I love everything low and slow. I love big fatty briskets smoking over hardwoods, rich stews thickening, and hearty root vegetables basted with salty, peppery oil roasting until they’re sweet and dark caramel flavored. I love coaxing flavor and transforming ingredients. But I also love the magic of a blazing hot sear sealing in the juices of a piece of steak, a perfectly fried, crunchy fish fillet or a steamy-sweet, puffy, eggy Dutch baby that you can get only from a cast iron pan.
There aren’t any beautiful heirloom recipes or generations-old sentiments of the passing down of cast iron pans in my family. We didn’t really require the searing heat and quick-cooking magic of this ubiquitous black, heavy, shallow vessel to simmer, braise and roast most everything we made in our very Russian kitchen. In fact, cast iron didn’t really make its way into my kitchen until much later. I first noticed the black, magic pans when I would visit friend’s homes in Nashville, where I grew up. Every family seemed to have one — they used them for everything: cobblers, cornbreads, chicken frys, fish frys, green beans, collard greens, steak and eggs, eggs and hash and of course bacon. Always bacon. Most women in the south just kept their pans on their stovetops perfectly seasoned with a nice oily shine, always ready for action. That’s the part I think I loved most.
I bought my first cast iron pan very far from the South — in New York City, where my first real tiny kitchen not only lacked storage space but my life also lacked the time to do too much of anything too low or slow. That cast iron pan was always on the stovetop, casting spells, always beckoning me to cook. It became my only cooking vessel, my muse. There was nothing it couldn’t inspire me to do. It made everything smokier, crustier, crunchier and more delicious. Sometimes I just stood by the stove and ate right out of the pan for fear that those crunchy hot bits of fat, potatoes, cheese or meaty burnt ends would be compromised between pan and plate!
My cooking has taken many turns since that tiny kitchen, but the magic remains the same. This pan holds an historic record of every perfectly seared steak, crunchiest fried fish, smokiest, crispiest-edged bacon and epic, fluffy, baked frittatas. No other pan gets hotter faster or does it all, and like everything, seems to only get better with age. I hadn’t really thought about it in that first city kitchen, but I started a tradition with that pan — one that is even more present in my slightly bigger kitchen today. I may start calling it a living heirloom — it still has generations of cooking to do, spells to cast and many more stovetops to rest on.
First published April 2016