Sunday, April 30, 2017

Cast Iron--The Original Non-Stick Surface

The original non-stick surface

Do you remember the Teflon pans of the 1960's and 70's? They were touted as a revolutionary cooking miracle.
Look, you can cook an egg without butter!
Your macaroni and cheese will no longer stick and make a gummy cheesy mess!
Your family will enjoy low-fat meals and you will save countless hours in scrubbing pots and pans!
But now we know that Teflon, although not "dangerous," should be used with some caution. And, as it ages, the non-stick surface does tend to flake off -- do you really want to eat plastic with your steak?
Teflon sounded like the miracle of the century, but it was never really necessary. Your grandparents had in their kitchen a faithful, durable, non-stick cooking vessel long before Teflon was ever imagined.
The properly seasoned cast iron pot.

Buying Cast Iron, Old and New

Cast iron cookware might have been stored in your grandparents' pantry, but the manufacture of pots, pans, lids, skillets, bread pans, and everything else "cast iron" is still alive and well. Today at your local department store, sporting goods supply store, or favorite household goods website, you can purchase brand new cast iron cookware.
But if you look around at antique malls, flea markets, or garage sales, you are likely to find cast iron cookware that, although looking worn and shabby, can be restored to look and perform just like new.

What's All This Talk About "Seasoning"?

Seasoning is the process of coating an iron pan with oil, baking, and thus protecting the pan. The oil, once heated, cooled, and allowed to dry, creates a impermeable surface. Here's how to do it:
  • Coat the skillet (or Dutch oven, or whatever vessel you are using) with vegetable oil.
  • Bake in a preheated 350 degree F. oven for one hour.
  • Remove from the oven; set aside to cool.
  • Wipe with dry paper towels.

What to Look For When Buying New Cast Iron

  • Enamel exteriors are attractive, but can scratch and chip, rendering your investment less than attractive (and not what you paid for).
  • Pour spouts on both sides are helpful. (You never know when a left-handed person--like me--might enter your kitchen to assist).
  • Handles should be long enough to allow for easy grasping.
  • Look for large "helper handles".
  • Food is less likely to stick to a smooth (rather than pebbly) cooking surface.


If You Purchase New Cast Iron Cookware...

Here are the things you need to do to prepare and maintain your investment:
WASH – Of course you will want to do this. (Who knows what grubby fingers might have touched your precious cooking vessel?) Now, after that loving scrub with hot soapy water, rinse. Then rinse again (just to be SURE that all soap residue is gone). However, don't believe the online posts that say "never use soap on your cast iron pan. I'll explain why in a jiff. Next?
DRY – After your cookware is completely clean, make sure to dry it thoroughly.
SEASON – Use a vegetable oil (canola, safflower, soybean) or melted shortening. Whatever you do, don't use a low-smoke point oil such as olive oil or butter. (Your smoke alarm, nearby neighbors, and local fire department will thank me for this advice).
BAKE – Set your oven temperature to 350 F and place the cookware (upside down) on the top rack of the oven. Bake for at least one hour. (By the way, you should probably place aluminum foil underneath the pan to avoid drippings getting on the heating element.) After the one hour of baking, turn off the oven and allow the cookware to cool to room temperature in the oven — several hours.
STORE – cookware in a cool, dry place. Thinly coat the cookware with cooking oil in-between uses to maintain seasoning.


