King of the kitchen

I couldn’t be­lieve my luck. Sturdy, large and well sea­soned, this was no or­di­nary cast iron,

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - Globe Life & Arts - Bar­bara Wake Carroll writes

Roasts, frit­tatas, fish, naan – my cast-iron castoff could han­dle any­thing I threw in it

Every chef has their favourite tool – some­thing they can’t live with­out, some­thing they carry with them through every move, some­thing that in­spires them to cre­ate. Mine was an old cast-iron pan. I called it the king of the kitchen: King be­cause it was big, and heavy, and use­ful.

Thirty-seven years ago, I went back to school to pur­sue my PhD while my hus­band left Canada for a year on sab­bat­i­cal. I ended up liv­ing in a posh Wash­ing­ton con­do­minium largely in­hab­ited by el­derly wid­ows and re­tired cou­ples who had down­sized. I grew up in the Prairies and, while I had lived in a num­ber of places and coun­tries, this was my first ex­pe­ri­ence of high-rise ur­ban liv­ing.

The condo came with a mag­nif­i­cent view, aswim­ming pool, 24hour se­cu­rity and a concierge. I had not known what a concierge was or what they did un­til I moved in. One of his jobs was to call res­i­dents every day to make cer­tain they were alive and well. Since I knew no one in the city, this seemed a good, ex­tra mea­sure of se­cu­rity.

The condo came with an­other nice perk: Un­wanted items were of­ten left on a ta­ble in the garbagedis­posal room in case they might be given new life by an­other res­i­dent.

One day, I came across a large, 12inch, cast-iron fry­ing pan. It was a real beauty – clearly far from new, but in good con­di­tion and well sea­soned. Afi­ciona­dos of cast-iron fry­ing pans know this “sea­son­ing” can be a dif­fi­cult feat to achieve and main­tain. The long process of rub­bing in salted oil, re­peat­edly, com­bined with many hours of slow bak­ing will even­tu­ally achie­vea per­fect cook­ing sur­face – es­sen­tially

For more than 35 years, the oven was rarely turned on with­out the fry­ing pan be­ing part of the main event or, at least, part of the prepa­ra­tions. I couldn’t imag­ine my kitchen with­out it. In fact, my in­cred­i­ble pan lived in the oven.

a non-stick sur­face. If done well the first time, it can last for years.

I couldn’t be­lieve my luck. I didn’t un­der­stand why any­one would dis­card such a won­der­ful pan, and I glee­fully took it back to my apart­ment.

I had learned to cook with cast iron on a wood stove at our cot­tage when I was a child and have al­ways had at least two in my kitchen. I use them for ev­ery­thing. While pans that can go from stove­top to oven to grill are com­mon now, in those days they were some­what of a rar­ity.

In the be­gin­ning, I used my new cast iron for frit­tatas, fish and any­thing that re­quired more than the small pan I had brought with me. But it was when I re­turned to Canada that the fry­ing pan came into its own.

We lived in a large, old, Vic­to­rian house and were keen en­ter­tain­ers. For more than 35 years, the oven was rarely turned on with­out the fry­ing pan be­ing part of the main event or, at least, part of the prepa­ra­tions. I couldn’t imag­ine my kitchen with­out it. In fact, my in­cred­i­ble pan lived in the oven.

It was heavy enough to be a roast­ing pan – beef, chicken, duck and even a small turkey. It made won­der­ful gravy and Cre­ole sauce. I could cook enough ground beef with sea­son­ing and ex­tra in­gre­di­ents to make a base for spaghetti or lasagna for a large crowd, or months’ worth of food for the freezer. As it could also be used in the broiler, it was per­fect for mak­ing naan.

About 15 years ago, I no­ticed I could no longer lift and turn my favourite pan with one hand in or­der to drain ground beef. But I adapted. About 10 years ago, I no­ticed that when used for a large roast or small turkey, I would need to ask my hus­band to lift the pan in and out of the hot oven. Five years ago, I had to stop mak­ing my own naan as I could no longer lift it in and out of the oven and broiler. (For­tu­nately, this co­in­cided with the pop­u­lar­ity of store-made naan, so it was not too much of a sac­ri­fice.)

One week­end, I re­al­ized I could no longer eas­ily lift it at all. Just tak­ing it in and out of the bot­tom of the stove was too much for my ag­ing hands and arms. My hus­band would, hence­forth, be re­spon­si­ble for our trusty cast-iron friend, but we both re­al­ized that even this so­lu­tion might not last long.

The fry­ing pan’s days as part of our fam­ily were now num­bered, even though it was still in ex­cel­lent con­di­tion and well sea­soned.

All these years later, it oc­curs to me why I found it on the dis­card ta­ble in the first place. Some­one else had found it too heavy for ag­ing arms and wrists to lift.

My hus­band and I now live in a high-rise con­do­minium build­ing pop­u­lated mainly by wid­ows and other re­tired cou­ples who have down­sized. It comes with a heated in­door pool, good se­cu­rity and a mag­nif­i­cent view of the Ni­a­gara Es­carp­ment. There are also a num­ber of younger res­i­dents in the build­ing.

The in­for­mal cus­tom in this build­ing is to leave small items with some re­main­ing use­ful life near the garbage room in the base­ment or to post no­tices for larger items “to a good home” on the res­i­dents’ bul­letin board.

I thought of of­fer­ing my large cast-iron fry­ing pan to mem­bers of my own fam­ily, but they are well es­tab­lished with well-equipped kitchens of their own. Be­sides, I rather like the idea of my fry­ing pan go­ing on to live a new life with an­other fam­ily. I hope it will re­tain its place as King, a re­spected and val­ued pos­ses­sion in some­one else’s kitchen for many years to come.

Bar­bara Wake Carroll lives in St. Catharines, Ont.

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