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A Black Iron Haven

Don't Mess with My Tabasco

Posted by Rick Mansfield

If you know me, you know that I have a "thing" for Tabasco. Normally if I were grading one of my student's papers, I'd count off for using the word thing because it is vague and nondescript, but it seems fitting for the first sentence of my post. I've written about my predilection (perhaps a better word) for Tabasco before (see "Confessions of a Tabasco Addict Aficionado").

I always feel the need to defend my Tabasco habit. People who see me carrying my own personal Tabasco bottles usually assume two things: (1) I like my food really hot, and (2) I must not really be able to taste my food at all with all that Tabasco on it.

Well, these assumptions are simply unfounded. First, I really don't like my food too hot. Really. I simply use Tabasco instead of the black pepper you sprinkle on your food. You'll never see me adding both to my plate. It's about flavor--flavor with a little bit of a kick.

And, for what it's worth, I don't actually put Tabasco on everything. But see, there are some foods that simply go with Tabasco. I can't imagine eating eggs without Tabasco. Tunafish without Tabasco? Unfathomable.

As I said, I carry a bottle with me. I'm trying to eat a bit healthier these days, so Kathy and I mostly cook at home. But occasionally, when I need to grab something quick, such as a night like tonight when I'm teaching in Louisville, I usually pick up a tunafish sandwich on 9 grain honey oat bread at Subway. There are actually two Subways that I frequent. One is in Simpsonville where I live, and the other is in Louisville close to where I teach. At both of these locations, I don't even have to ask anymore. After the person behind the counter puts the tuna on the bread, he or she will reach across the counter so that I can hand over my 2 oz bottle of Tabasco. Tunafish and Tabasco were simply made for each other.

Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, Why don't you just put your own Tabasco on the sandwich later when you eat it? Well, I could do that, but most of the time I'm taking the sandwich with me. The Tabasco and tuna will taste best together if the two have had a few moments by themselves, to get to know each other better.

So tonight, I'm at the Subway counter getting my tunafish sandwich. I should really get to know this fellow who's making my sandwich. He's made so many of them for me. I should ask him his name. I assume he's either the manager or the owner since he's always there. He's been making me sandwiches for at least two years. He's of Indian (as in India) descent, always very nice, and, of course, he humors my Tabasco thing. I don't have to ask anymore. He simply reaches out his hand. I give him the bottle noticing tonight that there's very little left. I'll definitely have to buy some more before I travel later this week.

As he sprinkles the Tabasco on my sandwich--I don't even have to tell him when anymore; he just knows at what point to stop--I notice a new employee leaning against the door frame that leads to the back room. She's new; I've never seen her before. A lot of these folks come and go. All except my friend behind the counter who knows how to make my sandwich. He's always there.

In hindsight, I heard what she said. But I was so taken aback when she said it, I simply had to make her repeat it.

"I beg your pardon?" I said in a tone that sounded mildly offended, or possibly even insulted. She said it again, in that same matter-of-fact, I-need-to-set-you-straight tone: "You know, it's really against health department codes for you to pass an edible substance over the counter like that."

What? I knew she really said it because I made her say it twice. Did she know who I am? Did she realize that I have an "I love Tabasco" bumper sticker on my truck's rear bumper? Didn’t she know that my Indian friend and I had been following this same ritual for almost two years?

I did not lose my cool. I did not do anything unchristian. But I looked at her and said very seriously, "Well, there are plenty of Subways in this town. If this one won't put my Tabasco on my sandwich, I can easily go to another store that will."

The manager was red-faced at this point, but trying to keep his cool. He looked at me with an apologetic countenance. "It's okay," he said.

As I left, I saw him take her into the back room. There were other customers eating after all. Nevertheless, as I walked out the door, I couldn't make out anything being said, but I could clearly hear his raised voice--something I'd never, ever heard from this gentle, normally quiet man. The bumper sticker on my truck caught my eye as I rounded my way to the driver side door. Yeah, it's love.

Don't mess with my Tabasco.

Feel free to leave your thoughts or ask questions in the comments below, or you can contact Rick directly at

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Interview with Joanna Pruess, Author of The Griswold & Wagner Cast Iron Cookbook

Posted by Rick Mansfield

Joanna Pruess
The Griswold & Wagner Cast Iron Cookbook
2009 Skyhorse Publishing

I first heard of Joanna Pruess' new book, The Griswold and Wagner Cast Iron Cookbook, about two weeks ago. While it's always questionable as to whether we need yet another cookbook around our house, this one seemed too good to resist. And I was right. I have a number of cast iron related cookbooks, and this one may already be my favorite.

