Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Spinach with Raisins and Pine Nuts -- Catalonia

I recently acquired a copy of A Mediterranean Feast by Clifford A. Wright.  This book is a tome!  At 8 inches by 10 inches by 2 inches in size and over 800 pages, it is impressive just to hold.  But when you open it up and start perusing, you find out it is much more than a collection of recipes.
ISBN 0-688-15305-4
 The inside cover says this:
A groundbreaking culinary work of extraordinary depth and scope that spans more than one thousand years of history, A Mediterranean Feast tells the sweeping story of the birth of the venerated and diverse cuisines of the Mediterranean. ...

The evolution of these cuisines is not simply the story of farming, herding, and fishing; rather, the story encompasses wars and plagues, political intrigue and pirates, the Silk Road and the discovery of the New World, the rise of capitalism and the birth of city-states, the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, and the obsession with spices.  The ebb and flow of empires, the movement of populations from country to city, and religion have all played a determining role in making each of these cuisines unique.
Yes, he teaches you the history of the regions as he presents recipes that typify the point he has been making.  Not every recipe is historical but he does make those connections when he can.  For instance, on page 19 he offers Espinacs amb Panses i Pinyons from Catalonia, and explains
This traditional Catalan dish, also popular in the Balearic Islands, is usually made with Swiss chard.  The dish reappears identically in Provence, Languedoc, Lazio ..., Liguria ..., Sicily, and Attica.  It is also an old recipe in Venice, and Iberian Jews know it as a favorite, too.
So I present to you Espinacs amb Panses i Pinyons, that is

Spinach with Raisins and Pine Nuts

2 1/2 pounds spinach, heavy stems removed and washed well
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, crushed
1/3 cup pine nuts
1/3 cup golden raisins, soaked for 15 minutes in tepid water and drained
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Place the spinach in a pot with only the water adhering to it from its last rinsing.  Cover, turn the heat to medium-high, and cook until it wilts, about 5 minutes, turning a few times.  Drain well in a strainer, pushing out excess water with the back of a wooden spoon.  Chop the spinach and set aside.

2. In a medium-size skillet, heat the olive oil with the crushed garlic over medium-high heat until the garlic turns light brown, about 1 minute.  Remove and discard the garlic.  Add the pine nuts and drained raisins and cook for 2 minutes, stirring, then reduce the heat to medium, add the spinach, season with salt and pepper, and cook until hot and fragrant, about 5 minutes.  Serve immediately.

Makes 6 servings

My Notes
I made a half recipe, using one bag of spinach that came prewashed so I just rinsed it and shook off the excess water in order to have "only the water adhering to it from its last rinsing."  That one bag filled my largest kettle!  I guess if I had made a full recipe I would have to wilt the spinach in batches.

It is important to press out the excess water as the recipe directs.  The spinach was a clump and it held a lot of water, which would have made the dish soggy.

Beware that the hot oil will splatter when you put the drained raisins in -- that can hurt.

I thought that my stove was set to medium-high heat but it seemed too hot when I started cooking the nuts and raisins -- the nuts browned quickly and the raisins puffed up like grapes.  That 2 minutes seemed like an eternity and I was working hard to stop any scorching.  In fact, it was cooking so quickly even after I turned the fire down that I didn't really taste for seasoning and it needed more of both salt and pepper at the table.  Next time I would use a lower heat.

The Verdict
Wow, tasty!  I usually eat spinach raw in salads, so this was a very different experience for me.  I enjoyed the leafy taste of the greens but I really liked how their flavor was balanced by the sweet of the raisins and the toasted, creamy, almost meaty flavor of the pine nuts.  I don't think I even noticed the olive oil in it.  The pepper gave a subtle tingling aftertaste on my tongue.  Success!

What was really nice was how easy it was to prepare and still make a lovely side dish.  Simple yet classy.  I served it with the Icelandic Chicken (see the April 1, 2014 post) for a tasty and filling meal.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Icelandic Chicken

This recipe satisfies both my historical recipe and "another country" goals.  I got it from a website run by Cariadoc, AKA David Friedman, whose recipe "A Tarte of Strawberries" I made and posted on May 15, 2012. The tarte recipe, by the way, is my most-viewed blog post to date.  I had the pleasure of meeting Cariadoc at the Society of Creative Anachronism's West Coast Culinary Symposium last month and was amazed to find out he has been researching and redacting historical recipes for over 40 years.


Icelandic Chicken is from An Old Icelandic Medical Miscelleny, edited by Henning Larson, and published in Oslo, 1931.  


A brief description gives us, "This important Icelandic medical document, containing a curious mixture of superstition and medieval medical knowledge, has been edited from a fifteenth century manuscript found in Dublin."


