Sunday, June 28, 2009


Cast iron skillets are a standard in many home and restaurant kitchens. In my last post I discussed a few of the benefits of cast iron skillets. They hold and radiate a lot of heat for browning, they can be transferred into the oven for finishing a dish or for one pan cooking, and they will remain non-stick if they are perpetually seasoned.

Perpetually seasoned? What does that mean?! Let's find out.

This is my skillet after I cooked my mushrooms for the Wing Steaks. As you can see (despite the blurry photo for which I appologize) the pan is quite oily. That's a good thing when it comes to skillets. Actually, I could easily fry an egg in this skillet at this point and it would come off the iron just as easily as it would go on. But that's for another day.

What we want to do with this skillet now is remove the excess oil and the bits of food. We want to clean it without removing all of the oil and we want it to be sterile as well. There are two ways we can do this.

The first way is to add some salt into the skillet along with a little oil. A paste is created for cleaning. The salt acts as a sterilizer as well as an abrasive to remove any bits of food that may have stuck to the surface of the pan. I generally reheat my pan to a moderate heat, add the salt and oil and scrub is a little with a paper towel. Then I wipe the salt out of the pan with a clean paper towel and finish the surface off with a wipe of clean oil. The pan is then clean and oiled and ready to be put away.

The second way I clean my skillet is how I will show you here. Because I used the skillet for mushrooms rather than for meat or fish, I feel this option is safe for cleaning in this case.

Here's how I do it.

First I run the skillet under warm water. I use a scrubby to remove anything that may be clinging to the surface of the skillet. The most important this to remember her is this: DO NOT USE SOAP TO CLEAN A SEASONED SKILLET. NOT EVER! Just a little water and a scrubby will do.

Here you can see that the pan is clean. You can also see that there is still a film of oil on it. That is what we want at this stage.

Here the skillet is returned to the burner and is allowed to heat up to a moderate heat. This will allow the pan to thoroughly dry, will kill any bacteria and will allow the pores of the iron to open up for reseasoning.

A little oil is poured into the skillet and is allowed to heat. This will season the pan nicely which will protect the pan from rusting and will keep it non-stick.

The hot oil is wiped liberally over the surface of the skillet with a clean paper towel and is allowed to cool. Then the skillet can be put away until it is needed again.

Friday, June 26, 2009


Okay, we have the Wing Steak grilled to perfection at this point, and you can refer back to my last post to see how that was done. But I want to serve the steak with a nice mound of sauteed mushrooms and onions on top. And that is really simple to do provided you have one essential ingredient. Heat.

Browning anything in a pan requires enough heat to quickly sear whatever it is you are cooking. For instance, how many times have you ever started out a pork chop or a breast of chicken in a frying pan only to have it come out of the pan with no color whatsoever. Usually the chop or chicken ends up simmering in their own juices instead of browning, right?

Yeah...I know.

The reason for this is a lack of heat. In order to properly brown anything in a pan you need a smoking hot pan. Most of the time the average home range isn't capable of producing enough heat to sear anything. They have no guts.

If I want to brown anything - especially meat - I use a large cast iron pan to do it. This is because cast iron pans are made of thick, heavy steel and they absorb and hold a lot of heat. This steel gets nice and hot and transfers well to whatever you are cooking. Thinner pans hold less heat and transfer less heat as a result.

The other nice thing about a cast iron pan is that it can be put into the oven to finish a dish without having to worry about a handle melting. That's a great feature for braising meats or for finishing a one pan, two step dish.

So, mushrooms taste best when they have a little color on them. This is especially true when served with beef. And, as you might expect, I like to use a cast iron pan at home when I brown them.

Here the cast iron pan is set on the burner. You can see that the pan is lightly coated in oil. This is because the pan is seasoned well. What that means is that a film of oil has developed on the surface of the pan over time and has been maintained after each use. This ensures a non-stick surface.

I have used a lot of pans as a chef. I have used cheap pans that have been great and cheap pans that have been garbage; I have used expensive pans that have been great and expensive pans that have been garbage, but the most important thing to remember with pans is to use each pan for specific things.

