Gastronomical Gear, Volume 2: Pans

Outside of your knives, the cooking implements that come in contact with the food the most are definitely the pans. There is certainly a ridiculous amount of variety and choice in the world of pans, and a lot of terminology that is thrown around. What you need from a pan, conversely, is quite simple. You don't want your food to stick. You want the pan to get hot, stay hot, and transfer that heat to your food evenly.

As we strive to reduce our impact and encourage a healthier and more responsible diet, one thing that is constantly overlooked is the affect what we use to cook, not just what we cook, can have on our bodies. I'm not going to get into the science or health aspects of Teflon and non-stick cookware. All I need to know is that Teflon pans, when heated to a certain temperature (say, smoking hot to sear a piece of meat) release certain toxic gases into the air. Gases that kill pet birds. Frankly, I'd rather not inhale.

Alternatives, you ask?

Cast-iron skillets are 'preferred by chefs,' and for good reason. With proper treatment, they develop a better non-stick coating than their Teflon counterparts, and they'll last a lifetime. That's a lot more than you can say for most cookware. All the non-stick pans I've used in the past were only non-stick quite temporarily.

When I cook, I like to have control over what goes into my food, and with cast-iron, I know because I put it there. Certainly there's a little more upkeep involved in cast-iron cookware, but the results, involving both the food and those consuming it, are well worth the extra time needed to season, clean, and dry.

Surely there are a lot of options within the cast-iron world, and they can be quite expensive. The Le Creuset lines are beautiful, colorful, and enameled to protect the outside of the cookware, but they are quite pricey. Personally, I prefer the rugged beauty of the Lodge pans, and while the outside needs attention to prevent rust much like the inside needs attention, I don't mind giving it. Like I've said, a well-maintained cast-iron set can last a lifetime. Or two.

For my personal use, I have an 8" and a 12" cast iron skillet, as well as this cast-iron grill pan.

These three fill darn near every culinary need, and outside of a few instances, do most of my cooking.

I do like to keep a nice, clad, stainless pan around for certain applications, usually involving acids, that would be detrimental to my cast-iron. An aluminum pan would serve the same function, and at a lower price.

Say searing a chicken breast and then using the drippings to make a pan sauce. Something that would involved de-glazing the pan with alcohol, probably wine (or maybe Bourbon) and that is not something I like to do with cast-iron cookware.

The copper cladding in this pan is really nice as it adds that 'get hot and stay hot' quality of cast-iron and heats the food quite evenly.

While the cast-iron and stainless do provide me with 99% of my pan needs, there are a couple of applications (namely Crepes and Omelettes) than I keep a small Teflon pan around for. You have to be careful not to heat the pan too high and certainly not use metal tools, but the Teflon pan is nice for a handful of applications. I would never spend the big bucks on some of the flashy Teflon cookware out there when the inexpensive restaurant supply brand pans do the trick for a fraction of the price.

As with most things, there is no wrong or right, just what works for you. If you're in the market for cookware, I would definitely advise you to look towards cast-iron and avoid the many pitfalls of over-priced non-stick cookware. They have their place in a kitchen, it's just a very small one.


It Was a Blogger Bash

Kudos to Austin360.com, Whole Foods, and Go Texan for hosting (what will hopefully be an annual event,) the Food and Wine Blogger Bash last night. With cooking demos from Tyson Cole and Jesse Griffiths as well as a Texas Two-Sip blind wine tasting the event entertained the palette as well as the mind.


Workin' Hard

Apologies for the lack of posts over the last week, but I've been quite busy at work, opening the new location of Zoot Restaurant. The website isn't updated, but the new digs at 11715 Bee Caves Road are bigger, better and officially open for business. Bringing you the same Zoot with a new bar area and more seating, as well as a beautiful patio area. Come out and see us, you will not be disappointed.


Brine + Swine = Divine

One technique that should be in every cook's repertoire is Brining. Nothing helps to add flavor, moisture and tenderness like a salty bath. While there are certainly a lot of recipes and ratios for brining, there is no steadfast set-in-stone combination, so try what you like and adjust accordingly. Few proteins respond as well to brining or result quite as nicely as Pork. One taste of the delicious results and you'll seldom cook swine without some time in a brine.

Beer-Brined Pork Chops with Yellow Tomato Marmalade, Herbed Gnocchi Romana and Wild Mushroom Succotash
(Recipe serves 2-3)

For the Brine:
1 cup Beer (I used Paulaner Hefeweizen, use whatever you'd like)
1/2 cup Water
1/4 cup Kosher Salt
1/4 cup Cane Sugar

Combine all and whisk to dissolve.
(Using a room-temperature beer is advised, the salt/sugar will dissolve quicker.)
Pour over:

2 Center-Cut Pork Chops (Niman Ranch beauties)

Brine anywhere from 30 minutes up to 4 hours. (The thicker the chops, the longer you can leave them in.)
When you're ready to cook, remove the chops from the brine, and give them a rinse.
Pat dry with paper towels.
Let rest (refrigerated) for 30 minutes to an hour. This allows for even distribution of the brine flavors.
Score the fat (if your chops have fat on the edges) to prevent them from curling while they cook.

Season with salt (less than your normal amount) and pepper.
In a hot skillet lightly coated with oil, sear chops on both sides until golden brown. (Save the skillet for the Succotash.)

Finish chops in a 350F oven. (I prefer mine medium, avoid the common mistake of over-cooking pork, it'll be much more delicious.)
(Note: Meat that has been brined will maintain a pink-ish hue even when cooked through.)
Rest and serve.

For the Gnocchi Romana:
1/4 cup Semolina (easy to find, near the flour, etc.)
3/4 cup Chicken Stock
1/4 cup Milk
1 Egg Yolk
2 oz. grated Parmiggiano
1 oz. chopped Herbs (I used a combination of Parsely, Oregano, Thyme and Rosemary)

Bring stock and milk to a boil.
Add Semolina, lower heat and cook, stirring until thickened.

Off of the heat, add cheese and herbs.
Season to taste.
Stir in the egg yolk.
Add the dough to butter/oiled muffin tins, cover with plastic wrap and press into shape.

Refrigerate about an hour (or until you're ready to cook.)
Remove from the tins and place on an oiled tray.
Top each with a a pat of butter and some grated Parmiggiano.

Bake at 350F until browned and heated through (about 15-20 minutes.)
Finish under the broiler for some color.

For the Marmalade:
1 cup Yellow Pear Tomatoes
3/4 cup Cane Sugar
1 Meyer Lemon, zested and juiced
1 tsp. Salt
4 sprigs, Lemon Thyme

Combine all ingredients in a saucepot and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally.

Simmer until desired consistency, breaking up tomatoes a bit with a spoon.

For the Succotash:
4 King Trumpet Mushrooms, sliced thin
1/2 cup Brown Beech Mushrooms (separated)
1/4 White Onion, diced
1/4 cup Corn

Wash mushrooms thoroughly and dry.
Heat skillet (preferably the skillet you used to sear the chops.)
Add additional oil (if necessary.)
Add onions, and toss to color.
Add mushrooms and toss.
When mushrooms release their liquid (listen to the pan!) add corn.

Season to taste.

Plate and Enjoy!