Jarrett and I have decided to be wildly irresponsible (well, by our standards) and take a few days off to go on an epic Appalachian road trip. We’ve been wanting to trek down the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains, from Virginia into North Carolina, for a long time, but when Jarrett gifted me Victuals by Ronni Lundy, we stopped dreaming and started planning.
Victuals is such a gorgeous book. It inspires that feeling of awe in me that only a beautiful book, full of heart and story and soul, can instill.
I’d asked Jarrett for a book on traditional Virginia cooking for Christmas, since I figured it was about time to build that section of my library now that we’ve lived here for several years. I was expecting The Virginia Housewife by Mrs. Mary Randolph, published in 1824 and considered to be the first truly American cookbook. But now I’ve fallen straight in love with the modern warmth of Victuals and the incredible profiles of chefs, farmers, and everyday folks who are revitalizing the food systems of Appalachia.
If you love the South, or you love good Southern food, or you read Hillbilly Elegy and wanted to learn more, or you just want to bring something new into your kitchen, Victuals is just what you need. (And no, I didn’t represent this book—I just love it!)
You know a book is fantastic when it inspires you to get up off the couch and drive out to all of the places it’s talking about. As soon as we realized Jarrett would be able to take two weeks off before starting his new think tank job, we started scheming for an adventure. So we’re packing up our little (and currently stinky) hatchback, heading straight west from Alexandria, and then winding down Skyline Drive through the mountains, pointing straight to Asheville.
Along the way, we’re hoping to stop at:
The Shack (Staunton, VA)
Dip Dog Stand (Marion, VA, where we’ll also be visiting our future newest addition to the family, Pepper, who just had 8 pups but will be joining our little family in February! Also, how perfect is it that there’s a legendary slaw dog joint where our future doggie lives? You know that made me too happy.)
The Red Hen (Lexington, VA)
Ralph Stanley Museum (Clintwood, VA)
Everything in Blacksburg, VA
The Palisades (Eggleston Springs, VA—another Victual recommendation)
Seeing what there is to see in Johnson City, TN
Picking up Farm & Sparrow bread (Asheville, NC)
NOT 12 Bones Smokehouse because they are closed and all our hearts are broken.
We have a few nights booked at The Omni Homestead in Hot Springs, VA and at The Biltmore in Asheville, but other than that we’re going to Hotel Tonight it. (Has anyone used this app before? It will be our first time!)
And for once, we’re throwing caution to the wind and not planning every day of the trip. This makes me both nervous and excited. I usually like to have every hotel night booked, every sight slotted into the calendar, every meal reservation booked. But if there’s ever a time in our lives we can wander and a place we can do so without getting hopelessly lost, it’s this trip now.
In the meantime, because you know I wouldn’t take off and leave you empty-bellied, here’s a fantastic recipe that I adapted from Victuals, as well as an interlude from Jarrett on how to properly and non-psychopathically care for a vintage cast iron skillet.
Potato and Kale Cakes
Recipe adapted from Victuals by Ronni Lundy
3 pounds russet or other starchy potatoes
1 1/2 pounds kale, washed and chopped
5 green onions
1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano, or another hard, nutty cheese
4 eggs, beaten
Put a large pot of salted water over high heat. While it comes to a boil, peel and cube the potatoes. Drop the potatoes in the boiling water and cook until tender, 15 to 20 minutes.
As the potatoes boil, heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a heavy cast iron skillet. Add as much kale as will fit in your skillet, cook until it just begins to wilt (don’t overcook it!), remove to a bowl, and repeat until all the kale is cooked.
Drain the potatoes and mash them roughly in a large bowl, then add the cooked kale. Finely chop and add the green onions and grate about 1/2 cup of pecorino romano or another hard cheese directly into the bowl. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Add the beaten eggs and mix well, then form into patties about 3 inches across and 1 inch thick.
Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in your cast iron skillet and fry the patties, working in batches and being careful not to crowd the pan.
Serve with some Duke’s Mayo whipped in with ketchup and whole grain mustard, or with a few fried eggs on top.
The Sane Person’s Guide to Cleaning a Cast Iron Skillet
Maria and I were lucky to receive a beautiful, vintage Griswold cast iron skillet for Christmas. A close friend–an auctioneer, of course!–found one of these beauties for us after we had told him we were on the lookout. And yes, having a well-made cast iron skillet makes all the difference.
Old-fashioned, vintage skillets (brands like Wagner and Griswold) are superior to the modern-day Lodges of the world. The iron for these older skillets was cast through a process that made for smoother and more consistent iron surfaces, which means a more durable skillet and a better cooking experience, with more even heat.
Although Wagners and Griswolds are sadly no longer manufactured, you can find them at auctions or on sites like Ebay. Happily, there are also some new companies, like Virginia-made Butter Pat Inc., that are making skillets via the old-fashioned method. You can expect to pay more, but at least you’ll be getting your money’s worth, too.
Now that we have this glorious hunk of iron, we had to figure out how to clean a cast iron skillet properly. But as anyone who has Googled how to clean a cast iron skillet knows, you can read about this stuff until you’re blue in the face. The think-pieces about how to clean a cast iron skillet are legion–for example, J. Kenji López-Alt has written not just one, but two 2,000-word essays on the topic. He even claims that the cardinal rule of cast iron maintenance–never use soap–is actually wrong. (If you want to go deep on the subject of how to maintain cast iron, both pieces are great reads.)
But all of this pontificating on skillets makes using one seem like a hassle, which is a shame since you can cook so many awesome things in skillets (including Maria’s recipe above, or this Founding Farmer’s Cornbread!). So, today, Maria and I have for you:
The Simple Way to Clean a Cast Iron Skillet
Here we lay out a few, simple rules, which we’ve distilled from the advice of Brian, our auctioneer friend who has sold and taken care of dozens of vintage, highly valuable cast iron skillets over the years. If these rules are good enough for the precious Griswold and Wagner cast iron skillets he deals in, then they’re good enough for me!
Here’s all you really need to do:
- After using your cast iron skillet, just wipe it clean with a dry cloth or paper towel.
- If the skillet is extra grubby, you can scour it with a damp paper towel or with coarse salt.
- If the cast iron skillet still isn’t getting clean, boil a small amount of water in the skillet until it evaporates and then wipe or scour again.
- Once finished cleaning, rub lightly with any neutral oil, such as vegetable oil.
And that’s it! All you really need to know to clean your cast iron skillet easily is this simple 2 step process: wipe/scour + oil.
By the way, we stay away from soap–it’s unnecessary if you follow the above steps. Added bonus: you won’t have to choose sides in the heated soap vs. no-soap debate.