Anyone who knows anything about fancy kitchen gear has no doubt heard of the names “Le Creuset” and “All Clad.” They are the fantastically well-made, superbly performing sort of pots, pans, and other kitchen accoutrements that every home chef dreams of. Some are able to do more than just dream … and the rest of us have to find an alternative that will make fabulous food at 1/10 the cost.
Enter the Tramontina Enameled Cast Iron “casserole,” or Dutch Oven. Let’s get all the sniggering out of the way now … Dutch Ovens are serious business. As in, they make seriously tasty food out of mainly inexpensive ingredients, which is a huge bonus for, well, most of us. (It is of course entirely possible to make tasty food out of expensive ingredients in them, too.) They are the once and future kings of slow cookery, what every crackpot aspires to be when it finally grows up and can be put on the stovetop.*
I love Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, and though the folks at the Test Kitchen aren’t as good as Cooking Light as far as accessibility of mainstream recipes for us Food Issues types, they have many redeeming virtues. One of these is their extensive reviews of cooking equipment, which have frequently helped me to decide between seemingly similar items. It was on the basis of their favorable review that I purchased my Dutch Oven at Tarjay, where they are currently on sale (at least in my local store) for $42 … a far cry from the $60 I spent. (It should be noted that the folks over at Cook’s Illustrated now recommend the same brand’s dutch oven sold at WallyWorld, which is slightly cheaper – but putting aside any WallyWorld vs. Tarjay issues, that one is HUNTER GREEN. Not exactly in keeping with the rest of my gear.)
Here is my Tramontina as it arrived at my home:
Of course, unlike the Test Kitchen crew, I don’t have a wide variety of enameled cast iron gear to which I can compare the Tramontina – so I can’t tell you about its relative ability to brown meat or seal in juices, but I can tell you that it does both these things with aplomb. I have thus far had no reason to be disappointed in my purchase, and I have used it frequently. A huge advantage of enameled cast iron over a regular cast iron dutch oven (which I also own) is that you can use dish soap to clean the thing. I am all for learning to cook with cast iron pots and pans … but I have a really really hard time keeping the darned things seasoned. Blame years of cooking with non-stick surfaces. At any rate, dish soap is really useful, though I should warn you of one thing: the inner porcelain enamel will stain. I had read about this in some of the online reviews, and thought that surely these people weren’t washing their pots well enough. In fact, for the first two or so months I avoided any stains, which only served to further confirm my suspicions.
Then I made wine-braised pears, the signature dish of this cookbook. Following that, I made a wine and tomato based sauce … and after that the interior finish was just about history. I will show you what the poor dearie looked like the other night, after I made a hard cider-braised pork stew for a friend who has recently had the most adorable little girl. I’d give you the recipe, except I’m not entirely certain what it was that I put into it. I was informed by the babysitter who raided the fridge the night before we were to deliver said meal to said friend at church that it “was quite tasty, and really hit the spot.”
I will tell you one ingredient, though – because this explains so much about how I cook. Fennel. As in, fennel root. As in, something that I bought by accident because I thought it was celeriac/celery root, yet another vegetable I had never cooked with. Fennel, sometimes mistakenly called Anise, has a pretty strong licorice smell. I do not like licorice. Husbands also dislike licorice. Which means that this poor fennel bulb or root or whatever the thing is called was going to be doomed to die of a broken heart in the back of my vegetable tray, had not inspiration struck. I was low on celery, which I normally use for this sort of thing, and I was already going to throw in some granny smith apples. (Why not? The cider was “granny smith hard apple cider.” Seemed like it would work.) So I chopped the sucker up … or at least half of it. Then I chopped some onions, green apples, celery, carrots, and potatoes. And as I held them to my nose one after another, (in a manner reminiscent of Remy the Rat) I made the final decision that they would probably go well together. After all, the smells kind of jived with each other. And any way, fortune favors the bold.
I’m still waiting to see if what was left of the meal was edible. I really only sampled the broth a few times, but I didn’t have time to taste everything else because I was running out to see the Nutcracker that night. Regardless, here she is … ain’t she a beauty?
Now to be fair, most of that bottom stuff did come out with the aforementioned soap. But all the brown and vaguely purple stuff on the sides? That stays. I will wear it as a badge of honor. Those stains say “this woman cooks.” Kinda like stretch marks, only entirely more tolerable.
As I bought my sister-in-law one of these beauties for Christmas, I intend to post some simple “getting to know your dutch oven” recipes here, beginning tomorrow with an easy and foolproof way to prepare a braised/roasted chicken.
*Yes, I am aware that there are now crackpots that go stovetop, but they are STILL not as cool as a Dutch Oven.