Cariadoc's web page has a translation and his redaction.  I followed it somewhat, with the exception that I made half the amount of dough and used four boneless, skinless chicken thighs instead of two halves of a chicken.  I thought that was more manageable for myself and my dinner guest.




Icelandic p. 218/D1 (GOOD)

One shall cut a young chicken in two and wrap about it whole leaves of salvia, and cut up in it bacon and add salt to suit the taste. Then cover that with dough and bake like bread in the oven.

5 c flour
1/2 lb bacon
3 T dried sage (or sufficient fresh sage leaves to cover)
about 1 3/4 c water
3 lb chicken, cut in half

Make a stiff dough by kneading together flour and water. Roll it out. Cover the dough with sage leaves and the sage leaves with strips of bacon. Wrap each half chicken in the dough, sealing it. You now have two packages which contain, starting at the outside, dough, sage, bacon, chicken. Put them in the oven and bake like bread (325deg. for 2 hours). We find the bacon adds salt enough.

The part of the bread at the bottom is particularly good, because of the bacon fat and chicken fat. You may want to turn the loaves once or twice, or baste the top with the drippings.

My Notes
The two-and-a-half cups of flour mixed well with the 7 ounces of water and formed a stiff and slightly sticky dough.  I rolled it out to somewhere between 1/8 and 1/4 inches thick, then cut it into four pieces to match the four chicken thighs.  Next I put the sage leaves around each piece.  I guessed at how much to do because the instructions said, "to cover", but I didn't want the sage flavor to be too strong.  What I did was fine and I could have added more without worry, I think.

I wish I had shaped each dough piece into a rectangle before putting on the sage leaves.  That would have made it easier to wrap the thighs when ready.

Next I added 1 1/2 strips of bacon to each portion and placed a thigh on the widest part of the dough.

With some stretching and creative patching, I encased each thigh in the dough.

Ready for the oven!
I baked them at the specified 325 degrees F for one hour and thought the dough needed a bit more time.  At this point juices were leaking out of the packets and the whole thing had the lovely scent of cooked bacon.  I gave it another 30 minutes (for a total of 1 hour, 30 minutes) and declared it ready.

You can see they didn't get very brown but I hoped the chicken was cooked all the way through.  It was and so was the bacon, although I wasn't sure at first because I am used to eating bacon that has been fried and this had a different texture.

The Verdict

Success!  We both liked it although I was not as fond of the dough casing as my guest was.  I mostly pulled the meat out of the dough and ate it that way.  My guest ate each bite of meat with the crust around it and enjoyed it.   

The flavor was meaty, slightly salty from the bacon, with a light sage flavor.  I would have been happy to add more sage or perhaps some other spices for variety.  The top of the crust was crisp and tender but the bottom was tougher and hard to cut through.  Next time I would attempt to keep the thickness even throughout and perhaps cook the packets on a rack so they didn't sit in their juices, which I think made the crust tough.

I had the leftovers a few nights later and thought it was even better reheated.  It seems like the crust had a chance to soften and that the flavors blended better.  I ate more of the crust this time around.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

An Illusion Food -- "Deviled Eggs" for Dessert!

Illusion foods -- foods designed to fool the eye or the palate -- were very popular in the Medieval era.  I have several recipes that describe them but never tried any until today. 

This particular illusion food is of my own design.  The idea came from making a dish called "A White Leach" which is basically milk gelatine that is sweetened and flavored with rose water.  I have made it as a demonstration food and served it sprinkled with edible gold dust over the top.  People who tried it commented that it had the same texture as the whites of a hard-boiled egg.

This got my mind to contemplating the illusion of deviled eggs:  making the leach to look like the whites and then making a filling out of colored marzipan.  So here is my attempt for your culinary pleasure!

I could try this because I have an egg mold made by a gelatine company in the U.S. about 15 years ago.  I recently was told that an alternative is to use a blown eggshell with one end sealed off.

First, the recipe for the leach.  I got the recipe out of The Good Housewife's Jewel by Thomas Dawson, page 89.  These are recipes originally published in 1596 in England.
ISBN 1-870962-12-5
A White Leach

Take a quart of new milk and three ounces weight of isinglass, half a pound of beaten sugar; stir them together.  Let it boil half a quarter of an hour till it be thick, stirring them all the while.  Then strain it with three spoonfuls of rose water.  Then put it into a platter and let it cool, and cut it in squares.  Lay it fair in dishes, and lay gold upon it.

My redaction to work with the mold:

1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 packages of plain gelatine
3 tablespoons sugar
1/4 tsp rose water (optional)

plus corn syrup and some yellow food coloring
Put the milk in a glass measuring cup and heat it in the microwave about 2 minutes.  You want the milk boiling or nearly so.  Sprinkle in the gelatine and stir until the gelatine is dissolved.  This could take several minutes.  Add the sugar and rose water and stir until the sugar is dissolved.

