Pan-roasted: it’s one of those menu descriptors that I always find appealing, like flame-broiled, wok-seared, fire-grilled. Maybe it has something to do with the muscular combination of noun and verb; maybe it’s the hyphen. The succinct combination is somehow far more appetizing than “roasted in a pan.” Whatever the source of that allure, if there’s a pan-roasted striped bass, pan-roasted duck breast, or pan-roasted double-cut pork chop on the menu, that’s what I’m ordering.
Never mind that I’ve never been fully certain exactly what pan-roasted means, though I had an idea. So I looked it up, and found that the generally accepted definition involves starting a dish—usually a piece of meat—on the stovetop, searing it in a skillet or sauté pan, then finishing the cooking in a moderate oven. The idea is that the enveloping heat of the oven will finish the cooking more evenly than if you just left the pan on the burner. In some cases—that double-cut pork chop, for instance—I can see the logic. In others—the piece of fish—I think it’s probably more a case of menu puffery; once that fish fillet is browned on both sides, it’s practically done cooking. It really doesn’t require roasting. That doesn’t mean I’m not still a sucker for pan-roasted salmon with a ramp beurre blanc and nettle flan.
All that being said, the kind of pan-roasting I’m talking about here is a method that doesn’t use the oven at all, but is ideal for woodstove or campfire cookery. And it elevates the importance of the pan, which should ideally be cast iron. The method evolved by happenstance, over years of cooking on the Bide-A-Wee woodstove, and really gelled in my mind with all the cooking we’ve been doing over the last few weeks on the new stove. It combines the qualities of the cast iron with the moderate, persistent heat of the woodstove. The results are savory, rustic, just the kind of thing you want to eat on a winter evening.
Now, I know some of the skeptics among you are going to say: You’re cooking stuff in fat in a fry pan on a stove top. How is this different from frying? Answer: It’s not. Except, when we talk about frying, I think it generally implies a fairly high heat, a larger amount of fat, a shorter cook time. You could call this low, slow frying, but in my mind the technique has more in common with pan-roasting, so I’m going with that. It’s a bit like the question of when something turns from a braise into a stew, from a stew into a soup.
|Thelma Sanders Sweet Dumpling at harvest time|
The two preparations I have here—acorn squash, a venison leg roast—are ideal examples of foods that respond well to this method. Both require a fairly long cooking time, and both benefit from long exposure to the hot—but not too hot!—pan. And in the case of the venison, there are beautiful drippings left to turn into a pan sauce (another of those simple yet supremely appetizing phrases).
|The same squash, up from the root cellar a few months later; a wee bit wrinkled, still delicious|
Given all that introduction, the method itself is pretty simple: for the squash, halve it, clean it, cut it into slices. With an acorn type, just go between the scallops, and with other kinds, make roughly 1-inch thick slices. What I used here was an acorn type called Thelma Sanders Sweet Dumpling—how charismatic is that? This has a fairly thin skin, which in fact is mostly edible by the end of cooking. The bottom, hollow part of a butternut also works well for this, and has nearly as tender a skin, once cooked. Delicata types would also work well. I would avoid drier types of squash with thicker rinds, such as buttercup.
So, you heat your cast iron skillet, and add some fat. Duck fat is beautiful, and my first choice for this. Rendered fat from excellent bacon is another good choice. Otherwise, the cooking oil of your choice, or clarified butter. You only need about a tablespoon. Add the squash slices and cook them on one side for 7 or 8 minutes. Turn them over and repeat. Keep turning at intervals until the squash is nicely brown all around and tender to taste. You could add a crushed garlic clove or a couple sprigs of thyme or rosemary along the way. At the end, season with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper. A dusting of paprika or espelette pepper would also be excellent, and ground Sichuan pepper (hua jiao) is a nice complement to sweet squash. Other possible finishes: a drizzle of pumpkin seed oil or melted butter, some chopped fresh herbs, finely minced garlic, or the the garlic, lemon zest, parsely combo called gremolata. Which makes me think that you could turn this into a vegetarian main course by serving the squash slices over pasta. In which case I imagine you’d want some excellent grated cheese to finish it off. I think I have a new dish to try out….
For the venison: this piece of leg was about a pound and a half, and nearly two inches thick, an excellent candidate for this kind of pan roasting. I salted and peppered it liberally. Heated a bit of sunflower oil in the pan, and added the meat. Let it cook 8 minutes per side, turning several times. It cooked a little more than 30 minutes, in the end. After the first turns I added a couple crushed cloves of garlic, a broken up dried red chile, and a couple sprigs of rosemary. As the meat browned and cooked very gently, and the aromatics released in the pan, the house came to smell amazing.
The meat came out a beautiful medium rare, and tender as can be. We didn't eat it right away, but a couple of nights later I sliced it very thin and piled the slices on top of a piece of homemade grainy sourdough. I then doused it with a sauce--a kind of jus--I had made by deglazing the pan with red wine and water. I extended the jus with some chicken stock, and because it was quite spicy from the chile, I added a little maple syrup to balance the heat. I also stirred some powdered cocoa into the syrup--a sudden inspiration--and the combination was terrific.
You don't necessarily need a woodstove for this kind of cooking. The keys, I think, are the cast iron pan, the low and slow cooking time, and the appropriate ingredients. It's a really mellow way of cooking, and foods prepared this way can often be made ahead and reheated--an ideal way to stockpile some made-ahead meals on a winter weekend afternoon.
Text and photos copyright 2013 by Brett Laidlaw