How to Restore an Old (Rusted) Cast Iron Pan


  1. Remove all the rust: Use fine steel wool to remove rust from all of the affected areas. It might take a bit of patience (and a bit more physical effort), but keep scrubbing until the rusty area returns to raw cast iron.
  2. Wash the skillet thoroughly: After scouring, wash the pan with warm water and mild dish soap. Scrub with a bristle brush or mesh sponge if needed.
  3. Dry the skillet: Thoroughly dry the cast iron immediately with a clean dish towel or paper towels. Don't let it air dry--it will rust again.
  4. Cover the pan with a coat of oil: Apply a small amount of vegetable oil to the entire piece, including the bottom and handle. Use only a small amount to avoid a sticky surface. Don't use butter or olive oil--both have a lower smoke point (that means that they will set off your smoke detectors as the oil on the pan burns off in the next step).
  5. Place the pan in the oven: Place the cast iron pan upside down on the top rack of your oven. Please take the time to place a sheet of aluminum foil or a foil-lined baking sheet on the bottom rack to catch any oil drips.
  6. Heat the pan for an hour: Bake the cast iron for one hour at 350 degrees F.
  7. Let the pan cool before using: Turn off heat, let cast iron cool; now you can start cooking!

How to Use Cast Iron (Old or New)

The more you use cast iron cookware, the more slick with seasoning it will become over time. But there are a few precautions to keep in mind:
  1. Cast iron gets HOT! Be very careful when grabbing a handle.
  2. Cast iron takes a bit longer to preheat and standard pans, and it should be brought up to temperature slowly (don't start out on HIGH heat).
  3. Once your pan has reached the desired temperature, begin cooking. Cast iron will maintain that level of heat, thereby providing a reliable and steady heat source. The pan can also be placed on top of a trivet or towel on the serving table, keeping dishes warm through most of your dinner service.

How to Clean Cast Iron

  • NEVER put your cast iron in the dishwasher.
  • Don't run cold water over a hot pan.
  • Clean the surface of your pan with a stiff nylon brush and hot water. For stubborn food particles, you can also add kosher salt to the pan, and work the brush against the salt to serve as an abrasive. For more stubborn food particles, heat some oil in the pan along with some kosher salt and use a kitchen towel to scrub the surface to remove the particles — be careful to ensure you fold the towel enough to protect yourself from the heat. For super-duper stubborn food particles, boil some water in the skillet for a few minutes while carefully loosening the residue with the brush.
  • Dry the pans thoroughly after cleaning. If you had been using the oven, you can stick the pan in the cooling, still-warm oven for awhile or heat it on the stovetop for a few minutes to make sure all the moisture is removed.
  • Apply a thin layer of cooking oil to the surface while the pan is still warm.
  • Store cast iron cookware in a cool, dry place.

What Cast Iron WON'T Do

  • Cast iron does not heat evenly. So...take the time to heat it gradually and rotate a few times. But, once it gets up to heat, it maintains that heat level for a long time.
  • A well-seasoned cast iron pan is NOT as non-stick as Teflon. You can't dump cold eggs into a cold cast iron pan, heat it with no oil, and expect those eggs to slip out with nary a trace behind. But, if your cast iron pan is well seasoned and you make sure to pre-heat it well before adding any food, you should have no problems whatsoever with sticking.
  • Cast iron pans do NOT like to be soaked. Food stuck a bit? Let it sit and then address the problem when you are ready to do the dishes.

The Benefits of Cast Iron Cooking

  • Cast iron pans and skills will produce the most amazing hash or any recipe that includes crispy potatoes.
  • Want to make the greatest pancakes you've ever eaten or want your French toast to have that heavenly crispy edge? Use a cast iron griddle.
  • Long before anyone thought of a crock pot, there was the cast-iron Dutch oven? 'Nuf said.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

How To Create a Wildlife Habitat

visitors to our back yard

We are Just a Family of Four

In 1992 our family of four moved to a farmhouse in a small town in the Puget Sound area.
Directly east and south of us is the Army base Fort Lewis, to the north is a natural pond, and to the west there is a wetlands area--10 acres which will never be developed.