This volume is a really nice, high quality hardbound book with a stitched spine. It lays flat on the counter which makes using it while cooking very easy. You can't begin to imagine the quality of the pictures until you see them. They were taken right in Pruess' home by a professional photographer as she prepared the recipes.

Pruess herself is no stranger to the culinary world. She has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Washington Post, Food Arts, Saveur, Food & Wine and more. Her most recent cookbooks before her cast iron book include Mod Mex: Cooking Vibrant Fiesta Flavors at Home and Seduced by Bacon: Recipes & Lore about America's Favorite Indulgence. Pruess even has her own Wikipedia entry! She is married to restaurant critic, Bob Lape.

Having been so impressed with her new cast iron cookbook (only released November 1), I contacted Joanna Pruess asking her for an interview and she graciously agreed. I've inserted page numbers from the book to go with a number of the recipes that are mentioned below.

I’ve noticed that most cast iron “aficionados” have a story to tell about how they came around to embracing cooking in cast iron. For some, it was after going through multiple sets of chemically treated non-stick pans and then remembering that pan that mom or grandma used that never wore out. What about you? How long have you been cooking in cast iron?

My earliest memories are from my mom making her potted chicken [p. 102]. The smell of that dish, like no other, takes me back to my childhood and happy, simpler times. I also remember a dish that was among my favorites as I was growing up--tamale pie [pp. 145-147]--and then updated it with ingredients that probably weren't available back then, like chipotle chiles. My mom's mac and cheese [pp. 33-34] was totally beloved in our house. With at least seven at the dinner table, it was a boisterous, fun event.

The topping is what made it special. I added the panko and while her Parmesan was most probably from a green cylinder, I use Parmigiano-Reggiano. I love touching old recipes from our families and friends. It connects us to our past. What I said last night is what Adele Davis said: "We are what we eat; I like to add that we are also the product of those we have eaten with...our relatives and friends who color and infuse our life with special meaning."

You’ve been writing about food and cooking for a while. You’ve previously written other cookbooks. Why did you think it was the right time to write a cast iron cookbook?

Because we all need comfort--both emotionally and economically. Many of these recipes are inexpensive and easy to make and appeal to a huge audience of all ages. Also, cast iron endures: it's good for our environment and even good for our bodies since the small amount of iron that is leached from the pots prevents anemia. Did you ever hear of anyone in our grandparents' generation with iron-poor blood? Nope. Also, some of the chicest chefs in town are now using cast-iron pots.

You're exactly right. I've said that I believe we're going through a bit of a cast iron "renaissance."

Also, the way home entertaining has evolved, the area of the kitchen and dining room has morphed into a great room. Cast-iron goes directly from the stove to the table.

I agree about that renaissance. We are discovering that after all those fancy pans have been used and/or abused and thus discarded, cast-iron is still viable. It can almost always be reconditioned. On that score, I was so fortunate to have the advice of David G. Smith, a.k.a. "The Pan Man," who is a real expert on caring for the pans.

Who, would you say, is this book for?

So far I am amazed at how many people tell me they adore reading it...the history, the old stories and that they LOVE the food. There seems to be a connection to both young and old; sophisticated and novice cooks. Everyone finds something they can take away because the food is really tasty, yet it doesn't take intellectualizing to appreciate it.

Your book is simply gorgeous. It can just as easily sit on a coffee table as it could sit on a kitchen counter. One of the elements of your book that really rings true to me are the pans you’ve used in the pictures. When I see, for instance, the picture of the skillet in the oven on p. 88, I notice the pan has carbonization building up on the inside. In other words, this is a pan that gets regular use and has been used for quite a while. I can relate to it because it looks like my primary cast iron skillet. This is really in contrast to some cast iron books I’ve seen in which a marketing department simply went and bought pre-seasoned pans from the store and prepared a few of the recipes in them. I can even think of one cast iron book that actually has food sitting in a gun-metal gray unseasoned cast iron Dutch oven. So, what about the pans in your book? Were they all yours? Were some of them borrowed?

I did cook in much-used pans. The food was all cooked and shot in our kitchen as it actually was prepared. I have worked as a food stylist and know that many food pictures are staged. I wanted people to see how it really looks. I have used that 13-inch skillet for at least 25 years, since my kids were young and I made pancakes. A griddle would have been great but that one was also my "showcase" pot for big parties. People always "ooh" and "ah" about it. Besides, the pictures tempt people to try dishes.

