WHY USE CAST IRON TO ROAST VEGETABLES
For North Carolina native Jamie Swofford, there are more than four seasons in a year. Thirteen times more, to be exact, with the Piedmont chef-turned-farmer abiding by the idea that every week—52 in total—brings a new peak for local produce, and with it, an opportunity to savor that fleeting moment’s sense of place.
It’s that exact ethos that led Swofford to found Old North Farm, a small, sustainable acre-and-a-half of his childhood home in Cleveland County, where, as The Chef’s Farmer, he grows heirloom vegetables, herbs, flowers, and even muscadine grapes for local cooks, brewers, craftsmen, and communities between Charlotte and Asheville—including his own wife, Keia, who also runs the small-batch bakery Milk Glass Pie.
“This is Week 42,” said Swofford from the farm in mid-October. “I’m harvesting my first rutabaga, as well as some beautiful purple and green daikon radishes, watermelon radishes, salad turnips, kale—a lot of roots and greens. My sugar snap peas are flowering right now, so I’ll harvest those next week.”
In the autumn, many of those ingredients end up together in what he calls “one-pan pick-ups,” a term held over from restaurant days that refers to a single-pot meal, using whatever the garden has to offer, with cast-iron being his go-to medium.
“With everything in one pan, it’s just so simple, which to me, makes it more complex,” says Swofford, recently roasted carrots, radishes, turnips, and all of their tops in the pan drippings of braised lamb spareribs.
From a farmer’s perspective, “I think cast iron preserves the integrity of the ingredients,” he says. “You get a perfect sear on root vegetables that you just can’t from stainless or aluminum. You can really play with their texture, sealing in flavor or liquids the same as if you’re working with protein. Cast iron provides solid, even heat that you can control in exactly the way you need. You don’t just set it on full blast and forget it on the stove. There’s a relationship going on there. There’s a dance that takes place.”
With his chef’s hat on, Swofford also points to the pan’s adaptability—the ways in which it easily moves between various heat sources, oftentimes within a single recipe—as well as its versatility for a variety of recipes, even using it to cook with so-called no-no ingredients such as tomatoes. Can’t combine cast iron with acid? A well-seasoned pan busts that long-held myth.
“I’ve never had a problem with it,” says Swofford. “My number one piece of advice would be use it, cook with it. Your cast iron is not worth anything just hanging on a wall or sitting on a shelf. And the more you use it, the better it will be.”
As a multigenerational North Carolinian, Swofford learned this approach to cast-iron cooking from his grandmothers, who used them exclusively.
Earlier this year, he inherited a utilitarian collection of Atlanta Stove Works, Wagner, and Griswold pans from his late maternal matriarch, Willie B., and now, after he’s done using them, typically to make cornbread, he washes them the way these women taught him: with soap and water, before drying them over the stove. Once they’ve cooled, he wipes them down with coconut oil.
“I learned how to take care of cast iron before I learned how to properly clean dishes,” says Swofford. “These are hundred-year-old pieces and we’re still celebrating with them.”
He sees one of the beauties of cast iron being its dual service as a serving vessel, especially for a one-pan pick-up, whether it’s a summer cornbread, an early fall field pea succotash, or a winter oyster pie with a Heather placed in the center of friends.
“With our daylight waning and longer nights ahead, there’s more time spent in the kitchen and around the table with those we care about,” says Swofford, preparing for the first hard freeze to arrive in his fields any day now. “Cast iron starts a conversation every time.”
About Jamie Swofford
Photo Credit: Old North Shrub
Jamie Swofford is The Chef's Farmer. On his family’s farm in Cleveland County, he grows high-quality produce and boutique ingredients for chefs and delivers fresh and foraged ingredients to breweries and cocktail craftsmen in the North Carolina Piedmont.