Pour into the lightly oiled mold (a funnel helps) and refrigerate at least three hours.  While this is going on, make the filling.

The Filling   

7 ounces marzipan (I used store-bought)
3 drops of yellow food coloring
1 teaspoon light corn syrup

Oil your hands very lightly, then knead the marzipan with your hands to warm it up.  Flatten it out on a platter, then scatter the drops of food coloring and drizzle the corn syrup over the top.  Roll up the marzipan to capture the liquids inside it.  Knead it until the color is uniformly distributed.  If the marzipan does not feel very soft and pliable, add a little more corn syrup and continue kneading.  

Wrap the result tightly in plastic and place in a plastic bag.  Refrigerate until ready to assemble the eggs.


Unmold the eggs and cut in half lengthwise.  Use a spoon to scoop out a small dent in the widest part of the egg half.  Do this for each half and set aside.

Take the marzipan and cut it into twelve pieces.  Warm a piece in your hand until it is pliable.  Roll it into a ball then hold it in the palm of your hand.

Using the other hand, gently twist the upper half of the ball to form a blunt point.  This makes the filling look like it was piped into the white.

Place the marzipan into the white.  Voila'!  Deviled eggs.  In medieval times, this was called "Farced Eggs."

 Keep cold until you serve it, which should be soon. 

My Notes

I took this to the Society for Creative Anachronism's West Coast Culinary Symposium as my contribution to the Friday night potluck.  I did all the preparation at home, which means the whites had to travel.  I kept whites and yolks in separate containers until it was time to assemble them at the site.  The whites didn't travel as well as I'd hoped and some had split or broken up a little. 

The next thing I noticed is that the filling appeared to be too heavy for the whites.  After an hour or two more whites had split apart.  This could have been because the whites got warm.  Also, when I ate one, I felt that there was too much filling for the amount of white.  I wanted more of a balanced flavor blend and the almond flavoring dominated. 

My solutions are two-fold.  First I think I would make the leach even firmer by using more gelatine in the milk.  Perhaps 2 packages for 1 1/2 cups milk.  Second I would use about half of the marzipan filling per egg.  The bonus part for this idea is that you can now make two dozen halves from one package of marzipan!  Just make a second batch of leach.

The Verdict


I liked it, which to me spells success.  The best part was that people at the potluck (who didn't know I made it) said they were fooled by the illusion.  Those who tried it said they liked it and the broken whites didn't bother them because sometimes the whites of deviled eggs break, too. 

Overall, I loved the flavor combination.  The rose water in the leach was delicate and not overpowering.  It was also so very lightly sweet that it almost didn't seem sweetened.  This was good because the filling was sweet.  The marzipan had a strong almond flavor which went well with the rose water.  The texture combination was interesting, too:  the smooth and cool white with the slightly grainy and firm filling. 

If you try this, please leave me a comment on this board telling me of your results.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Shrewsbury Eastertide "Cakes"

Sometimes judging a book by its cover turns out to be a worthwhile decision.  That's what happened when I came across The English Biscuit and Cookie Book by Sonia Allison.

Published by St. Martin's Press in 1983
I was perusing the cookbook collection in a used bookstore that was new to me.  It was almost time to leave when I saw this little, tan book tucked into the side of a crowded shelf.  On a whim, I grabbed it.  A few days later, I read it.  What fun!

In the introduction Ms. Allison writes,
The biscuit tin is to the English what the cookie jar is to Americans, and no British household would be complete without a store of assorted biscuits on hand for nibbling, as the mood takes one, with midmorning coffee, afternoon tea, and a light night drink of milk or chocolate to soothe away the cares of the day and induce sweet dreams laced with sugar and spice and maybe a sprinkling of nuts for good measure!
She categorizes the recipes as Rolled Biscuits, Unrolled Biscuits, Shortbread Selection (quite a selection!), Savory Biscuits, Petit Fours, and Specialty Biscuits.

The Shrewsbury Eastertide "Cakes" are on page 64, under Specialty Biscuits.  She points out they were mentioned in a publication from the mid-nineteenth century.

2 cups all-purpose flour
pinch of salt
1/4 tsp allspice
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup light brown sugar (I packed it)
1 level teaspoon caraway seeds
1 medium egg (I used large)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 Tbsp sweet sherry 
Gosh, I had to buy sherry.  What a pity!  : )

1.  Sift the flour, salt, and allspice into a bowl.  Rub in the butter until finely blended.  Add the sugar and caraway seeds.

2.  Beat the egg thoroughly with the vanilla extract and sherry.  Add to the ingredients in the bowl.

3.  Using a fork, mix to a soft dough.  Wrap in foil or plastic wrap.  Refrigerate for 45 minutes.

4.  Form into 24 small balls.  Arrange on 3 cookies sheets lined with wax paper or foil, first lightly greased.

5.  Press flat with the base of a tumbler dipped in flour, then prick with a fork.

6.  Bake until light brown, allowing 15 to 20 minutes in an oven preheated to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C).

