A deliciously interesting conversation has evolved between myself and some lovely friends of mine, who are also food writers and dedicated cooks. It started on Twitter a few weeks ago when Celia from Fig Jam and Lime Cordial and Mel from The Cook's Notebook were chit-chatting about Le Creuset enamelled cast iron cookware sets that Mel had spotted on 'sale' at her local newly-opened Costco.
I piped in to the Twitter talk, as you do, and followed up with a recipe for Minestrone that included a few paras on my thoughts on expensive cookware and why I liked my shiny red enamelled cast iron French oven from Aldi. Celia then posted a heads up for her Aussie readers about Aldi having a sale on their cast iron cookware, which was particularly thoughtful of Celia, given that she hates enamelled cast iron with a passion. But then Celia is very kind like that, you know.
Next Celia followed up with a post about her obsession with clay cookware, including an ode to her Römertopfs, Emile Henry flame range and some of her favourite (and quite attractive methinks) Portugese ceramics. Celia says that her Emile Henry pieces 'have proven to be very sturdy (although [her] mum has had a pot crack), but the Römertopfs are quite battle-scarred, boasting chips and scorch marks, yet these only seem to add to their charm'. Actually, I'm having fun experimenting with a Römertopf too, a recent unexpected gift from a dear friend.
So, then Glenda from Passionfruit Garden joined the discussion, advising that she doesn't like enamelled cast iron either, but then posed the question on her blog: 'So, I hear you ask, if you are not a Le Creuset woman, what type of woman are you?'. The answer is that Glenda loves her Bessemer. I laughed at Glenda's comment that 'Bessemer is the ugliest cookware' she has ever seen. 'It comes in lovely colours like flame, orange, baby poo mustard and lime green – perfect for the 70s,' she says. How gorgeous! And I think I agree that Bessemer is not the most attractive looking cookware, Glenda. ◕ ‿ ◕
My vintage Rena-ware saucepan set...
I've been meaning to write about my vintage Rena-ware saucepans for ages and, given that I'm not able to stand and cook for long (much less style and photograph food) as I'm 'non-weight bearing' for six weeks after surgery on my broken foot, now seems the perfect time.
Not long after my mother passed away in 1997, my father decided to pack up and move back to Budapest. He and my mother had been married for more than 50 years and, after the death of his beloved, dad was like a lost soul, sad and terribly lonely, despite having his two daughters and their extended families close by. The move back to his homeland breathed new life into his heart and he travelled and fished and lived out the rest of his days, until he too passed away in 2001. Ah, I note that I have digressed from the original topic.
After breaking the news about his impending move, my father asked me what, if anything, I would like to keep from his home. At first I shook my head and told him that I couldn't possibly take anything, but after some coaxing, I asked if I might be able to have a few items of cookware and kitchen utensils. Given my love of cooking, dad knew that they would be very much treasured and used.
To the best of my recollection, the Rena-ware saucepans were purchased sometime in the early 1960s and I think my mother may have bought them on a lay-by plan. They are 18-8 Tri-ply stainless steel, made in Canada. And let me tell you, despite being slightly battled scarred and nearly as old as yours sincerely, they're still going strong!
Research on the product reveals that Rena-ware was founded by Fred “Pop” Zylstra, who migrated from Holland to the United States to in search of a dream. According to the Rena-ware web site, Mr Zylstra founded the company in 1941, selecting what he called 'water-less' cookware as the flagship product to propel his new business venture. Apparently: 'In the 1950s, Rena Ware grew nationally from coast to coast, and in the 1960s expanded internationally under the leadership of Zylstra, with the opening of markets in Europe, Australia, South and Central America, and Asia'. Spare parts and accessories are still available in Australia today from this Sydney distributor.
I'm a fan of stainless steel cookware, having acquired pieces from a few different brands over the years, and also sold some excellent brands when I co-owned the cookware store (Scanpan, Chef Inox, and Baccarat among them). When I was married I had a copper-based Essteele set, which I left behind as I moved on. After all, I had my mum's Rena-ware, so really didn't need more and, besides, as good as they were, I didn't fancy polishing copper bases on the Essteele for the rest of my life!
Among the favourites in my saucepan drawers nowadays (alongside the Rena-ware) are my Baccarat Capri saucepans and frying pan (18/10 brushed stainless steel with aluminium encapsulated in the base and ergonomic handles). And my number one fave (and perhaps the piece I sold more of than anything else in the shop), a superb Baccarat oval baking dish. Perhaps I should showcase that one on my next IMK post?
And just a snippet on cookware...
Christine McFadden provides some sage advice about choosing cookware, or more specifically, saucepans, in her book Tools for Cooks: 'Before buying, think carefully about how you will use and store your saucepans. Size, shape, weight and material are all important,' she advised. In short, I suggest that you look for items with a flat, solid base in sizes that will fit your cooktop and oven. Check the handles to make sure they're user friendly in your hands, as there's nothing worse than the edges of a handle digging into your hand when you're lifting a heavy pot. And as Ms McFadden points out, 'rivets or a firm weld are better than screws' and the handles and knob on the lid should be heat resistant.
In terms of stainless steel for utensils and cookware, 18/8 and 18/10 are the two most common 'grades'. The numbers refer to the ratio of chrome or chromium to nickel (i.e. 18/8 stainless steel = 18% chromium and 8% nickel). While being virtually indestructible, stainless steel can be a poor conductor of heat and heat distribution can also be uneven, hence why in some saucepans you'll notice food 'catching' in spots. I note that my vintage Rena-ware works beautifully on my gas stove top, but in my previous kitchen with its solid hotplates, the Rena-ware was very slow to heat.
These days, saucepans are made with three or five ply base that has aluminium or copper sandwiched in the bottom and up into the sides of the pan. From my perspective, the good thing about stainless steel is that it's long-lasting (as evidenced by my mother's Rena-ware), looks good, is easy to clean, and, with proper care and handling, can last a lifetime, or maybe even two!
Tell me about your favourite cookware, dear readers. Is it modern or is it vintage? Cast iron or stainless steel? Perhaps you have some treasured family cooking heirlooms too? Please do join the cookware conversation.
Hello. I'm Liz, a writer, cook and traveller based in Canberra, Australia.
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.