Like many native sons of California, where the weather’s almost always friendly to outdoor cooking, grilling runs deep in my veins, and I’ll always wear that smoky scent of char proudly. Yet recently I realized that the open flame might not be the only way to enjoy a fine piece of meat or bevy of veggies. Instead, a good sear in a hot pan followed by a short time in the well-watched oven can deliver more genuine flavors — rib eye tastes more like rib eye, lamb like lamb, onion like onion, and so forth, rather than everything tasting a little like barbecue. And as you start exploring the pricier side of the meat aisle and opting for dry-aged cuts, keeping those uniquely savory elements at the forefront of the tasting experience is even more critical.
So for Christmas I asked for my first cast-iron skillet, figuring that the durable, time-tested pan was the best vehicle to ride on this culinary crusade. My mom happily obliged, her research revealing that, although one of the cheapest at around $35, Lodge’s 12-inch was actually considered the best. Since opening it on Christmas morning — and firing it up right away to make the sausage and hash-brown components of our annual breakfast pie — I’ve used the heavy, surprisingly easy-to-clean pan as often as possible. Here are a few of my early success stories.
Dry-Aged Rib Roast: My first triumph was actually before the cast-iron pan arrived, when I seared then roasted in my regular pans a rack of lamb and a dry-aged New York strip that I’d bought from Industrial Eats in Buellton. That convinced me that a dry-aged rib roast would be our Christmas dinner (I assumed the cast iron was coming), so I picked up a three-pounder for about $75 at Whole Foods. I seasoned it with shiitake mushroom salt that my sister-in-law made (another gift, good for umami enhancement), seared all sides evenly as yellow onions and brussels sprouts also cooked in the pan, and then roasted it another 30 minutes or so until medium rare.
Roasted Brussels Sprouts Pasta: I bought too many brussels sprouts for Christmas, so I decided to roast as many as possible on New Year’s Day. And why not sear them first? So I cut them all in half, browned the edges with a little olive oil, and tossed tiny pearl onions and pressed garlic into the skillet at the last frying minute before throwing it all in the oven for 20 more minutes. Then I boiled up some penne pasta a couple minutes short of done, pulled the cast iron pan out of the oven, finished cooking the pasta with a pat of butter and a bunch of grated parmesan in the still sizzling pan, and topped it with shaved almonds for more crunch.
Honey-Seared Salmon:The burly look of cast iron doesn’t scream delicate fish to me, but this Sunday night dinner was the best use of the pan yet. Simmer thick slices of ginger and whole cloves of garlic in butter, and then add skin-on salmon that’s drizzled lightly with honey, lemon salt, and lemon pepper filet-side down. After searing, flip it to skin side, toss in a little white wine and halved scallions, and cook in oven at around 375°F for another 10 minutes or so. Serve with chopped scallions and sesame seeds atop ponzu-flavored jasmine rice.