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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Polenta Pizza

I have been thinking lately of how some foods come back into fashion only when they have been given more "presentable" names. In earlier posts, I mentioned my mother's simple "fried apples" were virtually identical to "Tarte Tatin." I discovered some time ago that the onions, celery, and carrots that I have often browned lightly for so many dishes can actually be called by the much more sophisticated sounding term, miripoix.

In the same way, I find it a little amusing that polenta has become a featured menu item for many high-priced restaurants. When I was growing up, my mother would occasionally make "corn meal mush" as a light supper or hearty breakfast. Sometimes she would serve it just like many polenta recipes, slowly cooking corn meal in water, but more often, she would cook it, put it into a bread loaf pan and chill it overnight. Next day, it could be sliced, browned lightly in butter, and served with generous amounts of maple syrup poured over it.

Mom was no longer in the kitchen by the time the polenta craze started, so I wonder what she might have made of the elevation of a very simple (and cheap!) dish to the heights of "cuisine"--I think I can hear her chuckling about it now.

I was never very taken by "corn meal mush," so had resisted making polenta for a long time. For some reason, however, I got the idea this week that it might be fun to see if polenta had ever been used as a pizza crust. A friend and her kids were coming for lunch, and it just seemed like this variation on that popular lunch dish might be fun to try. Searching for "polenta pizza" uncovered dozens (hundreds?) of entries, most of them quite similar. However, as I read through the recipes, I realized that the crusts all seemed quite bland. There were lots of ideas for toppings that were full of seasonings, but the crusts were pretty uniformly, well, toasted corn meal mush.

With a little tweaking, here is a crust that turned out to be delightful and really very easy. It does take a little pre-planning, as the crust needs to be cooked, patted onto the pan, and refrigerated at least an hour or so. It's so easy to make, however, that you could cook the mush (oops, polenta) while cleaning up from one night's meal and then have the crust ready when you get home from work the next night. My version is a plain cheese pizza, but you could easily add other toppings as desired.

Polenta Pizza--Basic Cheese Version

3 c water
1 t salt
1 t garlic powder
1 t dried oregano
2 to 3 t fresh basil, chopped (or 1 t dried basil)
1 c coarse cornmeal
1 T olive or canola oil PLUS another tablespoon or so for oiling the pan

1/4 to 1/2 c prepared spaghetti sauce
6 oz shredded or grated mozzarella cheese
grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

1. Bring the salted water to boil in a heavy pan.

2. When the water reaches a rolling boil, gradually stir in the cornmeal with a whisk or large fork. Stir briskly and add the cornmeal very slowly to avoid lumps. When the cornmeal has been completely incorporated, add the garlic, oregano and basil.

3. Reduce heat to medium and continue to cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, stirring often. It should reach the consistency of thick oatmeal.

4. Meanwhile prepare your pizza pan--this recipe is sized for a 12 inch pan. Generously oil the pan, making sure every area up to the edges is covered well.

5. Remove the cornmeal mixture from heat and stir in the oil. Quickly pat onto the pan, using a spatula to make it as even as possible. Sprinkle with a little salt and freshly ground pepper if desired. Cool briefly and then refrigerate for at least an hour or overnight.

6. When ready to make the pizza, bake the crust in an oven preheated to 450 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes. The crust should become golden and crispy looking around the edges.

7. Remove the crust from the oven and spread lightly with the spaghetti sauce. Sprinkle the mozzarella evenly over the top.

8. Return the pizza to the oven and bake until the cheese is melted and bubbly, about 5 to 10 minutes. Sprinkle with Parmesan if desired before serving.

A few things to keep in mind:

This is really not a finger food. The crust does not have the gluten of a kneaded wheat crust to hold it together. As long as everybody knows this, you should have no problems.

You probably will want less sauce than with a "regular" pizza, as it could more easily get a little soggy. I used only a few tablespoons of sauce for my version and that worked well.

