The meal in the iron pan

This slushy winter weather has pressed my cast iron skillet into heavy rotation lately. As our mothers and grandmothers knew, cast iron cookware is perfect for homey meals or stove-to-oven cooking with a minimum of mess.

Awash in laziness last weekend, I decided to try my hand at a Spanish torta, as it required the relatively simple journey from living room to kitchen instead of a more arduous trek to the grocery store. The recipes that turned up in a Google search varied only slightly from each other, so I got the gist of them, used Martha’s (yes, we’re on a first-name basis) as a guide to ingredient amounts and oven temperature and set out to create my own vegetarian version.

To the basic recipe, I added diced red bell pepper, sautéed broccoli rabe (leafy greens only), garlic and a hefty dose of hot pimentòn. (Several of the recipes I found called for chorizo, which I agree would be a superb addition, but there was that whole going-out thing to avoid. The pimentòn seemed an acceptable substitute under the circumstances.) Since I don’t have much experience with cast iron pans, I was concerned that the potatoes would stick, but with the pan preheated and coated with a thin film of oil, that wasn’t a problem in any way.

The torta alone was our lunch, but I had a few tricks up my sleeve for dinner. OK, only one trick, but what a beauty — Zuni Café roast chicken. I made the turkey version for Thanksgiving and was so shockingly pleased with the outcome, I had to try the chicken sooner rather than later. And it didn’t disappoint. All of the raves you’ve probably read across the internet are absolutely true — the chicken is moist and perfectly seasoned with delicious crispy, browned skin. Mmmmm. We managed to keep some of it for leftovers the following day, but only just. I think it’s likely to go into the weekly rotation.

recipes after the jump

Spanish Torta adapted from Martha Stewart

Olive oil
1 medium Spanish onion, sliced into 1/4-inch-thick half moons
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 medium red bell pepper, diced
1/2 bunch broccoli rabe, leafy greens only, chopped
3 medium Yukon gold or other floury potatoes, sliced into 1/4-inch-thick rounds
7 large eggs
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
Pinch freshly ground pepper, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon pimentón (smoked paprika)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a 10-inch oven-safe skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion; sauté, stirring, until golden, about 8 minutes. Add chopped garlic to pan and sauté, stirring, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl.

Return the skillet to heat, and add 1/2 tablespoon oil. Sauté bell pepper until soft, then add chopped broccoli rabe and sauté until wilted and just beginning to char, about 3 minutes. Add to bowl with onions and garlic.

Return the skillet to heat, and add 1 tablespoon oil. Add potatoes, cover, and saute until soft, stirring, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer to the bowl with onions, sprinkle with pimentòn and combine.

Whisk together eggs; add salt and pepper. Transfer to the bowl with onions and potatoes, and combine.

Return the skillet to the heat, and add 1 tablespoon oil. Add egg mixture, and cook until edges set and start to brown, about 1 1/2 minutes. Cover, and bake in the oven until set, about 10 minutes. Remove cover, and broil until top is golden.

Zuni Roast Chicken courtesy of The Zuni Cafe Cookbook via the NBC website

The length of this recipe seems daunting, I know; the instructions are detailed and precise, but not difficult or time-consuming to follow in any way. If you haven’t made this yet, please don’t be put off by the number of words, but do follow them to the letter. You’ll be rewarded with the best roast chicken you’ve ever made.

One small chicken, 2-3/4 to 3-1/2-pounds
4 tender sprigs fresh thyme, marjoram, rosemary or sage, about 1/2 inch long
Salt (about 3/4 teaspoon per pound of chicken)
About 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
A little water

Seasoning the chicken
(Can be done 1 to 3 days before serving; for 3-1/4- to 3-1/2-pound chickens, at least 2 days)

Remove and discard the lump of fat inside the chicken. Rinse the chicken and pat very dry inside and out. Be thorough — a wet chicken will spend too much time steaming before it begins to turn golden brown.

Approaching from the edge of the cavity, slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making 2 little pockets. Now use the tip of your finger to gently loosen a pocket of skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh. Using your finger, shove and herb sprig into each of the 4 pockets.

Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper (we use 3/4 teaspoon of sea salt per pound of chicken). Season the thick sections a little more heavily than the skinny ankles and wings. Sprinkle a little of the salt just inside the cavity, on the backbone, but don’t otherwise worry about seasoning the inside. Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders. Cover loosely and refrigerate.

Roasting the chicken

Preheat the oven to 475F. Depending on the size, efficiency and accuracy of your oven, and the size of your bird, you may need to adjust the heat to as high as 500F or as low as 450F during the course of roasting the chicken to get it to brown properly. If that proves to be the case, begin at that temperature the next time you roast a chicken. If you have a convection function on your oven, use it for the first 30 minutes; it will enhance browning, and may reduce overall cooking by 5 to 10 minutes.

Choose a shallow flameproof roasting pan or dish barely larger than the chicken, or use a 10-inch skillet with an all-metal handle. Preheat the pan over medium heat. Wipe the chicken dry and set it breast side up in the pan. It should sizzle.

Place pan in the center of the oven and listen and watch for it to start browning within 20 minutes. If it doesn’t, raise the temperature progressively until it does. The skin should blister, but if the chicken begins to char, or the fat is smoking, reduce temperature by 25 degrees. After about 30 minutes, turn the bird over — drying the bird and preheating the pan should keep the skin from sticking. Roast for another 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size, then flip back over to recrisp the breast skin, another 5 to 10 minutes. Total oven time will be 45 minutes to an hour.

Finishing and serving the chicken

Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off the heat.

Lift the chicken from the roasting pan and set on a plate. Carefully pour the clear fat from the roasting pan, leaving the lean drippings behind. Add about a tablespoon of water to the hot pan and swirl it.

Slash the stretched skin between the thighs and breasts of the chicken, then tilt the bird and plate over the roasting pan to drain the juice into the drippings.

Set the chicken in a warm spot to rest for 5 minutes. The meat will become more tender and uniformly succulent as it cools.

Set a platter in the oven to warm for a minute or two.

Tilt the roasting pan and skim the last of the fat. Place over medium-low heat, add any juice that has collected under the chicken, and bring to a simmer. Stir and scrape to soften any hard golden drippings. Taste-the juices will be extremely flavorful. Cut the chicken into pieces and serve.

8 Replies to “The meal in the iron pan”

  1. I have this wonderful old cast iron pan I never use – it was handed down to me. I have to get it out now and put it to use!! Thanks!!

  2. It looks really good and fresh! Spanish food has so much flavor and yet uses such simple ingredients. I bookmarked this recipe and can’t wait to use it.

  3. Yummmm!! I have a cast iron pan that belonged to my grandmother that just collects dust. Time to put it to work!!


  4. I tried this recipe and I think I did something wrong!! I followed it very closely, but I did use a 12″ skillet because that is all I had. There was not a ton of flavor. I was expected it to taste like the tortilla espanola’s that we have at the local Spanish restaurants served tapas style- it just did not live up to my expectations. Also, I did not have any broccoli rabe; that could have something to do with it. I am pretty sure it was me, and no the recipe.. still not sure what I did wrong?!

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