Thursday, December 11, 2008
Allow me to wax rhapsodic about my twelve-year-old well-seasoned heavy cast anodized aluminum reversible grill/griddle. It rocks. I have a ridiculous number of expensive pots and pans, such as a bunch of AllClad LTD that I got as gifts for my first wedding, a few Le Creuset pots, and some fancy French blue steel pans that I discovered when I cooked in Europe. Yet I use this grill/griddle almost every day.
I have a 30" range with only four burners, yet this thing sits spanning two of them and almost never gets put away. It cost me twenty bucks.
Now, they're a bit more than that today, but you can still find these guys for less than forty bucks all over the web. I cannot recommend these things highly enough. In fact, this simple slab of metal works so well, and costs so little, that it should be considered an island of sanity amidst a churning sea of single-use kitchen appliances and implements. In its honor, I'm going to begin a segment I'm calling "Cheap Stuff that Works".
Stay with me here, because there's two sides to this coin. On the one hand, stuff that works the way it's supposed to, lasts a long time, and isn't expensive is hard enough to find and should be celebrated in its own right. But the other side of this coin is that there's so much useless garbage being marketed to home cooks that it's sometimes hard to take a step back and realize that the best stuff is sometimes the simplest.
For instance, a friend of mine's wife has an electric appliance called a "quesadilla maker". These handy-dandy things retail for twenty to thirty bucks and when you plug them in, they....uh....apply heat to tortillas that you've placed cheese in between. Whoa! Talk about re-inventing the wheel. It's a plasticky piece of garbage that's made in China and has snazzy thematic southwestern decorations and chile pepper-shaped handles. Odds are, the thing'll break within two years.
Needless to say, you can see where I'm going with this. I get to save my twenty five bucks because I already have a "quesadilla maker". It's pictured above, where it's functioning as a cornmeal-ricotta pancake maker. AKA, a griddle. Twenty-five bucks buys a lot of flour tortillas and cheese, not to mention the counter space that's freed up.
But wait...there's more. If you act now, your cast aluminum (or cast iron--they're great too) reversible grill/griddle can replace other small appliances that manufacturers, marketers, and department stores will try and convince you are essential. Yes, folks, this thing does it all; it's not just a pancake maker and a quesadilla maker--it's also a panini maker, a "griddler", and an indoor BBQ and grill. It replaces literally hundreds of dollars worth of these "unitaskers" (with respect to Alton Brown), and is easier to clean, has no moving parts, no electronics, and will never break.
There are a few tricks to using this versatile gem; first, it needs to be seasoned in order to attain that nice black nonstick coating. There are plenty of sites that'll fill you in on how to season cast iron, but you can also just start cooking on the thing. It'll season itself pretty decently over time. Seriously...cook a griddle full of bacon on it twice and you're done.
Another great tip for use on both the grill and griddle sides; have a large metal bowl or a square metal baking dish available for use as a cover. If your grilled cheese or chicken breast is browning too quickly and the outside's getting done before the cheese is melted or the chicken is fully cooked, just dome it. Pop the bowl or baking dish upside down over the food and you'll get a nice convection action which will act as a small oven, allowing the inside of the food to cook more quickly and stay even with the outside.
Oh, and know your burner strengths. I have a range where some burners are stronger than others, and my grill/griddle sits astride a 22K BTU burner in the back and only a 15K BTU burner in the front. So, if the burners are set at the same level, the back will run hotter. I like it this way, as it gives me two different cooking 'zones', but it's important to know how your cooktop's burners are configured, especially front-to-back.
Other than that, sky's the limit. In our house, it's most frequently used for pancakes, bacon, eggs, hash browns, grilled cheese sandwiches, and....yes, quesadillas. I rarely use the ridged 'grill' side, unless it's super-freezing outside, but I've used it for chicken breasts and the occasional burger in the past. Works fine. The grease and juices drain off the meat via the large channels and grease troughs built into the sides allowing for a good char and browning.
In short--it's a cheap thing that works. A rare and valuable thing. Something to be appreciated. Celebrated, even.