My guess is that this is best when served right away, but the several batches I made were never around long enough to test how they might be reheated.

Most importantly--be sure to oil your pan VERY well, right up to the edges. Even with my nonstick pan, the crust was a little hard to get out of the pan until I made sure that I used a tablespoon or so of oil to coat it.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Final (maybe!) Zucchini Entry for This Season

A friend who bakes prodigiously, and then shares all the tantalizing results on Facebook, recently shared her recipe for Zucchini Chocolate Chip Bars. I guess I was speed reading when I saw her praises for the cookies, as I had thought they were chocolate chocolate chip bars, something I promised another friend I'd bring to a coffee gathering.

No problem. I just adapted the recipe and it worked out nicely, a very dense, chewy and fudgy-type bar. Still, I thought it would be good to try the original recipe out too. As usual however, (sorry, Felicia), I decided to do a little adapting and added vanilla and cinnamon to the mix. As she promised, these are excellent bar cookies that will be a nice addition to your "what do I do with all this zucchini" recipe file.

Note that I did not peel the zucchini for these recipes. Unlike the chocolate cake I offered a few posts ago, the green still shows up just a little after both of these bar cookies were baked. So you have a choice--peel the zucchini or 'fess up from the start about the ingredient that makes these so moist.

Chocolate Chocolate Chip Zucchini Bars

(The few I had left after our coffee are on the plate in the picture above.)

1/2 c brown sugar, packed
1/2 c butter, soft but not melted
2 eggs
1/4 c cocoa powder
1 t vanilla
1 t cinnamon
1 3/4 c flour
1 t baking powder
2 c lightly packed shredded zucchini
1 1/4 c chocolate chips

1. Beat together the first six ingredients until smooth.
2. Stir in the flour sifted with the baking powder.
3. Fold in the zucchini and then the chocolate chips, just until well-mixed. Try not to overbeat. (I suspect that too much beating at this stage may make these a little gummy.)
4. Pour into a well-oiled 9 X 13 pan and bake at 350 degrees 20 to 25 minutes, until just set.

Chocolate Chip Zucchini Bars--the almost original recipe

(These are the bars still in the pan in the photo.)

1/2 c brown sugar, packed
1/2 c butter (I actually used about 3/8 c butter and 2 T canola oil)
2 eggs
1 t vanilla
1/2 t cinnamon
1 3/4 c flour
1 t baking powder
2 c lightly packed shredded zucchini
1 1/4 c chocolate chips
sugar and cinnamon for topping (optional)

1. Beat together the first five ingredients until smooth.
2. Stir in the flour sifted with the baking powder.
3. Fold in the zucchini and then the chocolate chips, just until well-mixed. Try not to overbeat. (I suspect that too much beating at this stage may make these a little gummy.)
4. Pour into a well-oiled 9 X 13 pan. If desired, sprinkle generously with a mixture of sugar and cinnamon OR with just some cinnamon. Bake at 350 degrees 20 to 25 minutes, until just set.

You don't need to know all the details of why I used this proportion of oil and butter, only that it is possible to sometimes substitute oil for a portion of butter or other shortening in a recipe. That said, do be aware that more than a small proportion of oil substituted may throw off other balances of liquid, etc., and you can expect that results might be different from the original--not necessarily better or worse, but definitely different at times.

Another thing that I did differently in the two versions: I used semisweet chocolate chips in the chocolate version and milk chocolate chips in the "original" version. My personal chocolate preference leans toward the semisweet, but you could use either kind in either recipe depending on what you have and what you prefer. There is more density of chocolate flavor using the semisweet chips, however.

Finally...the real original recipe included 3/4 c shortening. I'm sure those were even more rich and tasty, but the half cup seems to be doing fine and is just a little healthier--or maybe, a little less unhealthy? Whichever...thanks so much for sharing, Felicia. These are great, double chocolate or not.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Late Summer Pasta Salads

We were blessed to have a little rain over the weekend after a prolonged dry spell. Nothing like so many parts of the country, of course, but we had been spoiled by plenty of moisture well into August, so having to water the garden (and the raspberries--always the raspberries!) was something we hadn't had to do earlier in the season.

