I am in Bradford, Ontario now, visiting my parents for a few days. Tonight, we had some lovely Beretta Organic Farms’ tenderloin for dinner. Now, I’m almost entirely vegetarian, so I only had two bites – I don’t need meat, and less meat consumed stretches out the duration of meat portions for people who do eat meat, especially if they too cut down their portion sizes. But, my parents are lifelong omnivores, and meat, especially in ground and sausage form, is a convenience food for the masses and for the elderly. Their diet is definitely meat-based. Knowing this, what says “Happy Birthday!” to a meat-eater like sending them on a scavenger hunt to a shed on a farm to find a box of organically farmed, grass-fed beef? That’s what my Dad got for his birthday.

Here’s how I cooked it:

I made a mix of black pepper, chili, paprika, salt, and brown sugar, and I coated the meat with it. Then I put it in an oiled cast iron skillet – the old-fashioned kind your grandmother ought to have used – under the broiler in the oven until it was browned on one side, and turned it over for the other. Then I shut the oven off until the rest of the dinner was ready. I made a gravy out of oil, onions, and flour and water using the same cast iron skillet I broiled the meat in. How’d I get to be such a good cook? My (overly self-critical) mom, who had a secret interest in food, and who made sure our family had a sit-down three square meals a day, no matter how aggravating the arguments got.

Cast iron skillets, especially if it’s a set of three in small, medium, and large, are an essential tool in the arsenal of a vegetarian chef. This is the case for any chef, but particularly for vegetarians, as trace elements of iron make it into the food you are cooking, and iron is a mineral we need for hemoglobin, the protein in blood that carries oxygen and carbon dioxide back and forth from the lungs to our tissues.

You can use the large skillet as a dutch oven by inverting it over a hot burner and heating tortillas on the underside. In the oven, you can roast vegetables or even freezer Crispy Fries in them instead of ruining (eventually) a pizza or cookie sheet, and you can make delicious cake-like omelets. Regular frying on the stove top is its expected utility, but making various sauces is a consistently successful endeavour, from vegetarian poutine sauce (miso, oil, flour, water, soya sauce, spice), to wine sauce (butter, shallots, wine, salt + pepper) to tomato sauces for pizza and pasta. And, you can take them camping.

In short:

To cook a good meal, you don’t need a battery of cookware, you just need a big soup pot, a medium sauce pan, and a few of these skillets that can fit the pot and pan’s lids.

I received my set of skillets from a friend who couldn’t keep the food from sticking; it is because you first need to ‘season’ the skillets by keeping them oiled and keeping them hot – such as leaving them in the oven every time you use the oven, such as cleaning them quickly without letting them soak for long, and then drying them on the stove burner with a little oil added once the rinse water has evaporated. If your pans ever lose their seasoning by being burned on empty, left dirty, or left to rust, you simply repeat the cycle of cleaning them, oiling them, and heating them.

Also published on Medium.