7.  Cool on a wire rack.  Store in an airtight tin when cold.

My Notes

I used the wire whisk of my mixer to rub the butter into the flour mixture.  When ready, it looked like cornmeal.

The flavor combination of sherry and vanilla smells delicious!

I was concerned at first that I was using a large egg instead of medium.  I thought the dough might be too moist.  However I was surprised at how crumbly soft it was and then I worried it wasn't moist enough.  It did form a ball when squeezed, so I left it as it was before wrapping it.

The dough was still pretty delicate after chilling but held together well as I was rolling the balls and pressing it with the tumbler. 
Rolled, pressed, and pricked.
The Verdict
Success!  I liked them.  They are very much like a shortbread with a dominant flavor of caraway and the sherry, vanilla, and allspice in subtle support roles.  They are not very sweet, which was appreciated.  I preferred the thicker ones as they were a little bit more moist inside.

One batch was slightly overcooked, which means the edges were browner and the whole cookie drier.  That batch went to 17 minutes so I would recommend trying 15 minutes first.  Also the flavor was better when the cookies were completely cooled.

I'm not sure why these are recommended as Eastertide treats and I would offer them year-round.  They are "something different" from the regular cookies we have here in the U.S.

Saturday, February 15, 2014


Today's region of choice:  The Arab States.

The book:  The Arabian Delights Cookbook by Anne Marie Weiss-Armush, published in 1995.
ISBN 1-56565-219-3
It is a charming book because it explores "Mediterranean Cuisines from Mecca to Marrakesh" from the point of view of a woman who married into the culture and lived in it for eleven years.  During that time she learned the cooking and culinary traditions that her peers had absorbed in their childhood at their mother's knees.

Ms. Weiss-Armush's fresh perspective on an ancient culture brings insight to us all. 

She tells us that hummos, a silky protein-rich dip, is part of the mezzah:  "the fascinating array of small appetizers displayed on a multitude of miniature oval trays ... incredible in number and exciting in variety."

Mezzah means "half" and is supposed to suggest "half a dinner" but she is honest in pointing out that she rarely progresses past this phase.  "It is impossible to stop nibbling these wonderful specialties, and the appetite may be satiated rather than stimulated."  She lists savory pastries filled with cheese or meat, fresh or pickled vegetables, olives, bean salads, stuffed grape leaves, torn pieces of pita bread, and of course, dips like hummos.

One thing I noticed about her recipes for the mezzah is that many have just a few ingredients and a few simple steps for preparation.  This makes sense if you are the cook and need to prepare a variety for the afternoon meal.

I love hummos (in my area, spelled "hummus") but have always purchased it.  It just seemed right to learn how to make it so I can play with the flavors and have it handy for impromptu meals.

Hummos (page 33)

1 3/4 cups cooked chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
1/4 cup low-fat yogurt, water, or liquid in which the chickpeas were cooked
2 cloves garlic, crushed with salt
1/4 cup tahini (ground sesame seeds)
1/3 cup lemon juice

Garnish:  olive oil, paprika, cumin, black Middle Eastern olives, minced parsley

1.  Puree the ingredients in a blender or food processor, reserving a few whole chickpeas for garnish.

2.  Add additional tahini and/or lemon juice if necessary until you have achieved a flavor and consistency that suits your taste.  This texture should be thinner than mashed potatoes but with enough body to hold an edge.

3. Spread in an earthenware dish or an oval serving platter, running the side of a spoon around the edge to create a slight rim.  Drizzle with olive oil and garnish with the reserved chickpeas, paprika, cumin, and olives to add a bit of color.  Serve with Arabic bread.

Easy peasy!
The Verdict:

Success!  This couldn't be any easier.  Put the ingredients in the blender--I put the liquids in first to help get the garbanzo beans started--and blend until the whole mixture is smooth, creamy, and uniform in color.

The recipe as she gave it suited my tastebuds just fine.  I felt no need to add anything more.

I've never cooked with tahini before.  It is like a very liquid peanut butter and added a depth of flavor and a slight bitterness that was pleasant.  The lemon juice adds a sparkle and lightness to the overall flavor.

It was fun to sprinkle on the garnishes to make it look pretty.  I think if I was serving it to a crowd, I would have put the hummos in a shallow and wide dish, so everyone could get to it easily.

A dash across the 'net reveals that records of hummos go back as far as the 700s A.D.  The ingredients themselves are ancient but the idea of blending them into a dip is not lost to history.

This was so simple that I want to explore variations on the theme.  I've had a store-bought hummus that was made with white beans and had minced basil mixed in.  I swear to you it tasted like luscious, creamy pesto and I felt sinful eating it on crackers.  Not that I stopped, mind you.

