Heavy, jet black and virtually indestructible, the cast-iron skillet is my second-favorite kitchen tool (the first being my Zwilling J.A. Henckels chef’s knife), and it’s the only pan I reach for when I’m hankering to cook up something hearty.

Just pulling a cooking receptacle of cast iron out of the cabinet puts me in the mood to crank up the heat. The warmth that emanates from my kitchen on cool autumn evenings and football Sundays reminds me how much I love the fall as I stir a stew or fry potatoes in the skillet.

The makeup of the cast iron skillet allows it to get, and stay, frightfully hot. A hard, even sear on roasts before they’re ready to be roasted, or steaks? No problem. And the skillet is superior in creating a crisp, crackling bottom-and-side crusts on bread dishes. Cheeses scorch on the sides; sauces caramelize into a thick goodness at every spot in direct contact with the dark metal.

Near the Cumberland Plateau of the Appalachian Mountains, in the 3,300-person town of South Pittsburg, Tenn., the Lodge company has been making workhorse cast-iron cookware for nearly 120 years. And business is booming, said Mark Kelly, Lodge public relations and advertising manager. A plethora of cooking shows has led to a resurgence in the interest of cast-iron cookware, he said.

“Prior to the influence of the Food Network, home cooks — if they saw cast iron — it was something Granny used. And there were all these phobias about seasoning the pan.”

But seeing celebrity chefs and others embracing cast iron over the years has shown a new generation the usefulness of the products.

“We noticed an uptick, and in the fall of 2010, it really started moving,” Kelly said. “It hasn’t slowed down since. We’re doing incredibly well, and now we’re thinking about adding another production line.”

The company finished a two-year expansion in January, increasing their production capacity by 50 percent. Now, the company produces around 22,000 pieces a day. The 10.25-inch skillet and the 12-inch skillet remain their most popular. They sell products in 50 countries and have more than 2,500 outlets throughout the U.S.

Not surprising, the products are big sellers in Cajun country.

“In Louisiana, the only place we’re not sold, I think, is the confessional at church,” Kelly said. “You can’t make a roux without cast iron.”

Regarding the overseas markets, Japan, Australia and New Zealand are the company’s best markets.

“The thing driving that is even with the strong U.S. dollar, goods made in the United States remain highly respected overseas,” Kelly said.

Cast-iron cookware needs to be treated (seasoned) in order for it to achieve its dark patina and its nonstick properties. A thin layer of oil is rubbed in and heat is added. The reaction — polymerization — forms a thin, plastic-like coating on the surface of the skillet. It’s rugged tough and close to nonstick. (You’re never going to get a cast-iron skillet to be as nonstick as say, something Teflon coated, but c’mon, it’s got attributes on Teflon in spades.)

Cooking high-acid dishes — tomato sauces, wine deglazes — isn’t recommended if the vessel isn’t well-seasoned. The high acidity of these foods will strip the seasoning and could result in food discoloration and a taste of metal. Mine are deeply seasoned and hold up to both just fine.

The more you use a cast-iron skillet, the more seasoned it will become. To clean, simply add coarse salt and wipe the pan or pot when it’s still warm. In theory, you’ll never need to wash it. I admit to using soap and water when I’ve ignored the cookware for, um, days sometimes and the food detritus is really stuck. My skillets have come out none the worse for wear. Just don’t leave the vessels soaking in the sink. Water + iron = rust.

Crispy-Skin Chicken Thighs

This recipe couldn’t be simpler. The trick comes in the preparation and the execution, instead of the ingredients. The key to this recipe is separating the skin from the thighs and scraping any additional fat holding on to the underside of the skin with a knife. The separation allows steam from the flesh to escape instead of steaming the skin. The end result is meat that’s juicy and tender and skin that ends up as crispy as thighs that have been fried.

6 bone-in chicken thighs

2 cloves garlic

1 tablespoon butter

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons canola or sunflower oil

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

On a cutting board, trim the excess fat from the chicken thighs and separate the skin from the meat. Don’t remove the skin entirely, instead allow the skin to “flap” over on the thighs. With a sharp knife, carefully scrape the underside of the skin, taking off any excess fat. For even crispier skin, poke one or two 1/4-inch holes in the skin (don’t cut into the meat.)

Peel and chop the garlic in a small bowl or ramekin, combine with the butter. Microwave on high for about 15 seconds, until the butter is melted. Remove and set aside. Allow the garlic to meld with the melted butter.

Baste the thighs with the garlic butter mixture, add salt and pepper and recover the meat with the partially-removed skin.

In a 12-inch cast-iron skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Place the thighs, skin-side down, in the pan and cook until the skins are slightly browned, about 6-8 minutes. Flip the thighs so the skin is facing up and place the pan into the oven. Cook 40-45 minutes or until the skin is crispy and the meat registers at least 165 degrees. Makes 3 servings.

