Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi It Gets Better With Age

By Marina Mostar

FEBRUARY 9, 1998:  Black, gleaming, with the slightest scent of something delicious: That's how I remember the cast-iron pots my grandmother used to cook cornbread, crawfish étouffée and corned beef hash. She swore by cast iron. There were just some dishes, she said, that tasted better cooked in cast iron.

There's something undeniably appealing about the heavy cookware. The rugged pots have never gone out of fashion with campers, and even the poshest of cookware brands, Le Creuset, brags that its products are enamel-covered cast iron that have a 101-year guarantee. Cast iron's most important quality is that the whole pot gets very hot and retains that heat in a way that aluminum simply can't. (If you're not used to cooking in cast iron, you may find yourself burning a few things until you get used to it.) While the pots are tough, they have a delicacy to them as well: If you pour something cold into them while they're heated, the stress can literally shear the pot in half. Cast-iron pots can easily last a human lifetime, but they also require a great deal of care.

"You have to season cast iron because the nature of cast iron is to rust when it comes into contact with water," says Billie Hill, a customer service manager with Lodge Manufacturing Company, a cast-iron maker in Tennessee whose pots are locally available. A newly purchased piece of cast iron has a gray metallic color to it; seasoning is necessary to attain the black nonstick surface that is cast iron's hallmark. "What you actually do when you season cast iron is that you put grease into the pores of it," says Ms. Hill. To do that, she recommends using a solid vegetable shortening like Crisco in the can. (Your grandmother may have used lard to season her pots, but this is only advisable if you will cook in them every day.) Warm up the cast-iron pot or skillet, and then rub a slight layer of Crisco all over it, both inside and out. Place the pan upside down in an oven preheated to between 300 and 350 degrees. The pores of the cast iron will open up and absorb the grease. Don't use too much grease, though; the iron can only absorb small amounts at once. Leave the empty pot cooking for an hour, then turn the heat off and leave it until the metal is cool to the touch. Because of the cooling process, it's a good idea to season the pot before you go to sleep and leave it to cool over night. But most importantly, says Hill: "It's not like once seasoned always seasoned. You have to maintain it and keep it up."

In other words, regular seasoning is a necessity. Cast iron will rust if regular seasoning isn't done after each use, and acidic foods (especially tomato sauces) will eat away at a cast-iron pot's seasoned finish. To clean cast iron, you should never use soap. Very hot water and a high quality scrub brush should do the trick. Those unfamiliar with cast iron will be tempted to question the sanitary aspects of seasoning. But if you use boiling water to clean the pot and cook your foods thoroughly, you should have no problems. You should always heat cast iron before putting food into it.

If you're interested in buying cast iron, thrift stores are always worth a look, but usually the pots are snapped up right away or are rusted and in bad shape. Sometimes you can find cast iron at chains like Wal-Mart and Target, but their stock can be sporadic. Fortunately, Chase Hardware near Fourth and Osuna has a nice selection of cast iron, as do several other hardware stores. Another great place to get cast iron in Albuquerque is Keller's Farm Store at Eubank and Candelaria. Cathy Frazier, who buys the cookware for Keller's, says they began stocking cast-iron cookware about two years ago because a former buyer wanted to be able to get pots for himself. As it happened, the customers loved it and started requesting more. Frazier says, "It's the best thing for making tortillas on."

Cast iron is catching on throughout the country. Billie Hill of Lodge says their sales have tripled in the past five to 10 years, and Macy's Department Stores will begin carrying their cast iron this year. She credits cast iron's durability with its resurgence. The old-fashioned pots have even made it to the World Wide Web: "The World of Cast Iron Cooking" at www.mrpotatohead.net is a great site for both newbies and serious cast iron- collectors. There's also the International Dutch Oven Society with its home page at www.idos.com, dedicated to the cast iron pots with high sides, heavy lids and (sometimes) three legs known commonly as (you guessed it) Dutch ovens. Whatever the case may be for the cookware's resurgence, to many cooks, cast-iron pots just can't be beat. Just ask grandma.

Cast Iron Cooked Potatoes
3 or 4 russet potatoes
half an onion
2 strips of bacon
salt and red or black pepper

Put bacon strips in a cast-iron pot over medium heat and let them cook down. Meanwhile, slice potatoes and onions, about 1/2 to 1/4 inch thick. When bacon is thoroughly cooked, remove strips but leave the grease in the pot. Add onions and potatoes. Add salt and pepper to taste; the more pepper the better. Raise heat to medium high. Cook for 15 minutes, turning with a metal spatula. If the potatoes and onions stick to the bottom of the pot, simply scrape them from bottom of the pot and keep cooking. Lower the fire to medium and cover, checking occasionally and turning potatoes until sufficiently cooked, about another 20 minutes. When potatoes break easily under the spatula, they are done. Serve with a tortilla, or even add bacon and scrambled eggs to make a delicious breakfast burrito. Feeds two to three people.

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