Meat is often the main event when it comes to barbecue, but I can never resist the charred allure of a perfectly grilled vegetable. Thinking about the cast-iron skillet as an indoor grill, I imagined platters piled high with the summer’s harvest of sliced eggplant and zucchini, halved tomatoes, red peppers, scallions, all branded with deep black marks. The genius of cast iron, though, is that it allows us this luxury year-round, opening the door for favorite vegetables of all seasons. In addition to summer produce, we can have our earthy root vegetables—carrots, potatoes, beets—in the fall; kale and brussels sprouts bringing a touch of green to the winter; and even asparagus as the first taste of spring.
What’s true for meat also holds true for vegetables, which benefit from that same caramelized crust that the cast iron gives to steaks and hamburgers. The main difference is when to season and the level of heat. Meat should be seasoned well before cooking, so that the salt has time to penetrate and tenderize. Vegetables, on the other hand, should be seasoned at the end or after cooking, to avoid drawing too much water from the plants’ cells, destroying their texture by steaming them in their own juices. And because they tend to be more delicate, vegetables should be cooked at a slightly lower heat than meat. For this reason, it makes sense to cook the vegetables first, while the pan is still warming up, so that by the time they’re finished, the pan is searing hot and ready for the steak.
As with meat, the possibilities are endless and well worth a bit of experimentation. Though I’ve tried many vegetables on cast iron, two that I keep coming back to are eggplant and brussels sprouts. Think of these as guidelines for technique rather than recipes, and use them to branch out into other vegetables and preparations.
When choosing brussel sprouts at the store, try to look for one that are small and tight, as they’ll be the freshest and most tender. Rinse the sprouts well and shake the water off, and then trim off the base of the stem end and cut them in half from top to bottom. If your brussels sprouts are on the larger side, you might want to quarter them so that they’ll cook more quickly.
Warm up the pan over medium heat and add a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Because of its higher smoking point, I prefer regular olive oil to extra virgin for cooking. Add the halved brussels sprouts to the pan and turn them all cut-side down. Cover the pan (with the lid of another pot if you have one that fits, or just with some aluminum foil) and let the sprouts steam in the water still clinging to them for a few minutes, depending on size. If they’re very large, this may take about ten minutes, and if they’re small, about five. Don’t stir them, but you can flip one over just to check how brown it is. When the outer leaves are softened and the bottoms are getting charred, remove the lid, turn up the heat slightly, and begin to stir them. At this point, add in about half a teaspoon of sea salt and stir well. Cook until they reach the level of doneness you desire; I like them a bit al dente, but some may prefer them softer.
For the eggplant, choose fruits that are dark purple, still firm to the touch, and heavy for their size. While the skillet is warming over medium heat, slice the eggplant into half-inch rounds and generously coat the pan in olive oil. The eggplant will act like a sponge at first, soaking up much of the oil, but as it cooks and softens it will release some of it back into the pan, so you shouldn’t have to add more after that. Cook until both sides are deeply caramelized and sprinkle with sea salt before serving.
Jeffrey Ozawa is a writer and cook living in Chicago. His blog, Gorumando, explores life’s pleasures through food.
(photos: Jaimie Lewis of Machins Choses)