April, 2014 Update:  One 15 ounce can of garbanzo beans held just the right amount for this recipe.  The kind I bought was just beans, water, and salt, so I used the liquid from the can as the required liquid and adjusted the amount of salt with the garlic.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Crêpes Ménagère -- Country Style Pancakes

This month's country:  France!  It occurred to me that I have never made crêpes despite having enjoyed them once in Carcassonne, France, a lovely medieval city near the Mediterranean:
So I dusted off my French cookbook, Gourmet's Basic French Cookbook by Louis Diat, published in 1968, and read in detail about them. 
See page 428
Mssr. Diat points out that "Carnaval -- the period between January 6, Epiphany, and Ash Wednesday -- is the season in France for eating crêpes and beignets."  Since this year's Ash Wednesday falls in March, I realized this is the perfect time for me to give it a go.

He also mentions that 

     Making crêpes over the open fire was part of the fun at the party honoring the  
     unmarried girls -- a party always held on the second Thursday preceding Ash
     Wednesday.  Each girl had to make a cr
êpe and toss it successfully to brown the other
     side -- not an easy thing to do without practice.  But according to the superstition,
     unless a girl could pass the test, she would never get a husband.  After all, what man
     would be so foolish as to marry a girl who couldn't make perfect cr

Oh dear, how could my upbringing have been so deficient?  Now I truly have to make this happen.

Crêpes Ménagère  -- Country Style Pancakes

Sift together 1 cup flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, and 1/4 teaspoon salt.  Beat in gradually with a wire whip 3 beaten eggs.  Add 1 1/4 cups milk and a little vanilla, rum, or brandy.  Mix the batter until it is smooth, strain it through a fine sieve, and let it stand for 2 hours.  Brown the crêpes on both sides, arrange them on a hot serving dish, and sprinkle them with powdered sugar, or serve them with maple syrup or honey or spread them with jelly or marmalade and roll them.

The salt is incognito
Mssr. Diat gives us his words of wisdom and experience, too. 

"Whatever the recipe you use, I caution you not to beat the batter too eagerly; overbeating results in toughness."

"... be sure to use a skillet with a bottom heavy enough to hold the heat well and distribute it evenly. ... Use a pan just the size of the cr
êpe you wish to make."

"Butter the hot pan lightly; brush melted butter on the pan with a pastry brush, or if you like, run the end of a stick of butter over the pan."

"The amount of better determines the thickness of the crêpe; ... Generally, 1 1/2 tablespoons of batter will be enough for a 5-inch crêpe."

"When the butter is very hot, pour in the batter all at once and quickly lift the pan from the heat and tilt it with a circular motion so that the batter coats the pan evenly and forms a perfect round crêpe. ... the batter should spread before it begins to set."

"The crêpe browns quickly; the top side will begin to look dry in less than 2 minutes.  Lift the edge of the crêpe with a spatula to make sure that the bottom is browned, and quickly flip it over.  Never turn the crêpe more than once." 

My Notes

I thought I had mixed the batter until smooth -- it looked smooth and felt smooth.  But when I poured it through the sieve, it was astonishing how many little lumps were there.  I was grateful for the straining advice.

My daughter and I worked on cooking the crêpes as a team and that was wonderful.  We used a cast iron fry pan whose bottom was about 6 inches across.

At first we were experimenting to find the right amounts of butter and batter, so the first few crêpes were less than interesting.  Here's what we learned:

This was too much butter because the batter didn't stick to the pan well during the swirling part.  We were rubbing the pan with a stick of butter and next time we will use a pastry brush dipped into melted butter.  We didn't have to butter the pan each time.

It was helpful to have a little plastic scoop that allowed us to pour the batter in all at once after we got skilled at the right amount.

This is us swirling the batter.  We lifted the pan off the heat, poured in the batter, and started swirling immediately, trying to cover the entire bottom:

This is just the right amount of batter, about 3 to 4 tablespoons.  The crêpe is nearly ready to flip.  It looks dry all over when it is ready:

And here is a flipped crêpe:

 Most of what was made.  Except for the ones we taste-tested!

The Verdict

Success!  This was A LOT simpler to make than either one of us thought it would be.  We didn't need any special equipment and the recipe was simple to make and with easy-to-obtain ingredients.  They cooked quickly and were easy to handle.  They didn't even stick to each other in the cloth!

On top of it all, they were very tasty -- a little eggy, a little sweet, and particularly good with either a sprinkling of cinnamon sugar or about a teaspoon of Nutella.  We are discussing making a savory filling of cooked beef and onions with a little cheesy white sauce to moisten it.  

We are proud to say we both managed to flip a crêpe in the pan and catch it!  We learned that to do this, the crêpe had to be well-cooked so it didn't stick when we tried to flip it.  So now we think that is a great technique to test if it is truly cooked enough.

