I’m in Bradford, Ontario now, visiting my parents for a few days. Tonight, they had some lovely Beretta Organic Farms’ tenderloin for dinner.

I’m almost 100% vegetarian, so I only had two bites. If everyone ate less meat — smaller portions, less frequently — fewer animals would be raised and killed to meet the slower market demand.

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 the roast:

I made a mix of black pepper, chili, paprika, salt, and brown sugar, and I coated the meat with it. I put it in an oiled cast iron skillet – the old-fashioned kind your grandmother likely used – under the broiler in the oven until it was brown on one side. Then, I turned it over to brown it all around.

Then I shut the oven off until the rest of the dinner was ready. Using the same cast iron skillet I broiled the meat in (without cleaning it first, of course!) I made a gravy out of oil, onions, and flour and water.

How’d I get to be such a good cook? My overly self-critical mother had a not-so-secret interest in cooking, and she could always find some fault with the meal she prepared – something to improve for next time. She made sure our family had a sit-down three square meals a day, no matter how aggravating the bickering got. There were six around the table. Someone was always fighting. Usually my brother. Then, me.

Cooking with cast iron is an essential tool and (easy) skill in the arsenal of a vegetarian chef, especially if it’s a set of three in small, medium, and large. Trace elements of iron make it into the food you make, and iron is a mineral we need for hemoglobin, the protein in blood that carries oxygen and carbon dioxide back and forth between our lungs and our tissues. Omnivores get iron from the meat they eat, but vegetarians can get it from dark green vegetables, supplements, and the cookware they use. There’s a company called Lucky Iron Fish that helps people and communities fighting anemia, by this principle.

Frying food on the stove top is a skillet’s expected utility. Typically, I also make chili or ratatouille with the skillet, usually on the stove with a lid on top. Here are others:

  • You can use one in a novel way by inverting it over a hot burner and heating tortillas on the underside (I don’t recommend making crepes this way, though).
  • In the oven, you can make delicious cake-like omelets, or roast vegetables or even frozen french fries – instead of ruining (eventually) a pizza pan or cookie sheet, which is meant for pizza or cookies or breads.
  • Sauces are another consistent 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 remember, unless you’re hiking far, far away, you can take a skillet camping to cook over the campfire.

In short:

You don’t need a battery of cookware to cook a good meal. You just need a big soup pot, a medium “sauce” pan for boiling things, and a few of these skillets – especially if they, like mine, fit the lids from the other pots and pans.

I received my set of skillets from a friend who couldn’t keep the food from sticking. I coulda taught him how, but instead I took advantage of the offer.

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.

Clean them without letting them soak for long, and then dry them on a warm stove burner. Add a little oil once the water evaporates.

If food is still stuck after washing, heat the pan until it’s dry and flake the old food off by scraping, before washing them again.

If your pans ever lose their seasoned patina by burning them, leaving them dirty or unseasoned for months or years, or allowing them to rust — simply repeat the cycle of cleaning them, heating them, and oiling them.

Store your cast iron ware in your oven, or in the oven drawer.