The fun thing was borrowing a chef-friend's pile of small cast-iron skillets for mini cornbreads and those to-die-for chocolate chunk-pecan cookies topped with ice cream and salted caramel sauce.

You're making me hungry! How extensive is your own collection of cast iron? What’s your oldest piece of cast iron? What’s your favorite or most used pan?

I have that 13-inch skillet (25 years old), a Dutch oven and a 10-inch skillet. Unfortunately, my mom's Dutch oven got lost. To me the lesson is "less is more." You can do almost all your cooking, with the exception of microwaving, in a few pots, including induction cooking. I also think that people should look for cast-iron at yard sales. There are lots of pots waiting to be adopted. And as you said they almost always come with a story or favorite recipe.

Agreed. And "adopting" pots is a great way to recycle and give life to these old pans. Which leads me to my next question: Why Griswold and Wagnerware? Why not simply write a general book about cooking in cast iron?

[Griswold and Wagner] were the first companies that produced and sold cast-iron cookware exclusively. Also, through Dave Smith and Joel Schiff (also a fine dealer in old cast-iron ware), I had access to their old ads and printed information which is in the public domain, but both had great collections which gives the book a lot of its charm and old fashion feeling.

When we previously corresponded, you suggested that I try out “Mom’s Mac and Cheese with Bacon” [pp. 33-34] and the “Clam-and-Corn Fritters” [pp. 52-53]. These were both exceptional recipes. What are some of the other “star” recipes in the book?

That's like asking which is your favorite a mother who has a bunch. Anyway, I love the zucchini pancakes [pp. 67-68], Steak 'n' Stout [p. 138], Salted Caramel [p. 202] on anything, Raspberry-Blackberry Crisp [p. 187] is to die for, Shrimp Posole (a real surprise and from Native Americans) [p. 180], My Favorite Chile [pp. 142-143], Tamale Pie [pp. 145-147], Oven Roasted Chicken [pp. 89-90]...and the shockingly better asparagus [pp. 74-75] cooked in cast-iron. I could continue to effuse since I adore this food.

Some of these recipes, such as the previously mentioned “Mom’s Mac and Cheese” have been adapted by you. I believe you mentioned that your mom didn’t include panko bread crumbs, and my mom would have never paid for Parmigiano-Reggiono cheese as I so happily did. What other kinds of adaptations did you make to “classic” recipes?

Good question. In my mom's Potted Chicken, she used Lawry's salt, introduced in 1938 by the eponymous restaurant in Los Angeles. It had MSG in it, so I discovered a deconstructed version of the seasoning [p. 103] online and combined it with her other seasonings, and it took me immediately back to her kitchen. I took out artificial ingredients wherever I could.

Rick, I want to add that cooking and serving in cast-iron seems to be a great "ice breaker" at a meal. It's so homey and unthreateningthat people just relax and get into the food.

I agree. We love to have folks over and cook for them in cast iron. We have a baker's rack in the kitchen where some of it is displayed, and it's always great for conversation. Usually someone's grandmother and her cooking comes up in the conversation. We've also converted many of our friends to cooking in cast iron.

Another thing I think that is important is the connections between Old and New World. For example, I love my short ribs but also a Korean friend gave me her version [pp. 136-137] that spins a thread between cultures. Same can be said of paella [pp. 176-177] and jambalaya [pp. 178-179].

I agree about converting people. Last night I made 30 new converts.

Where do you live?

I live in Simpsonville, Kentucky, not too far from Louisville, but I was born and grew up in Louisiana.

Wow, that's far away but prime cast-iron country for fried chicken (read the funny story about the cornflake crusted version [p. 98]) and all those good desserts.

I appreciate your taking the time this morning for this interview. I’m certain the readers of Cooking in Cast Iron will enjoy learning more about you as well as using this wonderful cookbook. Is there anything else you’d like to mention about the book in closing?

I think we've done it...except it's not only a way to connect with the past, it's a great legacy to pass on to future generations (hopefully with this book included).

In addition to lots of great history and recipes, Joanna Pruess also includes instructions for care and restoration of cast iron pans in her book. It would make a great addition to your own collection of cookbooks and as a gift for your special someone this Christmas.

Feel free to leave your thoughts or ask questions in the comments below, or you can contact Rick directly at Joanna Pruess has agreed to answer any questions readers might leave in the comments as she has opportunity.