P.S.  I was curious about the history of crêpes (this type is 20th century) and found a little note on this website:

     On February 2 crêpes are offered in France on the  holiday known as Fête de la
     Chandeleur, Fête de la Lumière, or “jour des crêpes”.  Not only do the French eat a lot
     of crêpes on this day, but they also do a bit of fortune telling while making them.  It is
     traditional to hold a coin in your writing hand and a crêpe pan in the other, and flip the
     crêpe into the air.  If you manage to catch the crêpe in the pan, your family will be
     prosperous for the rest of the year.

So I wish you a happy Fête de la Chandeleur and many caught crêpes!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Seasoning Cast Iron -- An eBook Review

I have a lot of cast iron pans.

The five frying pans are the ones I use in the kitchen most often; I also have a griddle, a fajitas pan, and a variety of cast iron pots and Dutch ovens I use in my demonstration cooking.

Caring for them is a bit of work but also a joy as I love to cook in them.  I learn more about them every time I use them.

One big kettle was purchased for nearly nothing because it was very rusty and ugly.  However some time spent scrubbing it with white vinegar and a wire brush cleaned it up well and made it completely useable.  Since then, its maintenance has been minimal.

We all know that cast iron does best when it is seasoned.  So how do you season it well?  I've always cleaned the pan and rubbed it with a bit of cooking oil once it was dry.  I used to dry it quickly on the stove, but this lead to rust issues.  Now I let it air dry and that works for me.

I knew that sometimes you want to remove the old seasoning, especially if you buy a used pan and want to clean it up before using it yourself.  The two good options are baking it in a self-cleaning oven cycle (Two for one!  A clean pan and a clean oven!) or burying the pan in a bonfire and digging it back out once it is cool.

Sometimes my seasoning attempts resulted in a gummy coating that smelled funny if the pan wasn't used for a while.  Something needs to change here.

So I found this eBook, Seasoning Cast Iron by L. R. LaBella.
ISBN 978-1-4658-8895-2
It is free although sometimes you have to search around to find out who is currently publishing it.  Today I found it here:  http://www.yumpu.com/en/document/view/4538680/seasoning-cast-iron-by-l-r-labella-isbn-978-1-4658-8895-2

It is short and to-the-point, with pictures that show exactly what you need to do.

The key is to have flaxseed oil, purchased in health food stores, because "What we're after is a hard, slick, durable finish.  The best way to get that is with a 'drying oil'.  The only edible drying oil is flaxseed."  The author notes that "Other oils can be used, but the finish won't be as durable."

I had to look around in my local store because the flaxseed oil was not stored on the same shelves as the other oils.  They kept it in a refrigerated area to keep it from going rancid too quickly.  After I bought it, I stored it in the refrigerator, too.

Mr. LaBella's steps are this (some steps paraphrased; some are quoted):

1.  Strip the pan to bare metal.  This is not needed if your pan is new.

My Note:  Bare metal means it looks gray instead of black or brown.  

2.  "Put a bit of oil into the pan.  A teaspoonful will be more than enough.  Rub it into the pan, inside and out including the handle.  I use a paper towel."

3.  "Use another paper towel and wipe out as much oil as you can.  You want a shiny pan, with no puddles of oil. ... thin coats are much better than thick ones."

4.  Bake it at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 60 - 90 minutes; expect some smoking.

5.  Let the pan cool for about 10 minutes.  "Put in another dab of oil, rub it around as before, wipe it off as before, and bake it as before."

6.  "For a really good, durable finish", do five coats.

He also points out that "You still need to use a bit of oil or butter when cooking.  The pan's cooking qualities will keep improving as you use it and the seasoning continues to develop."

To clean your pans after this seasoning process, "you can use soap (not detergent) and a brush or Dobie pad (nylon mesh over a sponge) to clean the pan. ... If a quick soak doesn't loosen something burnt on, use salt mixed with a bit of oil as the abrasive."  I use one of those nylon scrapers that comes with stoneware cooking items and that works well.

He then recommends you towel dry the pan and heat it for a few seconds to evaporate any remaining moisture.  He found that air drying leads to rust.

Then he says to "oil the pan very lightly with cooking oil, wiping out excess oil as before."

He gives the pan a flaxseed oil seasoning coat once a year, just one.


I tried this with all five of my frying pans.  They all had been through the self-cleaning cycle of my oven, then washed and scrubbed with the wire brush and scouring powder.  I won't say they were down to just bare metal everywhere, but there was definitely less seasoning on them than before they were baked.  The inside bottoms looked gray.

Bare metal where it is gray
I used a paper towel to distribute the oil; keep refolding it so one side doesn't get so worn that it leaves behind bits of towel on the pan.  Two towels were good for five pans; I put oil in the two biggest and spread it around to all of the pans.