Now, on Monday afternoon, the sun is shining, the temperature is just right and it looks like a long scheduled picnic this evening hit just the right day. It's a potluck so I decided on a pasta salad along with my usual apple-raspberry crisp. (If I told you how many times a season I make this for various events, you'd probably laugh and wonder why I don't try something new. Hey, I say, stick with the tried and true, especially if people still are asking for the recipe.)

Over the years, pasta salads have taken on all kinds of variations, a far cry from the few choices back in the 60s and 70s when this usually meant tuna salad (elbow macaroni, a can of peas--or daringly, thawed and cooked frozen peas and tuna) or perhaps one with chunks of Velveeta substituted for the tuna. If the cook was really up-to-date, she might even stir in a few black or green olives (never both) and some steamed broccoli sprigs.

Then came an explosion of pasta salad variations, and a typical summer potluck can now be counted on to have three or four kinds at a minimum. Today's entry is one that uses some farmers' market finds, with the vegetables chosen for color as well as taste. In addition my master gardening neighbor gave me a giant basil plant so I have lots of this to add flavor to many different dishes.

The recipe below should be considered just a start. After the basics (for me, that means a little onion and some celery for crunch), look at what you have available. Color and flavor combinations should both be considered. The nice thing with vegetables is that, in general, nutrition follows color, so the brighter and more contrasting the choices, the healthier the salad is likely to be.

Following the recipe are some suggestions for making the salad your own.

Pasta and Vegetable Salad for Fall

1 c broccoli flowerets
1/4 to 1/3 c finely diced sweet onion, to taste
3/4 c diced or sliced celery
1 1/2 c shredded red cabbage
3/4 c thinly sliced yellow squash
1 t olive oil
1 minced garlic clove OR 1/2 t garlic powder
1/4 t salt
8 ounces radiatore or other medium-sized pasta
1 T minced fresh basil
1 t lemon juice
1 T sugar or to taste
1 to 1 1/2 c plain yogurt
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Cook pasta according to directions until just done.

2. Meanwhile, place the broccoli in a microwave-safe dish with a teaspoon or so of water; cover and microwave on high for 1 minute. Remove and rinse lightly in cold water.

3. Using the same dish, combine the sliced yellow squash, the olive oil, garlic and salt. Toss lightly and then microwave for 45 seconds to one minute.

4. Stir the sugar, lemon juice and 1 cup yogurt together, adding about 1/2 teaspoon of salt.

5. Combine all the vegetables with the pasta and basil in a large bowl. Pour the yogurt dressing over and toss. If needed, stir in more yogurt to desired consistency. Add freshly ground pepper and more salt to taste. Refrigerate for at least an hour or two, to be sure flavors are well blended.



You will note that the dressing is low fat because of the use of yogurt instead of mayonnaise. Even the oil used when steaming the squash could be omitted, but I like adding that little bit to infuse this otherwise slightly bland vegetable with more flavor. If you wish, you could just substitute mayonnaise, Miracle Whip type salad dressing or any other dressings of your choice, but this dressing along with whatever herbs you choose will allow the flavors of the vegetables to predominate.


Whenever there is a special on pasta, I like to try some of the more unusual shapes. The grandchildren have learned that mac and cheese doesn't always come in little elbows, and they now look forward to some of the variations. Something different, like today's radiatore, can also add interest to a salad as well.

Other Vegetables
  • Carrots, grated or sliced (if sliced, steam these lightly as with the broccoli and yellow squash)
  • Green cabbage instead of, or in addition to, red cabbage
  • Diced bell pepper, any and all colors
  • Frozen peas--DON'T thaw; just toss into the salad straight from the freezer
  • Sugar peas
  • Diced beets! If these are used, I'd add them just before serving, to avoid getting an overall pink salad
  • Cauliflower, prepared as with the broccoli

As mentioned, I have a wonderful supply of sweet basil to use, but you might want to try fresh dill instead, if that is in your garden. When there are no fresh herbs, a mixture of dried basil, rosemary, and thyme is always good, but you can also try whatever suits your fancy for the day.

