I gave up cooking with non-stick pots and pans a long time ago. I am a gal who likes stuff to be low-maintenance and safe, and non-stick pans, it seemed, were neither. You had to be ultra-cautious in cleaning them, and if you got a scrape, heaven forbid, unwanted chemicals could leach into your food.
But non-stick pans do, of course, serve a valuable purpose: you need less oil to cook your food which is important in our health-aware world. And some foods, like a stir-fry, for instance, are better off cooked in non-stick pans. Of course, I never cooked in a non-stick pan that was 100 percent non-stick, but that’s another story.
Anyway, when I decided to give up non-stick pans, I was in a dilemma. My sturdy stainless steel pots and pans were good enough for most every day cooking, but with low-fat stir-frys, for instance, I did feel the need for a surface that was slicker and more forgiving.
That’s when I read a newspaper article on cast-iron pans. This was almost a decade ago, but that article so impressed me, I still have it — yellowed and fraying– in my kitchen cabinet. I prize it not so much for the information any more, which I have almost by heart, but for the fact that it marked a significant milestone in my kitchen routine.
In India, tavas, or flat griddles used to bake chapatis and such, are usually made with cast iron. But until I read this article, that was the extent of my knowledge about cooking with cast iron.
When seasoned, the article said, cast-iron pans made great non-stick pans one could fry, saute, stir-fry and cook just about anything in.
So the next time I went to the market, I picked myself a cast-iron skillet.
It was metallic-gray and I don’t think it cost me more than eight bucks at the time, which was a steal compared to most good-quality non-stick pans. The article had details on seasoning the pan, which sounded really strange and really odd to someone who had never done anything like it before, but I gave it a go.
Then, I tried cooking in my cast-iron pan. It was a disaster.
Everything stuck to it, didn’t come off, and tasted funny. Still, I wasn’t about to give up. One of the most magical things about cast-iron pans is, they are supposed to improve with use. And so I continued to season my pan and used it only to do oily stuff like deep-fry at the beginning. Gradually, my cast-iron pan began to get that prized black, shiny hue and smooth texture that turns it into a naturally non-stick pan.
Now, I have an assortment of cast-iron pans in all shapes and sizes (except a dutch oven. Desi, are you reading?), and I use them all the time for everything from making pancakes to curries to veggies and, of course, to deep-fry.
I couldn’t be happier. They look great, clean easily (forget all those stories about never washing your cast-iron pan. I do it all the time, sometimes even with soap, and it’s never hurt them), and they are supposed to add iron to your food which is great when you are a vegan like me. You do need to take some precautions, like not putting them away when wet (I usually just put mine on the stove after washing and wiping to make sure all the moisture is gone), and you also need to season them a little more frequently when they are new.
This ode to cast-iron pans was just the precursor to this delicious stuffed-eggplant dish that I wanted to share with you, and which I cooked, surprise, in a cast-iron skillet.
Baghare Baingan is a dish from Andhra Pradesh, in South India. It’s very close to Bharleli Vangi, or Bharli Vangi, which is a dish I often ate growing up at the home of Maharashtrian relatives, but has some differences that make it quite unique.
This dish typically uses a lot of oil, but I cut it down quite a bit. You do need the small, round Indian eggplants for this, usually available in Indian grocery stores if you happen to live outside India. These smaller eggplants have a more delicate flesh and skin, and they are the perfect size for stuffing.
About 10 small round eggplants, washed and stemmed. Make two slits, crosswise, on the non-stem side, stopping short of making a clean cut, so the eggplant holds together at the base.
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 tbsp sesame seeds
2 tbsp peanuts
1 tsp poppy seeds (khuskhus)
1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds (methi seeds)
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp red chilli powder
1 tsp sugar
2 tbsp tamarind pulp
1 tbsp canola or other vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
1-inch piece ginger, chopped
6 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 sprig curry leaves
1/4 cup canned (or thick) coconut milk
Salt to taste
Roast the onions on a dry cast-iron or non-stick skillet until they soften and brown spots appear. Remove to a blender.
Roast the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, fenugreek seeds and peanuts until they start to change color and smell fragrant, about a minute or two on medium heat. Add to the blender.
Now add the ginger, garlic, turmeric powder, red chilli powder, sugar, salt and coconut milk to the blender.
Blend until you have a fairly smooth paste.
Now stuff this paste into the prepared eggplants.
Heat the oil in a cast-iron or other skillet.
Add the curry leaves, stir for a minute, and then add the eggplants one by one, placing them away from you so the oil doesn’t splatter on you.
Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 8-10 minutes or until the eggplants begin to soften.
Now add the remaining paste and 3/4 cup of water.
Bring to a boil, turn the heat to medium-low, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, to ensure all sides of each eggplant get cooked.
The dish should be done when the eggplants are tender enough to be pierced through with a fork, and when specks of oil have risen to the surface.
Garnish with chopped coriander leaves
This dish tastes best with hot phulkas or chapatis.
As eggplants fill the summer vegetable market and garden, you can find some more of my favorite eggplant recipes here.