Skillet suppers, one-pot meals, sheet pan suppers — I'm sure you hear these terms all the time. They're popular not only for their simplicity but also, of course, the easy clean up. But choosing the right cooking vessel is key.
As a professional cook, I have a wall of cookware: hand-hammered copper I brought home from France; enamel-coated French ovens; high-tech, stainless steel sauté pans; highly designed modern skillets that look more like works of art, and even thin aluminum stockpots for boiling water. Different cookware is needed for different reasons. Indeed, if I am a guest in a fancy, designer kitchen, and there’s a rack with all matching pots, I know that person doesn’t actually cook.
Still, I’ve got to admit even that with all of my expensive professional cookware, the pan I reach for the most is — without hesitation — my grandmother’s cast-iron skillet. My maternal grandmother, whom I called Meme, was a great cook. She was famous for her angel food cake, yeast rolls and her homemade jams, jellies and preserves.
In this month's Cooking With Virginia column, I'll be helping you master the one-pot supper with the help of my grandmother — and her skillet. I am now the proud owner of that skillet and calculate that it very well may be 100 years old. To say it’s well seasoned is an understatement. It’s black and shiny like satin, and water beads on it when I wash it, the result of absorbing so much oil through the decades. I know it sounds cliché, but it’s true. This cast iron skillet is hands-down, my absolute most precious possession.
Meme cooked her favorite "pantry meal" — fried fat back, braised buttery cabbage and buttermilk cornbread — in that prized skillet, and I now do the same. My dish is a twist on some of those same flavors: I sear pork chops and then nestle them up with sweet potatoes and cabbage to bake until golden brown but still juicy.Not only does cast iron carry valuable memories, it is also the perfect vehicle for making this one-dish supper sing, along with just about any other kitchen task you can throw at it. It’s slow to heat up, but once it does, it stays hotter longer. When properly seasoned over time, cast iron takes on nonstick properties, which only improve with use.
But let's back up for a second: What is seasoning, anyway? Here, I'm not talking about salt and pepper. Cast iron seasoning refers to both the initial finish of the cookware as well as the ongoing process of maintaining that finish. It’s not just a thin layer of oil, it’s oil that’s been baked onto the iron to form a thin, polymerized layer, which prevents rust and provides an easy-release finish that continues to improve with use. Most cast iron skillets these days come pre-seasoned, but they're still bettered by regular seasoning in your kitchen.
Some folks say not to wash your cast iron pans with detergent, but my grandmother did and so do I. (I do, however, avoid metal scouring pads, which can remove the layers of seasoning and expose the metal.) After cooking, I carefully wash it in warm soapy water and dry it thoroughly, and then I return it to the oven for keeping. This procedure is as much kitchen housekeeping as sacred ritual.
If your pan needs extra loving because you’ve damaged its seasoning, or you’ve found one at a garage sale that needs to be reinitiated into the kitchen, you can re-season it by scrubbing it clean and applying a film of oil all over the pan's interior and exterior, then placing it in a 350 degree oven with a rimmed baking sheet pan underneath to catch drips. Let it "bake" for one hour, and then cool the pan completely in the oven. Before storing, make sure it is completely dry to prevent rust.
This simple kitchen tool is dearer to me than any other cooking equipment; indeed, it’s dearer to me than any other thing I own. Clothes can be replaced, jewelry can be purchased and art can be painted, but nothing can come close to my personal feelings of heritage and history embedded in this simple skillet. When I hold the gently worn cast iron handle in my hand I feel intimately connected to my food, my culture, my family and my place. Not only is it my go-to pan, it’s my kitchen totem.
Bon appétit, y’all!
– Virginia Willis
Pork Chops For Two with Cabbage and Sweet Potatoes
Note: Pork chops are a very tender, quick-cooking cut of meat — so quick-cooking, in fact, that they're quite easy to overcook. This is why I start them on the stovetop to get a good sear then transfer them to the oven to finish cooking. The surrounding heat of the oven controls the rate of cooking and prevents the outside of the chops from getting tough and dry before the interior has finished cooking. Despite what you may have read on the back of a package, pork chops are entirely safe to eat when cooked to 145 degrees; keep a close eye on their temperature with an instant-read thermometer.
Hands-on time: 30 minutes
Total time: 1 hour and 15 minutes
2 cups boiling water
1/3 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 cups ice cubes
2 bone-in pork loin chops, 3/4 to 1 pound total
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 sweet onion, sliced
1/2 green cabbage, cored and thinly sliced
1 sweet potato, peeled and diced
2 to 3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
Dijon mustard, for serving (optional)
In medium heatproof bowl, whisk together the boiling water, brown sugar and 2 tablespoons salt until sugar and salt are dissolved. Stir in the ice cubes to cool the brine. Add the pork chops, the cover bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Remove the chops from the brine, rinse well, and dry thoroughly with paper towels. (If you’re really in a hurry you can skip the brining step, but I find it does make a difference for ultra moist and tender pork chops.)
Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a 10-inch cast iron skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is shimmering, add the pork chops and sear until well browned, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate and cover to keep warm.
To the same skillet, add the butter, followed by the onion, cabbage, sweet potato, thyme and bay leaf. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often, until the cabbage and onions are wilted and caramelized, about 5 minutes.
Place the seared pork chops on top of the vegetables. Transfer to the oven and bake until the pork chops are cooked and the internal temperature registers 145 degrees when measured with an instant-read thermometer, 8 to 10 minutes.
Transfer the pork chops to serving plates. Taste the vegetables and adjust the seasoning as needed with salt and pepper. Stir to make sure all of the vegetables are coated with the buttery cooking liquid. Divide the vegetables between the plates and serve immediately with mustard, if desired.