Other additions
This was made as a side salad, but the addition of diced cheese, some garbanzo beans, chopped hard boiled eggs, or diced ham could move it to main dish status. Served with sliced tomatoes from the garden and some fresh fruit, you'd have a great and simple make-ahead meal.
Black or green olives are always something to be considered, for color and a bit of salty taste.
A little crumbled bacon could also provide a flavor and texture contrast.

Raspberries for Breakfast or a Quick, Light, Supper

A favorite first board game for my kids over the years has been Hi Ho the Cherry-O, wherein little cherries are painstakingly put into holes in the cardboard game board and then a spinner gives each player the opportunity to “pick” one, two, or three cherries and put them in his or her basket. The first one to get all ten into the little bucket is the winner.

However...The spinner might come to rest at a bird or a dog, meaning that these animals have raided the bucket and some cherries will have to be put back on the tree. Worst of all are the spins when the bucket is upset, and everything already picked comes out of the little pail and goes back on the tree.

I don’t want to play that game with any of the grandchildren tonight.

I was almost halfway through the raspberry patch this afternoon, rejoicing in the larger berries that my—finally—long watering sessions had yielded when a branch snapped back against my berry bucket and over went the whole thing. At that point, all I could think of was that silly kids’ game. Grrrr.

The good thing was that most of the berries landed in a very soft patch of pine needles, so I was able to salvage perhaps half of what I had gathered to that point. Still, there was a lot of one by one checking of each berry when I came in the house later. (Washing doesn’t work to get these little pine needles off the berries—the water seems to just make them stick even tighter.) Even after the loss of so many berries, I still ended up with over two pounds of picture-perfect berries. Since one of the local food stores has raspberries featured this week, two dry half pint boxes for $5, that means I have around $15 worth of berries in that bag? Wow!

I understand that this bounty of berries is not available to everyone, but they are a frugal option if you do have a backyard patch, so I like to find ways to use them wherever possible. The following recipe is one that includes raspberries, but it could also be made with just apples or with strawberries or perhaps even peaches--whatever might be most reasonable in the market.

A friend of mine mentioned recently the difficulty of cooking for one person after a very long day at work. The following recipe took 8 minutes from start to finish when I made it recently, and while it was developed initially as a warming weekend breakfast, it might be just the thing for a chilly fall weekday evening when comfort food would be as welcome as a more elaborate meal.

And lest you worry about this being more like dessert than more "typical" one dish meals, consider that the amount of sugar is less than all too many breakfast cereals. This is a hefty single serving (if used as a dessert or side dish, it would serve at least two) so there are two fruit servings along with plenty of protein and fiber from the nuts and oatmeal. Serve it with a glass of milk (or, "Wisconsin style," with an ounce of reduced low fat cheese) and you'll be getting your dairy as well--a dollop of vanilla or plain yogurt is also good without adding a lot of empty calories.

Overall, not a bad dish to keep in mind, with less than 10 minutes prep time and a house that quickly fills with the aroma of "home cooking."

Breakfast/Supper Fruit Compote

3/4 c raspberries (optional)
1 apple, thinly sliced, NOT peeled (about 1 cup)
1 T sugar
1/2 t cinnamon
2 T coarsely chopped walnuts
1/2 c oatmeal--quick cooking but NOT instant
1 t canola oil or butter

Toss the fruit with the sugar and cinnamon and microwave, covered, for about 2 to 3 minutes, until the apple is starting to get tender. Meanwhile, toss the oatmeal and walnuts with the oil. Remove the apples from microwave, spread the oatmeal mixture over the top and return to the microwave. Don't cover this time. Continue cooking another 2 to 3 minutes, until the apples are fully cooked--test with a fork.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Zucchini Part III - This Time with Black-Eyed Peas

Here's a dish that could work as a dip (similar to refried beans) with chips or as a vegetarian main dish (even vegan if you skip any dairy trims) with rice. Gluten free too--a dish for many different dietary needs/wants--and it tastes good too!