IMPORTANT:  Baking oil at 450 degrees F can get a little smelly, so do this task on a day when you can open up the windows and let fresh air in!  I had my stovetop fan running at the highest speed while the pans were in the oven, too.  At the end of the day, air in the house was still pretty "seasoned" with a cooked oil smell.   This is not for sissies!

I did 60 minutes per coat; when I had to leave right after a cycle was done, I turned off the oven and left the pans to cool in it.  When I was able to stay after a cycle, I pulled the pans out, let them cool but left the oven on, then started the process over again.

IMPORTANT:  The pans coming out of the oven are HOT!  Use a tough hot pad to protect your hand and arm and know before you pick them up where the pans are to be set on the counter -- have a trivet ready. 

When the pans have cooled for 10 minutes, as instructed, they are still pretty warm so use protection.  I stopped putting oil on the handles when this happened so not to soil my hot pads.

After one coat
The Verdict

Success!  The process works well.  I could tell that the oil was polymerizing because between each coat because the pan went from shiny to matte and the new application of oil didn't really want to stick to the previous layer.

At the end, each pan was dark brown or blackish.  The seasoning was dry.  One pan looked like I had made the coats thicker than the others but it doesn't seem like a problem.

Five coats.  Brown, not rusty.
I tested one pan by cooking eggs (using a little butter) and they didn't stick.  Also they cleaned up easily.

The downside is the smell of baked oil from five fry pans getting coated five times over the length of an entire day.  Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if it was only one or two pans or just one coat.  Knowing this inspires me to maintain the seasoning properly so I don't have to do it again.  I'm not sure I would do this for my other cast iron pans -- maybe just the inside and rims and maybe just a few coats.

One issue I've had with my Dutch ovens is that the seasoning melts off when I make a stew.  Perhaps flaxseed oil won't do that.  If I continue with the process or have any other observations in the future, I'll post updates.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Jing Char Siu Bau -- Steamed Pork Buns (Part 4 of 4)

And Now for the Finale!  Jing Char Siu Bau

This is it -- the part you have been waiting for:  assembling the bau, steaming them, and enjoying the results.

Your dough should be nearly done resting, the filling is made and is nearby with a spoon in it, and you have some sort of steaming area set up, with the water at a low simmer.  The wax paper squares are cut and handy.

To Prepare Buns (see page 67 of The Dim Sum Book by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo)

1. Roll Steamed Bun Dough into a cylindrical piece 16 inches long.  Cut into 16 1-inch pieces.

2. Roll each piece into a ball.  Work with one piece at a time; cover those pieces not being used with a damp cloth.

3. Press ball of dough down lightly; then, working with fingers of both hands, press dough into a domelike shape.

4. Place 2 tablespoons of filling (*author notes to use 1 tablespoon when you are first starting, until you are used to handling the dough) in center of well that has been created.  Close and pleat dough with fingers until filling is completely enclosed.

5. Put buns on squares of wax paper, 2 1/2 by 2 1/2 inches, and place in steamer at least 2 inches apart, to allow for expansion.

6. Steam for 15 to 20 minutes; serve immediately.

These may be frozen after cooking and will keep 2 to 3 months.  To reheat, defrost thoroughly and steam for 8 to 10 minutes.

My Notes

You can roll the dough out by hand -- no rolling pin necessary.
Both the flat one and the ball.  Maybe the flat one could be thinner.

Too much filling for the size of the dough.

The first batch ready for steaming.  On the second, I put in four buns per level.
Heavenly buns.  The bottom two look like those in restaurants.
Mine all came out ready after 15 minutes of steaming.  The sides looked somewhat dry and the balls were puffy.  There was a little steam coming out of the bamboo baskets but not a lot of it.

The Verdict

Success!  These tasted just like the ones I've had in the dim sum restaurants:  slightly doughy and also sweet and savory.  Lovely!  My first few did not have the filling-to-dough ratio I was used to at the restaurants but the later ones did as I got more confident at filling them.

A cut-away view
When the author says, "pleat the dough," I had a hard time at first so the buns came out as smooth balls once steamed.  But I learned that after I had sealed in the filling, I could pinch the dough to make the pleats -- 5 in a star pattern was perfect -- and the final result looked just like what I've had in the restaurants.

Please don't let the four-part posting and the number of ingredients scare you away from making this lovely dish.  It is less work than you might think; you can spread that work out over several days if you want, and still have excellent results.

The leftovers refrigerated well when covered so they couldn't dry out.  I reheated them in the microwave while covered with a damp paper towel.

