Sunday, July 27, 2014

Nana's Cast Iron Dutch Oven

I'm getting a little bit away from my usual Information Technology blog, but this is about technology of a different sort.  Technology that brought us from the days of Adam and Eve all the way to today.  I'm talking about a special technology called "cooking" . . .

Those who cook (and generally love to eat what is cooked) are a special breed.  While some cook (and eat) to live, others live to cook (and eat); I certainly fall into the latter category!  I love nothing more than to share cooking techniques and recipes with other like-minded souls.  Most "foodies" are always looking for the next "new recipe" or latest cooking technique.  I, on the other hand, have been searching to find a flavor from my youth . . . a taste of a bygone era.  I speak of my Grandmother Robinson's chuck roast and her incredibly rich, dark gravy - so tasty when served on the meat, potatoes, and of course, her homemade bread!

One thing that I learned years ago is how important a piece of cookware can be to the outcome of a recipe.  In the case of Nana's roast, her cookware of choice was an old cast iron Dutch Oven.  I don't know when she acquired it, but I can only guess that it has been around long enough to feed my mother and her five siblings as they grew up on Cascade Hill in Gorham, New Hampshire between the two World Wars.  My mother said Nana used her Dutch Oven on top of the stove.  From my youth, I remember an old, black, pot but I never really paid much attention to the details at that young age . . . besides, Nana didn't allow too many people into her kitchen when she was cooking, and I never dared to ask questions!  As close as I ever got was at our family's lake cottage, when I would sit on the stairs overlooking the kitchen, watch her cook, and smell the goodness.

Mother told me that she believed the old Dutch Oven was still at the lake cottage where it had been since her passing in 1973.  I asked my Uncle Barney, the present owner of  "Camp" and youngest of my mother's siblings, if he knew where the old Dutch Oven was.  He told me he wasn't sure, but I was welcome to take a look around the camp (both downstairs and up) and see what I could find.  Sure enough, in the cupboard next to where she kept her flour tin and bread board I found it - her Dutch Oven!  I asked my dear Uncle if I could borrow it, to try to re-create her chuck roast and gravy.  He took it one step further and told me that I could have it!  Needless to say, I didn't argue the point!

At some point, the pot had been placed into a plastic grocery bag and tied tight.  The exterior was in beautiful shape, but sadly, the interior bottom was showing some light rust.  I did something I have never done with cast iron cookware . . . I used a steel-wool soap pad and scrubbed the heck out of the bottom!  After I cleaned up the rust, there was a little mild pitting left behind.  I used some 400-grit wet sandpaper to polish out the pitting.  This was followed by a good wash, a coating of shortening, and an hour in a  350-degree oven to re-season the bottom of the pot.  With fingers crossed, I was now ready to try it out!

I decided that the first thing I would cook in Nana's oven would be braised boneless beef short ribs.  This is a dish that I cook regularly (in the oven) and would be a good control to compare the outcome using the Dutch Oven on the stovetop.  Also, the fact that our local supermarket, Shaw's, had the beef on sale this week (buy one, get one free) for a net price of $3.99 per pound!  That didn't hurt my decision-making process one bit!

I started by browning the beef in two tablespoons of shortening melted in the bottom of the pan.  They browned beautifully with absolutely no sticking!  (Yes, my re-seasoning was a success!)  I flavored the beef with salt and pepper and added garlic, chopped onions, celery, carrots, rosemary, and bay leaf to the pot. 

Once the beef was browned, I added one can of beef stock, turned the heat down, and put the lid on.  I lifted the lid to check it after about fifteen minutes.  The meat was simmering nicely, and I noticed an aroma that I haven't experienced in over forty years . . . this pot of short ribs already smelled like Nana's gravy!  Two hours later, I had some white rice ready along with some fresh broccoli that I stir-fried with some olive oil and soy sauce.

I removed the meat and carrots/celery from the pot, and added some freshly-chopped mushrooms.  I brought the pot back to a slow boil for a few minutes to cook the mushrooms.  I put 1/4 cup King Arthur flour (Nana always used King Arthur flour!) and 1/2 cup cold water into a shaker jar, shook it up well, and added it to the stock and mushroom mixture.  I added a little pepper and salt to taste.  Plating was simple and basic - some rice, broccoli, meat, and of course, gravy . . . along with a glass of cold buttermilk!

Mindy mentioned that this was the best tasting gravy that I had ever made.  While it didn't taste exactly like Nana's gravy, it did have a different character and richness of taste than when I make this dish in the oven using a covered enamel roasting pan.  A good meal was enjoyed by all!

So, I guess the next step is to buy about $20 worth of seven-bone chuck roast and really give this thing a workout!  Stay tuned!