While you could make this without zucchini, why not grate in this bountiful vegetable while it's so readily available. And if they are free (from your own garden or those of family and friends) or at a seasonally low cost at the local farmers' market or in the stores, all the better.

While we can joke about all this zucchini cooking, these fruits masquerading as vegetables are really great contributors to a healthy diet, with lots of fiber, antioxidants, vitamin C and key minerals and only a few calories--somewhere between 20 and 35 per cup, depending on how much you pack it in. (There are about 30 calories for a quarter pound according to most of the nutrition sites I checked.)

And if you are wondering about the wisdom of "hiding" veggies in food, you might want to look at this article:

So go ahead and get out that grater and grate some zucchini into anything you're making with a tomato or spaghetti sauce base!

South of the Border Hoppin' John

I happen to like the flavor of black-eyed peas and decided to try using them instead of the typical pinto beans in a summer spread for crisped tortillas. However, as I stirred it and the aroma filled the house, I realized that I had the start of a great main dish to be served over rice.

Note that this will be on the spicy side with most brands of tomatoes and chilies. If that is not to your liking, you could substitute an 8 ounce can of tomato sauce or diced tomatoes and chop a tablespoon or two of green bell peppers to saute with the onion.

canola oil for sauteeing--1 to 2 tablespoons at most
1 c coarsely chopped onion
2 c grated zucchini
5 garlic cloves, minced
10 ounce can tomatoes and green chilies
1 T cumin
3 c cooked black-eyed peas, including liquid (if using canned peas, use two 15 oz cans and omit salt)
salt to taste

1. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet and add the onions. Saute lightly, for about 3 to 4 minutes, and then add the zucchini. Continue cooking on medium high heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are tender and starting to brown and the zucchini has softened and is also starting to take on a browned, golden appearance.

2. Stir in the garlic, tomatoes and chilies and cumin and stir well. When the mixture has returned to a simmer, turn heat to medium low and add the black-eyed peas. Continue heating until the mixture has thickened to your preference--as a dip, you will probably want it thicker than if you are serving it as a main dish over rice. After the mixture has cooked for a few minutes, taste for seasoning, adding salt as needed.

3. If desired, mash some of the peas with the back of a spoon to give a more "refried beans" consistency.

4. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro if desired. Other topping suggestions: grated cheese, sliced black olives, or yogurt. This amount serves 4 as a main dish and makes about 2 to 3 cups of dip.

Pinto beans, kidney beans, or any other favorite bean can be substituted for the black-eyed peas. 

One More Zucchini Note

If you are not ready for even one more zucchini recipe, shred those extras, pack in freezer bags with a cup or two (depending on how much you usually use at a time) and freeze. No extra prep is required, and you'll be ready to make any of these recipes easily. . A one cup packet dropped into your usual winter vegetable soups will give added body too.

Raspberry Lemonade - A Summer and Early Fall Cooler

McDonald's and Starbucks have nothing on us!

Both of these chains have been promoting "frozen strawberry lemonade" this summer and, though they are pitched as being healthy options, both are heavy on the calories and light on any nutrition other than some Vitamin C. Add in the cost of both drinks, and you can guess that I haven't been imbibing either.

Meanwhile, however, my first raspberry crop provided me with enough fruits to do more experimenting, including the production of a quart of bright red raspberry syrup, ready to be tested.

Grandchildren to the rescue.

You should know that we have started a three-ring binder of recipes the kids have made while at my house. (These are "from start to finish" dishes, not just those where they might stir in the last few ingredients. As a result, the binder is filling slowly, but there are some pretty involved recipes nonetheless.)

