this space referenced a chance purchase by a naïve young cooking enthusiast a decade prior.

A new gas stove in the kitchen prompted an experimental foray into cast iron.

Frugally, I bought a small pan from a discount department store, a generic import that had no pre-seasoning but a cherry red enameled outer finish.

Cast iron was cast iron, I thought. Tho my lack of experience with the product left me floundering with messes and ruined meals. I struggled.

Admittedly, there is a learning curve when switching from an everybody’s non-stick basic cooking tool approach to a tool that requires care and preparation. I had jumped in the deep end and with minimal research immediately sunk to the bottom of the metaphorical swimming pool.

Years passed.

Further research and interest blossomed a casual cooking fascination into a mild obsession and I quickly expanded my collection of newer cast iron items.

The cherry red pan lacked for a home in my bursting cupboards and for one reason or another migrated to a more permanent home on the backyard barbecue grill, hiding under the lid from rainstorms and winter snow.

Year after year after year.

Back to that accidental effort: it was just sitting there taking up space on my grill, so alongside a steak, some seasoned chicken, or just a stack of hamburger patties I got into the habit of oiling up the cherry red pan, tossing in some veggies or sliced mushrooms, and grilling up a side aside the main.

Year after year after year.

Now that at least half a decade has passed, and my understanding of cast iron cooking has blossomed into a kind of enthusiast-level expertise, countless heaps of potatoes have been browned, numerous broccoli fry-ups have been enjoyed, and endless bowls of garlic mushrooms have topped homemade burgers, the pan is matured.

This cherry red generic cast iron pan still sits inside my barbecue, of course, waiting patiently for the next outdoor cookout, but now as a perfectly seasoned cooking vessel and a prime example of the potential of a little oil, time, heat, and patience has on a black iron surface.

The potential is bountiful and amazing in this barbecue beast, my hot pan of endless convenience.

Smoked Chops

When I was younger our summers always meant smoked pork chops.

I didn’t appreciate it much at the time, but my father had access to bulk buy cases of delicious, thick chops direct from the local processing facility. He did this once per year, ensuring that in our chest freezer lived a cardboard box containing about forty of these special treats, setting our family up for seven or eight really great summer meals.

Then I moved away, went to University, lived my life, started a family, and…

It turns out that these specific smoked meats are not as common in the local grocery store as my easy access to these delectable slabs of not-quite-pork chops seemed to be in my youth.

It also turns out that my wife had a similar experience growing up. Her family also caught the summer vibes of a slab of smoked pork. Her youth was also one of barbecued pink meats and camp meals made from this exclusive, elusive delicacy.

The ties that bind us, eh?

What’s up with smoked pork chops anyways, you ask?

Well, imagine a regular pork chop, but infused with a subtle smoky flavour resembling bacon, edging towards the succulent tenderness of a slice of ham, and all grilled over the hot flame of a barbecue or to a tasty crisp finish in a cast iron pan. Moist. Aromatic. A piece of meat nudged towards the perfection one imagines from a great barbecue, but heated and ready to be eated in less than fifteen minutes.

For some reason we were lamenting our inability to find these chops locally in recent a family conversation. Then last week it was my wife’s birthday. Not thinking anyone remembered that first convo, well, it turned out I was wrong… in a good way. Her folks showed up and (jokey gift kind of people that they are) cracked open a cooler full of smoked chops.

It turns out that if nostalgia could set off the smoke detector as it cooks in a thin layer of hot oil, my nostalgia would be shaped like a pork chop.

It was as good as I remembered. And I appreciate it now.

Fail Up Friday: Forked Cream

If you’ve been reading along for the last few days, I posted a comic earlier this week that tried to find a bit of humour in some recent… um… less-than-perfect cooking efforts.

Thinking about funny ideas for future comic strips means I’ve also been thinking of all the fails I’ve had over the years. Not all of them are funny or even comic-strip fodder. But, some of them would make for short anecdotes that could make for some light Friday blog writing. In other words, I might have a new recurring topic on my hands: Fail Up Fridays, because if you don’t learn from your fails you’re doing it wrong.

We had some down time last night, and the YouTube auto-play was flipping through random videos on the tv in the background. One of the chefs I watch on the regular had posted a new video inventorying some of the techniques she applies to her baking.

Half way down her list was how to make whipping cream by hand.

She measured out the cream into an appropriately-sized bowl, she grasped said bowl firmly by the rim in one hand and with the other took up a whisk. Arm extended and bowl down by her hip she expertly demonstrated the long but successful grind of beating some air into the cream to form lovely stiff peaks and create tasty whipped cream.

Simple, right? Well…

Rewind Twenty-five Years

I lived with my younger brother in university. We shared a basement suite a few blocks away from campus where various friends would stop by to hang out. We were also both dating young women at the time (the same young women who would both eventually become our wives) and being two young guys eager to impress our girlfriends with our cooking prowess (just like sitcom characters) we tried to teach ourselves some basic culinary skills, something neither of us had picked up much of along the way prior to those years.