Per serving: 673 calories; 49 g fat (12 g saturated fat; 66 percent calories from fat); 1 g carbohydrate; 0 g sugar; 359 mg cholesterol; 584 mg sodium; 58 g protein; 0 g fiber.

Quick Sauteed Mixed Vegetables

This dish can be thrown together in a hurry using whatever fresh vegetables you have on hand. The bell peppers and the zucchini give the mix a cheery brightness and the quick sauteeing allows the flavor of the veggies to shine through.

1 red bell pepper

1 yellow bell pepper

3 cups fresh green beans

1 small yellow zucchini

1 small green zucchini

1 ear of corn

1/8 cup vinegar

Salt and pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil

Blister the bell peppers directly over a gas range stovetop until the skin is blackened in several spots. If using an electric range, set on a cookie sheet under the broiler on high for 5-7 minutes or until scorched.

Trim the ends from the green beans and cut into 2-inch sections. Slice the zucchinis into strips, about 1/4 inch thick. Cut the kernels from the cob. Place all the cut vegetables in a large bowl and add the vinegar and salt and pepper. Add the oil to a hot skillet when it shimmers, but before it begins to smoke, add the vegetables. Saute 3-5 minutes or until just softened. Serves 6.

Per serving: 113 calories; 7 g fat (1 g saturated fat; 56 percent calories from fat); 11 g carbohydrates; 6 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 109 mg sodium; 3 g protein; 3 g fiber.

Jiffy Cornbread Variation

2 packages Jiffy corn muffin mix

2 eggs

2/3 cup milk

3 tablespoons sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

2 cups fresh corn (about 2 ears’ worth cut from the cob)

2 tablespoons butter

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup sharp cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Pour the Jiffy mix into a large bowl, add the eggs, milk, sugar and baking powder. Mix gently. The batter should be slightly lumpy. Do not over mix.

Meanwhile, in a hot skillet, saute the corn over medium-high heat with the butter until tender, about 3 minutes. Add to the Jiffy mixture. Scrape the mixture into a greased 9-inch cast-iron skillet and let sit 5 minutes. Bake in the center of the oven until golden brown, about 25 minutes. Serves 12.

Per serving: 242 calories; 9 g fat (5 g saturated fat; 33 percent calories from fat); 34 g carbohydrates; 12 g sugar; 45 mg cholesterol; 431 mg sodium; 5 g protein; 1 g fiber

Meaty Skillet Lasagna

Recipe from “100 Recipes” by America’s Test Kitchen

Do not use no-boil noodles in this recipe. If the curly-edged noodles are especially dry and prone to shattering, you may need to add extra water to the skillet while the pasta cooks.

1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, water

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 onion, chopped fine

3 garlic cloves, minced

1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 pound meatloaf mix (1/3 pound ground veal, 1/3 pound ground pork, 1/3 pound ground beef)

10 curly-edged lasagna noodles, broken into 2-inch lengths

1 8-ounce can tomato sauce

1 ounce Parmesan cheese, grated (1/2 cup), plus 2 tablespoons, grated

Salt and pepper to taste

8 ounces (1 cup) whole-milk ricotta cheese

3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

Place tomatoes and their juice in a 4-cup liquid measuring cup. Add water until mixture measures 4 cups.

Heat oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook until onion begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic and pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add meatloaf mix and cook, breaking up meat into small pieces with wooden spoon, until it is no longer pink, about 4 minutes.

Scatter noodles over meat, but don’t stir. Pour tomato mixture and tomato sauce over noodles, cover, and bring to simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until noodles are tender, about 20 minutes.

Off heat, stir in 1/2 cup Parmesan and season with salt and pepper to taste. Dollop heaping tablespoons of ricotta over top, cover and let sit for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with basil and remaining 2 tablespoons Parmesan. Serves 6.

Per serving: 461 calories; 20 g fat (8 g saturated fat; 39 percent calories from fat); 42 g carbohydrates; 5 g sugar; 75 mg cholesterol; 589 mg sodium; 27 g protein; 3 g fiber.

How to season (or re-season) cast-iron cookware

Wash the cookware with hot, soapy water and a stiff brush.

Rinse and dry completely.

Apply a very thin, even coating of melted solid vegetable shortening (or cooking oil) to the cookware inside and out .

Place aluminum foil on the bottom rack of the oven to catch any dripping, and set temperature to 350-400 degrees.

Place cookware upside down on the top rack of the oven.

Bake the cookware for at least one hour. After the hour, turn the oven off and let the cookware cool in the oven.

Repeat, if necessary, to get the classic black patina.

Source: Lodge Cast Iron

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