On one of the hottest days of the summer, Xavier and Soren came in very thirsty after some outdoor play. I didn't have any ice (my constantly overflowing freezer rarely has room for ice cube trays) but the raspberry syrup was chilled, as was a bottle of reconstituted lemon juice (aka ReaLemon), and Minnesota water stays pretty cold right out of the tap, so it seemed like we could come up with a good cooling drink with what we had.

The resulting concoction is one we have made a couple of times since and has become a recipe the boys are proud to call their very own.

Is it "healthy?" That is a question all my grandchildren often ask about a new food, and it came up quickly as we stirred our first batch. My answer? Well, kind of. There is no shortage of sugar here, but then you are looking at 200 to 270 calories for the Starbucks and McDonald's strawberry lemonade versions. Using on-line nutrition calculators, our sweetest, most concentrated raspberry lemonade comes out to about 240 calories for a 24 oz serving...and we know we have only three basic ingredients in ours. Besides, do any of us really need a full 24 ounces? But if we buy it, we'll drink it all, right?

As given below, the drink is quite concentrated, but this is for a version to be poured over crushed or cubed ice. If you are making it as we did without the ice, you will want to add a cup or two more water. The best way to determine how much to add of course, is to bring out the taster spoons or small glasses and try it out.

Raspberry Lemonade

1/2 c reconstituted lemon juice (like ReaLemon, though fresh lemon juice would be great if you have it)
1/2 c sugar
4 to 5 c ice water
1/2 c raspberry syrup

Pour all ingredients into a large pitcher and stir well. Add ice cubes or pour over ice in individual glasses.

Raspberry Syrup

4 c raspberries
4 c water
2 c sugar, divided
2 T lemon juice

Combine raspberries, water, lemon juice and 1/4 c sugar in a large pan. Bring to a boil and simmer about 10 to 15 minutes until the berries are well softened. Turn mixture into a colander or strainer over a large bowl and allow to drain for a few minutes. Press lightly on the berries a few times, but the remaining pulp will still be very juicy.

Put the drained juice back into the pan and stir in the remaining sugar. Bring to a boil and cook for about 2 to 3 minutes, until the sugar is completely dissolved and the mixture has cooked down slightly. Store in the refrigerator for several weeks.

This can be used for a light syrup over ice cream as well as in lemonade. You might also pour some of the syrup over fresh berries to sweeten them slightly or poach fresh peach halves in just enough syrup to cover--this can be done in the microwave in only a couple of minutes for a great last minute dessert.

What about all that pulp that you have left? It is ready for using in breads, cakes, even pie filling or jam, wherever cooked raspberries might be used. Since it is not super-sweet, it makes a nice topping for ice cream. Use a cup of the pulp in place of a cup of bananas in your favorite banana bread or sweeten it a bit more and use as a filling for sweet rolls. Maybe that's a recipe to post in coming weeks as well.

Laugh of the Day

I came across the sage advice again today: Under no circumstances should I get soap or detergent anywhere near my cast iron skillet nor should I use anything at all abrasive on it. Treat it as gently as nonstick cookware was the comparison.


My grandmothers and generations of women before them would have found these instructions laughable, even preposterous. Of course, they knew that you NEVER let a cast iron pan sit with water or other liquids soaking in it, and none of them had automatic dishwashers, but they also knew that cleaning the pans well and keeping them seasoned would involve some pretty heavy duty scrubbing at times.

Of course you want to care for these wonderful pans well, but our fore-mothers were even more careful with the few kitchen tools and supplies that they had. Would they do anything to damage their precious "spider?" (If you are old enough and from some parts of the country, that was what you called the workhorse frying pan or skillet.) Of course not. And if you follow their methods, you too can have a pan that develops an almost satiny surface, as nonstick as many more modern materials.

I did not have a cast iron pan for many years but finally bought one about 10 or so years ago. The first was a "pre-seasoned" one, but I have since acquired a couple of others that I had to season myself, and I can tell you that both kinds have taken kindly to the treatment I am about to describe.