A bit of history of dim sum:  Wikipedia tells us that
Dim sum is usually linked with the older tradition from yum cha (tea tasting), which has its roots in travelers on the ancient Silk Road needing a place to rest. ...  The unique culinary art of dim sum originated with the Cantonese in southern China, who over the centuries transformed yum cha from a relaxing respite to a loud and happy dining experience. ... While dim sum (literally meaning: touch the heart) was originally not a main meal, only a snack, and therefore only meant to touch the heart, it is now a staple of Cantonese dining culture, especially in Hong Kong.
Chinese New Year is coming up on January 31.  Why not make up a batch or two to celebrate?

Friday, January 3, 2014

Jing Char Siu Bau -- Steamed Pork Buns (Part 3 of 4)

Welcome to Part 3:  The Dough

This stage of the preparation has fewer ingredients and is really quite simple to do.  The main planning part is to let it rest for an hour before you use it to make the buns (see Part 4).  Schedule time to both make the dough and make the buns on the same day.

Steamed Bun Dough (see page 62 of The Dim Sum Book by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo)

2 1/4 cups flour
3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup sugar
3 ounces milk
1 1/2 ounces water
2 tablespoons lard (I used vegetable shortening)
Barely any ingredients!
1. Mix flour, baking powder, and sugar together on work surface (I used a large bowl); then make a well in the middle.

2. Add milk gradually and with fingers (I used a big spoon) combine it with flour mixture.

3. After milk has been absorbed, add water and with fingers continue to work the dough.

4. Add lard, and, again with fingers (I used fingers), continue to work dough.

5.  Using a dough scraper, gather the dough with one hand and begin kneading with the other hand.

6. Knead for 12 to 15 minutes.  If the dough is dry, add 1 teaspoon of water at a time and continue to knead, until the dough becomes elastic.  If the dough is wet, sprinkle a bit of flour on the work surface and on your hands and continue working.

7. When dough is elastic, cover with moderately damp cloth and allow dough to rest for about 1 hour.

And now to rest; perchance to dream
 This dough must be used within 1 to 2 hours of the time it has been made.  It cannot be frozen.

My Notes

In all seriousness:  Follow these directions and all will turn out well.  It won't take long, either.  You'll know the dough is elastic if you can pinch a part and pull it, and it stretches into a sheet instead of breaking. Note that the dough sits on the counter while it is resting, not in the refrigerator.

While the dough is resting, prepare for making the buns by setting up your steaming area and preparing to roll the dough.  I would cut 16 pieces of wax paper at about 2.5 by 2.5 inches, too.

The Verdict

This is so very easy.  I piled the flour mixture in a big bowl so it wouldn't scatter all over while I worked it.  I used a spoon to mix in the liquids so my hand didn't get all gooey.  I used my hand to mix in the shortening because the dough was too thick for the spoon, but it wasn't all that sticky by then.

Kneading is easy because it is not a large quantity.  Just fold the dough over on itself and push the halves together, then rotate the dough, and start again.

Tomorrow's post will show you how to put it all together.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Jing Char Siu Bau -- Steamed Pork Buns (Part 2 of 4)

Welcome to Part 2, The Filling.

Again we have a recipe with a lot of ingredients but easy preparation.  Once the Char Siu is cooked and cooled, you can do this part.  I did it a few days later so the meat sat in the refrigerator.

The recipe says you can make this a day ahead of the dough and that is what I did. 

The Filling (see page 66 of The Dim Sum Book by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo)

1/2 cup onion, diced into 1/4-inch pieces
3/4 cup Roast Pork, cut into 1/2-inch, thinly sliced pieces
1 tablespoon liquefied pork fat or peanut oil
1 1/2 teaspoons white wine

Combine in a bowl:
     1 tablespoon oyster sauce
     1 1/2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
     2 teaspoons ketchup
     2 1/4 teaspoons sugar
     pinch of white pepper
     2 1/4 teaspoons cornstarch
     2 1/2 ounces chicken broth

1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
And sesame oil

To make the filling:

1.  Heat wok for 30 to 40 seconds.  Add pork fat or peanut oil and heat until white smoke rises.  Add onions and cook over low heat, turning occasionally, until onions turn light brown.

2. Add the roast pork, raise heat, and stir-fry to combine the pork with the onions.  Add white wine and mix well.

3. Lower heat and add sauce mixture from bowl.  Stir until entire mixture thickens and turns brown.

4. Add sesame oil and mix well.

5. Remove pork mixture from the wok and transfer to a shallow dish.  Allow mixture to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate uncovered for 4 hours.

The Verdict

I had no peanut oil or pork fat, so I used canola oil.

Following the directions was easy; the only part I was unsure of was how dark brown the cooked sauce should be.

Success!  It looked good and smelled good.  A little nibble confirmed it tasted good.  It doesn't make a large quantity but the final part of the recipe says to put in one tablespoon of filling into the dough.  This should be plenty.

Come back tomorrow for the next part:  The Dough.