The lesson I’ve taken away since is that sometimes it’s better to attempt and succeed magnificently at something simple, than to try something complex and fall flat on your face.

One night we tried something complex.

At least it was complex for two guys who owned four plates, a set of cutlery, and an aluminum frying pan between them both.

We tried to make a lemon pie. Y’know… to impress our girlfriends.

My Kingdom for a Whisk

Into a frozen pie shell we poured a lemon custard (a’la powder-from-a-box) and baked.

Into our one and only plastic mixing bowl we poured a cup of heavy whipping cream.

We did not own a whisk. We certainly did not own a stand mixer with a whisking attachment. We did own a fork… and a fork is exactly how we tried to turn the whipping cream into whipped cream.

Tried.

I remember taking turns. I remember getting frustrated. I remember making a mess.

There was no whipped cream on our pie.

Instead, after an hour of effort, there was a slightly-greyish puddle that we’d defeatedly poured atop our lemon pie filling and that despite our efforts to bake and salvage, was not impressing anyone… especially not our girlfriends.

Many years later when we bought ourselves a magnificent red stand mixer, one of the first things I did was spin up a batch of whipped cream to accompany a batch of breakfast crepes. It took less than ten minutes. No one questioned my choice, least of all my wife, but had she inquired I would have simply replied with… “remember that lemon pie we tried to make?”

Our Well-Loved Cookbooks: Cooking with Friends

Bear with me.

Just as I may be accused of jumping on the pop culture bandwagon (following my twitter and news feeds being filled yesterday with the sensationalized announcements that some middle-aged actors from a television show that ended fifteen years ago are having a reunion episode) apparently authors of cookbooks do the same.

Back in 1995, when the sitcom Friends was barely a season old, some bandwagons were jumped upon by a couple of folks who (with motivations unknown to me) published a collection of recipes co-branded with a soon-to-be generation-defining television show.

I don’t remember exactly who or why… but someone gave me this cookbook as I shipped off and moved out of home setting out towards University.

I’d be lying if I told you this book had been cracked open as more than a curiosity in the decade prior to this morning.

But, for a very long time, it was one of approximately three cookbooks I owned.

Was I a fan of the show? Well. I watched it, but mostly because in the nineties as a student without cable television, we watched whatever was broadcast over one of the four channels that reached our apartments via the little rabbit ears antenna.

Yesterday I couldn’t help but open my twitter feed and see countless people promoting the reunion episode trailer that had been posted online. Serious news agencies devoted writers, resources, and space on their properties to dissecting the cultural impacts of a ten-year-long, millennium-spanning sitcom.

I was reminded that I had this book on my shelf.

Still.

On my shelf mixed in among the other mostly-serious cookbooks.

Latching onto popular culture to inspire recipes is not an obscure thing, tho.

Beside the Cooking with Friends cookbook on my shelf there was also (I kid you not) a copy of The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook (which technically belongs to my daughter) and a more recent acquisition Binging with Babish: 100 Recipes Recreated from Your Favorite Movies and TV Shows, which I bought to support Youtuber Andrew Rea who runs a remarkably well-produced and genuinely brilliant cooking channel where he instructs and entertains around a very similar premise. (After I’ve cooked a few more recipes from his book I’ll post a breakdown in a future post.) I’d also be obscuring my fascination with pop-culture-inspired recipes if I didn’t mention that I own a healthy digital collection of PDF cookbooks containing such titles as The Geeky Chef Cookbook, Minecrafter’s Cookbook, The Nightmare Before Dinner and of course The Wizard’s Cookbook: Magical Recipes Inspired by Harry Potter, Merlin, The Wizard of Oz, and More.

All that said, one season in to the show Friends there was insufficient inspirational fodder for the Cooking with Friends cookbook to be anything but a co-branded cash-grab. The recipes are broad and basic. Italian food (because one of the characters is Italian) or coffee-house treats (because they all spend a lot of time drinking coffee in a café.) Later seasons would turn one of the main characters into a working chef (which certainly would have provided some interesting recipes) and revolve entire episode plots around eating, cooking, dining, drinking, and other food-related activities. But little of these stories is to be found between the covers of this book.

The little blue page flag visible in my photo above opens to a page with a recipe for pesto pizza a recipe that, yes, we did cook a few times, using both the pesto and the pizza dough recipe from this cookbook. I don’t recall the characters ever having much to do with pesto pizza… but the pizza was pretty delicious if I recall.

My twitter feed has already forgotten about the Friends reunion episode trailer that was the star of the news cycle yesterday. Maybe the bandwagon has rolled on. I spent half an hour as I started my day with a cup of coffee flipping through the recipes in this old, once-treasured book. It was well-loved, and perhaps now long-forgotten, but it served us well for a time.

Like an old friend. Friends? Friend.