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General Tso's Chicken

Posted by Rick Mansfield

When I was a kid, we had one Chinese restaurant in the small Louisiana town in which I grew up. It was a nice restaurant. The food was good. It wasn't fast food, and it wasn't an all-you-can-eat buffet.

These days there's a Chinese restaurant in every strip mall. Most are buffets. Mostly mediocre food. It seems as if there's so much potential, but so very little followthrough in these kinds of places. Really, it's difficult to find even a really good Asian restaurant anymore because of all the competitions of the strip mall variety. I've seen very good Chinese restaurants close their doors because of the cheap Chinese buffet two blocks down cutting into their business.

But there are a few good ones still out there. And I tend to judge any ethnic restaurant of any kind by whether or not I'm the minority nationality when I'm there. If I find that I'm one of the few Westerners in the place, I can generally always expect the food to be not just authentic, but very good as well.

However, as is the case nearly every time I eat out--even at good restaurants--I inevitably think to myself, I could make this taste even better if I made it myself at home.

So shortly after I got my second wok (reviewed last May), I decided I wanted a Chinese cookbook. Well, not exactly a fully authentic mainland Chinese cookbook, but more of the kind that represented the American Chinese cuisine I was used to. Yes, I know, I know, General Tso's Chicken was probably never made in China. But, hey, let me start with what I'm familiar and then I'll later branch out.

In my quest for an American Chinese cookbook, I settled on The Everything Chinese Cookbook by Rhonda Lauret Parkinson. No, Parkinson is not Asian herself, but she's spent a good bit of time in Asian circles and has studied the cuisine. For an American, she knows her stuff. I was already familiar with her egg drop soup, which I featured in the earlier review of the cast iron wok. So I figured I'd give her book a try, too. The General Tso's Chicken featured here was good, but I think it could be improved upon. I'm going to present Peterson's recipe pretty much as it is in her book (with the addition of my photographs) and then add some comments at the end. You'll want to especially pay attention to these parting thoughts because they might help you make this dish even better if you decide to make it.

General Tso's Chicken

Cast Iron Required:
  • 1 pound dark chicken meat
  • 2 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 3 teaspoons Chinese rice wine or dry sherry, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1 tablespoon corn starch
  • 4 tablespoons dark soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon seasame oil
  • 6 dried chiles
  • 4-6 cups oil for deep frying
  • 1 large clove garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon minced ginger
  • 2 green onions, thinly sliced


Cut the chicken into cubes. Mix in the soy sauce, 2 teaspoons of the rice wine, white pepper, and the cornstarch, adding the cornstarch last. Marinate the chicken for 30 minutes.

Combined the dark soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil and 1 teaspoon rice wine. Set aside. Cut the red chiles in half and remove the seeds. Chop and set aside.

Heat the oil to 350° F. When the oil is hot, add the chicken cubes and deep-fry until they are lightly browned. Remove from the wok and drain on paper towels.

Raise the temperature of the wok to 400° F. Deep-fry the chicken a second time briefly, until the chicken turns a golden brown. Remove from the wok and drain on paper towels.

Drain the wok, leaving 2 tablespoons of oil for stir-frying. When the oil is hot, add the garlic, ginger, and green onions. Stir fry briefly until aromatic.

Add the chiles and cook for 1 minute. Add the sauce in the middle of the wok and bring it to a boil. Add the chicken and mix through.

Suggestions for improvement:
  • Double the recipe. Kathy and I have been paying close attention to portion size lately. The recipe says that this makes four servings. This is what we were hoping for since we usually like to take leftovers for lunch the next day. This was realistically only two portions--even when trying to keep portions withing a reasonable range. The entire result would equal the average General Tso's ordered from a menu at most Chinese restaurants. I used four cups of oil for the frying. I believe this would be enough even if two pounds of chicken were cooked.
  • Use honey instead of sugar. I mean, why not? Honey would give a better, more natural flavor.
  • Watch your peppers. The recipe calls for six dried chile peppers. Our dish was very hot, and I was very careful to remove the seeds. Therefore, I'd scale it down to at least four peppers, and maybe even two for mixed company.
  • The dish is a bit salty. Mixing it with a bit of rice helps. Most of the salt comes from the soy sauce, so compare sodium levels if you have access to different kinds of soy sauce.

MacGourmet users, click image to download recipe (or simply drag image to your MacGourmet recipe box).

Feel free to leave your thoughts or ask questions in the comments below, or you can contact Rick directly at

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