But, we have many visitors

coyote
Our bird feeders are a swirl of activity all day. Squirrels and chipmunks pick up the fallen seeds from the ground, and chase each other back and forth in the hazelnut trees. Rabbits munch on the clover in our lawn. Possums and raccoons live in brush piles and waddle through the side yard every day. Deer graze on the native shrubs, nestle down and chew their cud in the early afternoon in our backyard, and at night slumber in the cedar grove.
Coyotes certainly announce their presence. I want to hate them but I can't--I know they are part of the circle of life that keeps everything in balance (and their babies are soooo cute!).
And occasionally, in the wee hours of the morning, a brown bear ambles through.
We live in paradise (and the animals agree).

male pileated woodpecker

But (you say), I Don't Live in the 100 Acre Woods!

You don't need to have acres of property to invite and enjoy wildlife. Even if you live in an apartment, you can enjoy a bit of Creation if you have access to a balcony or window from which you can hang a bird feeder, hummingbird feeder, or plant a flower to attract butterflies.

Here's What to Do

According to the National Wildlife Federation, there are four basic elements that need to be provided to invite wildlife:
  • Food
  • Water
  • Cover
  • Nesting
I will give you two different plans--one for small house or apartment dwellers who have limited space, and one for those who have a large(r) outdoor area.

If you have a small space

Everyone needs to eat! Even birds. (It's not just about the worms). Hummingbirds and butterflies can be enjoyed in small places too--even from a space as small as an apartment balcony. Here's how:

BIRD FEEDING TIPS

  • Place bird feeders in locations where cats and other predators can not reach them.
  • Place feeders ten to twelve feet from low shrubs.
  • Clean your feeders regularly with hot water, and let them air dry completely. Also keep areas under and around the feeders clean.
  • Keep seed clean and dry, and watch for mold.
  • Use a seed blend designed for your feeder and the types of birds you feed. Avoid blends that contain filler seeds and grains (sorghum and red or golden millet)--birds usually do not eat these, so they end up on the ground and are wasted.
  • Black oil sunflower seed is a favorite of just about every seed-eating species.


HUMMINGBIRD FEEDING TIPS

  • Hummingbird feeders can be purchased an your local hardware store for as little at $10.00
  • Special nectar is not needed--simply mix 1 part sugar with 4 parts hot water. DON'T add red food dye and don't use honey. White sugar only!
  • Empty and refill the feeder every 2 or 3 days to insure that the sugar water is pure.

Monarch butterfly

BUTTERFLY FEEDING TIPS

Butterflies have three basic needs:
  • a source of water (a saucer of water, damp puddles, or damp sand)
  • native flowers for nectar (they are attracted to red, orange, yellow, pink, purple)
  • Butterflies are not shade lovers--they need full sun to warm their wings and to help them navigate; they need feeding flowers that receive full sun from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. Also when planting for butterflies, choose flowers that are native to your area.

If you have a large space

If you live in a larger space, you have even more options for wildlife habitat. Have you thought about creating a space, not only for birds, hummingbirds, and butterflies, but also for:
  • amphibians
  • bats
  • bees


Amphibians

tree frog
I love the sound of the frogs singing in the pond next to our property. As soon as the sun goes down their chorus begins. At first a low melodic tone, that crescendos--and then amazingly comes to a complete stop! "Why?" I wondered. And then I realized.....they need to stop to turn the page of sheet music.
What are amphibians? Frogs, toads, and salamanders fall into that category. So what differentiates an amphibian from a lizard? Amphibians hatch from eggs laid in or near water. They begin their hatched life with gills, and then as adults live mostly on land, returning to the water to breed.
The only thing they need is a pond--natural or created.
  • If there is a natural pond or stream in your area, keep it healthy.
  • Create a pond if none exists.
The National Wildlife Federation has resources to provide further information. (See "Garden for Wildlife") below.