This cast iron pan is used for frying. I say frying rather than sauteing because in order to saute, you must jump or flip the food. Nobody flips cast iron. It's just too heavy! So...I fry.

I turn the heat on under the pan and allow the iron to get really hot. This takes a bit of time because it is a thick chunk of steel. I allow 10 to 15 minutes for it to get hot. Yeah...I'm not kidding...I allow that long for the pan to heat. It isn't dangerous to do so. It won't melt, it won't explode and it won't catch on fire. There isn't anything in it. Trust me!

Once the pan is nice and hot, I add some oil for frying. Here I use a little olive oil. Once th eoil is added to the pan I allow it to get hot.

The oil is hitting the smoking point. An oil's smoking point is the temperature at which is begins to smoke. Kind of obvious, huh? This olive oil is an high end extra virgin olive oil and has a smoking point of 375 degrees. So, that is about how hot the oil is after being in the pan for about a minute. The pan, however, is much hotter than that.

I add the sliced mushrooms and julienne of white onion to the hot fat. I allow the mushrooms to brown. I stir periodically. Pretty simple stuff really. Just stir once in a while and allow even browning.

When they are browned enough, I season them with sea salt, cracked black pepper and fresh rosemary. Done deal!

And on the steak they go.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


I think steak and mushrooms is about as basic as it gets. I grew up eating this perfect combination of beef and fungi and have always loved the simple goodness of the one with the other. I honestly can't think of a better match between two foods.

That being said, there are, of course, certain things to consider when attempting to bring the simple into the arena of the gods. It isn't a difficult thing to take a simple dish to a higher level than the ordinary; it just takes a little planning and a little know how.

My mom was a good cook. Actually, she was a really good cook and I have a lot of respect for her ability considering that she was a novice. She was a mom, and she cooked for her family out of necessity and with love. But she learned to cook recipe by recipe and perfected her repertoire over many years of repetition. I sometimes think she could have been a great culinarian had she had a bit of formal training because she had a feel for food.

I bring up my mother for two reasons. First, she passed away a couple of years ago and I really miss her sometimes. Second, she made steak and fried mushrooms often when I was growing up and I think my liking for the combination stems from that fact somewhat.

When I say that a simple dish such as this can be taken to a higher level than ordinary, I simpley mean that if the proper technique is employed for every phase of preparation, the dish can be perfect.

So, how do we make this simple dish perfect? Let's have a closer look!

Here I have two Wing Steaks marinating in a little extra virgin olive oil, freshly chopped rosemary, minced garlic and some freshly milled black pepper. It's a simple and perfect combination for adding a slow, aromatic boost to meats before they hit the grill, the pan or the oven.

These Wing Steaks caught my eye in the grocery store for two reasons. First, I had never seen a Wing Steak before and therefore had never cooked one. Yes...this is true. I had never used this cut before in any restaurant I had cheffed in. It isn't that common here in Canada on restaurant menus so I had never ordered it in. And I have never seen it in the grocery store before either. The second reason this steak caught my eye is because it is a close cousin to the Rib Steak which is my favorite steak of all. So, I simply had to give this cut a try to see if it was good.

I have to say that the Wing Steaks were quite reasonable. They were $7.00 each. Now...I'm still getting accustomed to the difference in meat prices in Ontario as compared to British Columbia, but this was a deal in my experience so I was quite happy at the price.

These steaks are tender cuts. Usually we think of the tender cuts being Beef Tenderloin (fillet), New York Striploin and Rib Steaks. The Ribeye - my ultimate favorite steak - is the Rib Steak with the bone removed.

Another tender steak is the Sirloin, however it isn't truly a "tender cut" and is classed as a semi-tender cut because it can be somewhat chewy. But it is still a nice, flavorful steak.

But let's get back to the Wing Steak!

I prepare a nice bed of coals for the steak in the usual manner as set out in earlier posts. I allow it to burn down a bit and even out for good fast heat for grilling. Yes! I will be grilling these steaks rather than barbecuing them so I want a fast and furious heat.

