AN HOMAGE TO SPRING
In the restaurant kitchen of Katie Button’s Cúrate in Asheville, North Carolina, you’ll find no cast iron. No skillets. No Dutch ovens. No griddles.
Instead, between her downstairs tapas bar and upstairs dine-in bodega, there is whole trout cooked over a charcoal grill, peppers roasted over an open flame, family-style rice dishes served in red-handled paelleras.
After all, Button was trained under renowned Spanish chefs José Andrés and Ferran Adrià, in a cuisine where cured meats and a coterie of paellas, traditionally made in carbon steel, reign supreme.
At home, though, this six-time James Beard Foundation Award nominee—including this year for Best Chef: Southeast and Outstanding Hospitality—as well as Magnolia Network star and mother of two keeps only one pan in constant rotation.
“I leave my cast iron sitting out on the stove, every single night, ready for dinner with my family,” says Button. “We use cast iron for literally everything.”
Like us, Button’s first experience with cast iron was through her South Carolinian grandmother. More than searing fish or steak, she remembers the ever-important technique of reheating pizza, throwing a slice on the pan over medium-low until the crust and cheese warmed through again.
“That’s how I reheat my pizza to this day,” she says, inheriting that very same pan. “I learned how to use it through cooking at home. Meat. Vegetables. Pancakes. A cast-iron skillet makes grilled cheese like nothing else.”
Now Button even uses it to make Spanish-inspired dishes, like paella, of course, and vierias con guisantes y jamón, or pan-seared scallops with peas and ham.
“Some people get worried that seafood will stick,” she says, “but if you’ve care for it properly, cast iron is basically a nonstick pan. It’s incredible how well it evenly browns and instantly releases the protein.”
The key, says Button, is the combination of cast iron’s seasoned surface with high heat, which together quickly evaporates any moisture and encourages the optimal Maillard reaction, aka the browning of food that takes place during a good sear. (Take her word for it—she’s got a chemical and biomolecular engineering from Cornell University, but that’s another story.)
“The more you maximize browning, not burning, the more flavor you get,” she says.
The chef begins by heating a blended oil in her cast-iron skillet on the stovetop over medium-high heat—until it is,as she puts it:
“Dancing across the pan—glistening—so when you tilt it, it creates lines like legs on a wine glass, on the edge of smoking, but not,” she says. “If you add your scallops and it sizzles madly, you know you’re at the right temperature.”
Button realizes that both cast iron and scallops can intimidate home cooks but actually sees it as their secret weapon.
“It makes their burners work better for them,” she says. “Cast iron’s heft makes it slow to heat up and slow to cool down. If you have electric or gas, it spreads the heat evenly from the burner throughout the whole pan. You don’t have those hot spots like you do with stainless steel.”
Her other secret weapon?
Keeping a bag of frozen—yes, frozen—scallops on hand in the freezer, which can be defrosted in the fridge overnight.
“It makes throwing a dish together so easy—scallops are actually one of the easiest and most delicious seafoods you can find,” says Button. “And once you start cooking in cast iron, you’ll be surprised how easy it is, too. There’s a lot of commentary out there about how to care for a cast iron, but ignore a lot of that. The main thing is just to make sure your cast iron is dry and oiled at all times. That’s it.”
About Chef Katie Button
Five-time James Beard Foundation Award nominee Katie Button is the CEO and Co-Founder of Asheville, North Carolina's beloved Cúrate, a collection of restaurants, online marketplace, wine club and culinary journeys designed to create exceptional and experiential access to Spanish culture. A Southern chef with a scientific mind, Button honed her craft in the kitchens of some of the world's best chefs, most notably Ferran Adrià and José Andrés, before venturing out to open Cúrate Bar de Tapas with husband Felix Meana and her family. Since, they have grown the Cúrate brand to include Cúrate Trips, Cúrate Spanish Wine Club, Cúrate at Home and most recently, La Bodega by Cúrate. Cúrate is part of the Katie Button Restaurants family, which includes Katie Button Media and Magnolia Network’s From The Source, a series exploring the origins and stories behind different ingredients.
Learn more about Button.
Photos courtesy of Katie Button Restaurants.