Bats

Bats need a house.
Yes, I'm suggesting that you construct a house for bats (but not in your attic).
No, they are not evil vampires nor will they nest in your hair.
What they will do is consume insects. Large, copious amounts of insects (would you believe up to 1,000 mosquitoes in one hour?!)
You might be surprised to learn that bats don't always live in caves. Some bats winter in caves, but most spend the summer in trees or under bridges. Unlike bird nests, bat nests are very narrow--they prefer tight spaces (which keep their babies warm).
So, why would a bat need a house (from you) rather than a tree (from nature)? Well, as more forests are clear-cut and housing developments are established where groves of trees used to grow, bats are losing their natural habitat.
Bats need us--and we certainly need them!
The ideal location for a bat house would include:
  • lots of sun;
  • be at least 15 feet off the ground (to protect against predators)
  • have a water source nearby (so the mother bat doesn't have to leave her babies for too long).

Here's a link on how to build a bat house:


Bees

honey bee
There have been many stories in the media that our Nation's honeybees are dying off. Pollution and pesticides are decimating their colonies.
Why is that important? Bees are needed for pollination. But it is not just honeybees that are in trouble. Many "wild" bees, butterflies, and moths are also threatened, and without them you and I will not be able to enjoy the fruits and flowers in our local neighborhoods.
Bee houses can provide nesting and protection for the bees species native to your area.

This is where the action is!

The National Wildlife Federation has a wealth of information on creating habitat (little or large), and how to attract, encourage, and support the fauna in your part of the country.


By providing food, water, cover and places for wildlife to raise their young--as well as incorporating sustainable gardening practices--your garden can join the more than 136,000 Certified Wildlife Habitats™ across the country.



I hope you can find ways to discover the wildlife in your corner of the world.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A Little drum Roll Please...


My new book is available at Amazon. 

My labor over this was longer than April the giraffe's, but well worth it. I'm happy (and now I can get back to the garden).

Monday, April 10, 2017

How to Chop an Onion

I love to watch cooking shows on television--Master Chef, Chopped and the wonderful chefs on PBS. I'm pretty confident about my cooking skills, but am always in awe of how quickly a professional chefs whips through dicing/mincing an onion.

Do we need to chop onions like a pro?

If you are going to be a professional chef, create amazing dishes for an innumerable list of guests, you need to know how to whack through those onions in a hurry! But that doesn't describe me, and probably isn't you either (I'm guessing). We just want to prepare a lovely meal for ourselves, our spouse, our family, our friends or neighbors.
So what's the hurry?

This is all you really need to get started:

  • good-quality cutting board
  • sharp knife
  • firm onion

The Cutting Board - You can "fake" some kitchen tools (for example you can use a mesh sieve in place of a flour sifter, or use a drinking glass as a cookie cutter), but you must have a real, honest-to-goodness cutting board to save your counter tops, your knives, and your fingers and thumbs.
Cutting boards come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and prices. Before making that purchase, consider that wooden boards need to be seasoned with oil. They don't hold up well after being washed in the dishwasher, and can become a breeding ground for bacteria. I avoid them.
My favorite cutting board is the plastic variety. They are easy to keep clean (sterile), don't splinter or chip, and typically have grippers on the bottom so that they will not slide away from you.
The Knife - There are only a few features of a knife that determine its quality. The most important part of any knife is the blade. Although ceramic blades are now the "in thing" and have an amazing sharpness, they are also fragile and can break easily. I prefer forged stainless steel.
The next consideration is the shape, material, and structure of the handle.
  • The shape of the handle should be comfortable in your hand. Pick up the knife, hold it, and imagine using it in your kitchen. Is it comfortable? I'm petite (5 feet tall) and so large tools feel very unwieldy for me.
  • The material of the handle is also very important. Plastic handles will splinter and shatter easily. Look for a polycarbonate--dishwasher safe and sturdy.
  • Another common feature of the best quality knives is that the tail of the blade, called the tang. It should be solidly riveted into the handle. The length of the steel should be visible from tip of the blade to the butt of the handle. If the handle solidly encases the blade, walk away.
But (you might ask), what is wrong with using a cheap knife? Less expensive knives are made from a much lighter gauge of steel which means that they will not keep a sharp edge for very long. The blades of cheaper knives are also often very thin, making them brittle and more likely to break or for the edge to chip. Handles made from wood or plastic perish very quickly and are usually not dishwasher-safe. Also, the blades are not always set into the handle very securely. All of this makes cheap knives more likely to be blunt which forces you to use more force when cutting with them which in turn makes them more likely to break or for the blade to come loose from the handle.
It's important to keep your knives sharp. Dull knives are a safety hazard and can be very dangerous.
The more blunt a knife's edge is, the more pressure it takes to cut something. The more pressure your hand and the knife apply to a piece of food, the more likely you are to slip and cut your finger instead. Sharpened knives also reduce the time it takes to prepare your meals, since your cuts will be faster and more accurate.
The onion - This might seem a little obvious but.....you need to have a firm onion. Any signs of mildew (the black stuff), large soft areas, or serious sprouting means that you should probably send your onion to that great compost bin in the sky.
A squishy onion is not a good onion to chop/mince/dice or slice.