When I purchased that first pan, it came with all the warnings and cautions about treating the pan with figurative kid gloves, which puzzled me. After all those years of seeing how my mother cared for her spiders, how did she manage to have such wonderful pans still in the cupboards when we were dividing up her household? So I decided mother knew best--as always--and here is what has worked for me for over a decade:

NEVER leave a cast iron pan soaking in water or filled with water or other liquids. Also, NEVER leave it excessively damp. Yes, iron does rust, even in pans.

NEVER put cast iron pans in the dishwasher. The drying time is too prolonged, the detergent doesn't really scour, and you won't be able to re-season it when it is hot and ready to absorb the oils.

Routine cleaning:
When you have finished cooking whatever you are cooking, scrape it out as thoroughly as possible, using a metal spatula if really stuck on, a silicon spatula if that is enough. Though the pans often clean most easily while still a little warm, you should avoid putting a very hot pan into water, as it could be possible to crack the iron if the contrast is too great. Personally, I have never seen this happen, but it does seem to be possible.

Put a small amount of water in the pan and squirt in just a little dishwashing (not dishwasher) detergent. If you were cooking something that didn't really stick on (sauteed onions for example) and you didn't manage to burn any of it, you may well be able to wash it clean with just a cloth or gentle plastic scrubber. However, if you were scrambling eggs or if you managed to somehow, somehow let the chicken curry stick on a little--or a lot--you are going to have to go to something stronger to get the pan clean, really clean.

My mother always kept a "Chore-Boy" copper scouring pad by the sink, ready for her cast iron pans, the only ones that would not be ruined by its rough texture.  Steel wool was also used by many homemakers in the past, but my mother didn't like the way it fragmented into little iron shavings. SOS, the pre-soaped steel wool pads, was a little more controversial in the minds of some of these ladies, since they were more expensive and the soap in them was a little stronger than they liked.

I have found that the Chore-Boy brand still exists, in both copper and steel versions, and there are similar scouring pads available in most supermarkets, so I too have one of these by the sink. Since I am not a cook who manages never to cook things a little too long, I do need to scour my pans at times. When the pan needs a real cleaning, I use the scouring pad to get every last bit of cooked on food off. Then a thorough rinse, a minute or two to drain, and back to the stove I go. Wipe it out with a bit of paper towel if need be, to keep from having standing water in it.

Here is the real secret to keeping your cast iron skillet looking "younger" all the time, one that our fore-mothers with their ever warm cook stoves just took for granted:  Turn a burner on high and place the pan on it. When it is well-dried by the heat, drizzle just a few drops of canola or other light cooking oil in the pan and swirl around. Then, again using a bit of paper towel (enough to avoid burning your fingers), rub the oil into the bottom and sides of the pan. Leave it on the heat for another minute or two and then allow it to cool completely before putting away.

That's it. You are re-seasoning your pan every time you use it, with the heat "opening the pores" of the iron so that the oil works its way well below the surface. Meanwhile, the scouring will be gradually burnishing the surface to a glossy shine.

If you look closely at the picture above of my favorite skillet (I have a couple of other cast iron pans of different sizes, but this is my "daily use" one), you will see a drop of water beading up on its surface. I had just finished with the regular post clean-up seasoning and thought this might give you a picture of just how wonderful the surface is getting to be.

Oh. And if you happen to miss those "NEVERs" above, and your pan ends up getting a little rusty in spots or starts to lose its shine, all is not lost. Just scour all the crud away, rub all surfaces of the pan with a little more oil than usual, and then put it in the oven at 350 for an hour or so to re-season.  Some sites recommend that you put the pan in upside down for half the seasoning time, and the wisest ones recommend putting a cookie sheet underneath to catch the inevitable drips. When the seasoning time is done, remove from the oven and let cool until just warm. Then give it another rub with some paper towels to soak up the excess oil.