Remember that barbecuing consists of slow cooking with indirect heat and smoke and grilling consists of fast cooking over direct high heat. The two are very different.

The coals are white hot and the iron is smokin'! . It's time for the steaks!

Psssss! Down they go to be instantly seared. The flame licks up and threatens to burn the steaks on the surface before they are cooked to medium rare in the center. Yikes! What to do?!?! Well...I close the air flow to the fire which in turn cools the flame. I also close the lid to further restrict the air supply and to trap the smoke inside the barbecue. And remember, smoke equals flavor!

Here's an unusual perspective - I took this shot of the action beneath the steaks. It sure looks hot and smokey, huh?

Here the steaks are cooked medium and are brushed with whole butter and are seasoned with sea salt.

Pretty nice, huh? And believe me...they were tasty too!!

The steaks are loaded up with browned mushrooms, onions and rosemary. My next post will deal with the mushrooms for this dish and how to use a cast iron skillet to get them really browned properly. I will also share how to clean a cast iron skillet to keep it seasoned properly. You'll never need another non-stick pan again!

Bon Appetit!

Friday, June 12, 2009

SCRATCHING THE SURFACE - PIT SMOKING 101!'s the first attempt at cooking on the new barbecue. A few nights ago I burned some coals in the smoker box just for the fun of it and I'm ready to dive in now. Just for the sake of keeping things easy, I have decided to smoke some side ribs and some chicken thighs. I have chosen Hickory chips as my wood for smoking and have dusted the meat with a Greek style spice rub.

I decided to use briquettes rather than raw wood charcoal. I like the way briquettes burn and the flavor they give. So, I have mounded the coal in a nice stack in the smoker box and have opened up the damper full. This will allow maximum air flow to help the coals get really hot.

By mounding the coals for lighting, the coals will retain the heat in the middle of the mound and will transfer the heat from one coal to the next better than if they were spread out evenly. When the coals are evenly lit, they will be spread out to form a nice bed of even heat for cooking over

The coals are lit with lighter fluid and are allowed to catch. The fluid is allowed to burn off by letting the coals catch for a while after lighting.

Here you can see that the outer edges of the coals have turned white from the middle out to the outer edges of the mound. The heat is transferring from the center outwards.

Now the coals have lit thoroughly and can be spread out into an even bed for cooking over.

Here some Hickory chips are soaking in water to be used for smoking on the barbecue. The chips are soaked for 30 minutes and then drained well.

The chips are drained in a strainer and allowed to drip dry. They will be added to the fife every 20 minutes throughout the smoking process. In this case, smoking will take about two hours.

The temperature of the barbecue - the main barbecue, that is - should reach between 200 and 225 degrees for slow smoking. I am still a little shy of that target temperature here.

The ribs and chicken are rubbed down with Greek seasoning. That's mostly oregano, garlic and lemon if you didn't know.

The temperature looks good. It's time to place the meat on the grill in the main barbecue and let the smoking begin!

You can see the smoke billowing out of the smoke stack just after the meat is added. The majority of smoke comes from the handful of chips I added to the fire just after I added the meat.

The stack is still open.

Now I close the stack to retain the smoke. It's the smoke which will add the flavor to the meat so I want to keep as much smoke from escaping as I can. In two hours I will have nicely smoked ribs and chicken. A bit of waiting, yes...but the flavor is well worth the effort.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


This is the new barbecue. I assembled it in about one hour with absolutely no trouble whatsoever. The assembly was a snap actually and the most difficult part of the job was holding the smoke box in place while getting the bolts in place. Not a big problem really.

Above is the main part if the barbecue. That is where all grilling will be done and when the smoking of meats will take place. It's a good sized grill too and can hold a lot of food.

This is the smoke box waiting to be mounted to the side of the barbecue. Grilling on a small scale can be done in the smoke box (say, for two or three people) and the fire for smoking will be built in it as well.
Here's a shot of the smoke stack. The stack allows for smoke and heat control during slow smoking.

And there she is waiting to be put into action. I plan to learn as much as I can about smoking this summer and I can't wait to try a brisket and pulled pork in it. Keep an eye out for those and other great summer barbecuing tips.