So, are you ready to get started?



  • Begin by placing the onion on the cutting board and slicing off the top and bottom ends. This is a good thing--it now has two flat sides and isn't so likely so roll around and slip away. Flip the onion over to that it is resting on one of the flat ends.
  • Now place the blade of your knife across the center of the upward-facing flat end. The edge of your blade should aim for the center of the onion. Slice straight down.
  • You now have an onion approximately cut in half. Set one half aside (for now).
  • Peel off the skin from one half and then place it on the cutting board, flat side down, curved side facing up. The top and bottom ends should be pointing left and right.
  • Next you are going to slice through the onion from right to left (if you are right-handed) and left-to right if you are a lefty. You will end up with semi-circular sections. (No fingertips please!
  • (For the sake of brevity and my sanity, lets assume from now on that you are right-handed. Only 10 percent of the population--like me!!--is gifted with being left-handed).
  • Now take a moment to read and understand this next step before you proceed.
Depending on how thin or thick you made your slices, you are now looking at one-half of an onion that has been turned into maybe 8, 10, or 12 slices. Take 3 of those slices and lay they down on the cutting board. Turn the stack of slices so that the flat side is near you (south) and the round side is to the north.
Working from right to left, cut through the semi-circles and turn those long curves strips into little chunks. Be careful when you get to the end, because there's not much room for your fingers.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Unloved Vegetable

Each Wednesday during Lent, our church has a mid-week service at 6:30 pm. And, like all good Lutherans, we use this as an opportunity (excuse) to have a potluck dinner in the hour before. I asked my friends at our table "What would you like to see on my blog? I'm looking for inspiration."

"Rutabagas" was the reply. I don't know if they were sincere in their desire to see a recipe for that humble, under-represented vegetable, or if they tossed the name out as a challenge. Whether a joke or an urgent plea, I'm feeling up to the task. Here's my idea for what to do to add rutabagas to the list of hits coming out of your kitchen:

Roasted Root Vegetables
  • Nonstick vegetable oil spray
  • 1 pound red-skinned potatoes, unpeeled, scrubbed, and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 pound butternut squash, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 pound rutabagas, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 pound carrots, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 pound parsnips, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 2 onions, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 large red onion, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 10 garlic cloves, peeled
  1. Position 1 rack in bottom third of oven and 1 rack in center of oven and preheat to 400°F. 
  2. Spray 2 heavy large baking sheets with nonstick spray. Combine all remaining ingredients except garlic in very large bowl; toss to coat. Season generously with salt and pepper. Divide vegetable mixture between prepared sheets. Place 1 sheet on each oven rack. Roast 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Reverse positions of baking sheets. Add 5 garlic cloves to each baking sheet.
  3. Continue to roast until all vegetables are tender and brown in spots, stirring and turning vegetables occasionally, about 45 minutes longer. (Can be prepared 4 hours ahead. Let stand on baking sheets at room temperature. Rewarm in 450°F oven until heated through, about 15 minutes.)
  4. Transfer roasted vegetables to large bowl and then serve.