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Give it a shot: Cast-iron cooking

What’s Cooking in Illinois: Take a look at how to use a cast-iron skillet, plus a recipe for hearty and nutritious cornbread.

I’m crazy about my cast-iron skillet – it’s my new favorite kitchen appliance, and I don’t even like to camp.

I recently partnered with Scheels in Springfield to do a demonstration of campfire cooking for a special family day at our local Girl Scouts campground. Scheels happens to sell cast-iron cookware, so the marketing department lent me a skillet.

Originally, we were going to cook over a campfire, but decided that might be a bit tricky since you can’t control the heat and timing. The Girl Scouts camp has a beautiful kitchen inside the Leadership Lodge, complete with a gas stove. So I prepared a recipe for Broccoli Cheddar Cornbread four times throughout the day’s event. I added broccoli and cheddar cheese as an easy way to boost veggies and calcium.

Like many, I thought cast-iron skillets had to be treated delicately and were high maintenance, requiring special cleaning techniques and being a bit controversial when it comes to dish soap. I think the idea of having to “season” the pan intimidated me. I found out cast-iron cookware comes preseasoned these days, and it’s a snap to clean. After using the skillet on the stove and baking with it all day, cleaning was easy (no soap allowed, just water and paper towels after an initial cleaning to remove any casting oils that may be on the surface of a new pan), and it came out looking brand-new.

Even neglected and rusted cast iron, like what you might find at an antique store or garage sale, can be easily restored with a little steel wool. It’s important to not soak a cast-iron pan in water or let it stay wet to prevent rust. And you’ll want to dry your cast-iron cookware after cleaning, and then wipe it with bit of oil. I used a paper towel to do that, and it looked brand-new.

Kitchen friend
The process of making a cast-iron skillet hasn’t changed much. Molten iron alloy is poured into a sand mold. When cool, the mold is broken to release the pan. The materials for the mold are then recycled to produce new molds, and the pan is ground down to remove the flashing and smooth the surface. Pre-World War II pans tend to have a more satiny surface than today’s pans, but both work equally well. Earlier pans have become somewhat of a collector’s item.

But whether you buy a new skillet or find a treasure, there’s nothing like cooking in cast iron. Somehow, the pan becomes a kitchen friend. Cast iron holds heat extremely well, and cooking foods in a preheated pan ensures a crispy, well-browned crust. Cornbread does well, as does pan pizza, baked breads, skillet cookies and cobblers.

In my Broccoli Cheddar Cornbread, I liked that I could saute the broccoli and onions in butter, and then use the same skillet to bake the cornbread. You can do the same with meat, searing it on the stovetop, and then finishing it in the oven. When the meat is done, you can transfer it to a serving platter and use the pan to make a sauce. It also makes a great omelet or skillet breakfast.

The key is to find a place to store it so it’s within easy reach — you’ll be using it often.

Charlyn Fargo

Broccoli Cheddar Cornbread
2 (8.5 ounce) boxes corn muffin mix
½ cup whole milk
2 cloves minced garlic
1 (8-ounce) container cottage cheese
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons grated cheddar cheese
1 stick unsalted butter or margarine
1 medium onion, chopped
1 (10-ounce) package frozen chopped broccoli, thawed but not drained

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Mix corn muffin mix, milk, garlic, cottage cheese, eggs, salt and cup of cheese in a bowl, creating a batter. In a 10-inch cast-iron skillet, melt butter. Saute onions and broccoli until soft. Pour batter over the vegetable mixture, and mix together. Sprinkle remaining 2 tablespoons of cheese evenly over top. Bake in oven until golden, about 30 minutes. Makes six servings.

Fargo is a dietitian for HyVee in Springfield. Send recipe ideas to her at [email protected].

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