DATELINE: El Paso, Texas - October 1, 2000
I am currently traveling on vacation in the Pacific Northwest, Rocky Mountains and the American South West. I arrived in Bellingham, Washington on September 16, 2000 after completing my fourth season as Chef on board the M/V (Motor Vessel) Explorer in South East Alaska.
The M/V Explorer (http://www.yachtexplorer.com/), a 60 foot luxury yacht, seasonally provides seven-day gourmet charter tours for up to six guests between Juneau and Sitka, Alaska on the Pacific waters of the Inside Passage. It is a very rewarding but demanding job requiring a twelve-hour shift, seven days per week during the brief Alaskan summer.
After sixteen straight weeks of shipboard life it didn't take long for me to make my farewells to my Captain and crew mate once we arrived back in the "lower 48." Within hours of our arrival I had "jumped ship" and rescued my seldom used Chevy Blazer out of deep storage and hit the road.
One of my first stops was to visit some of my family living in the Willamette Valley in West Central Oregon. Of course being a "Chef on vacation" is kind of like the old fashioned "bus driver's holiday."
A "bus driver's holiday" is when the poor old bus driver gets his annual vacation, loads his family in the family car and drives across the United States. The Chef version is that no matter where you go on your vacation, somebody is going to want you to cook.
Fortunately for me it is always a pleasure to cook for friends and family. In this case, even more so since I was reunited with my old Dutch ovens that I had stored in my Nephew's barn three years earlier.
What exactly is a Dutch oven? Let me begin my telling you that it is not that round-bottomed-cast-iron-pot with the domed-lid that's hanging out in the back yard doing double duty as a flowerpot.
A Dutch oven is a cast iron cooking vessel designed for outdoor cooking using either charcoal or coals from a wood fire. A modern Dutch oven has three small (1 1/2") legs, or feet, on its bottom and the tight-fitting removable top has a 1/2" to 3/4" recessed flange around the outer edge. The reasons for these important design characteristics quickly become apparent when you attempt to place hot coals on top. The top flange serves to hold the coals in place, and the three legs lift the Dutch oven off the ground allowing coals to fit underneath.
It is true that the cast iron pot in the back yard was once considered a "Dutch oven" but today that cooking vessel (No, really, it's not a flowerpot!) is more commonly referred to as a "Bean or Stew Pot." You can use it as a makeshift Dutch oven provided you can keep the coals on top, but the modern version is much more efficient.
What can you cook in a Dutch oven? Well, I'm going to stick my neck out here and say that there is nothing you can cook in a conventional oven that cannot be prepared in a Dutch oven. Now before someone writes to challenge me to cook a Steamship Round let me say that the only limitation is the size of what you can cook!
I can imagine someone thinking right now, "Well, why bother if I can cook the same thing in a regular oven?" The answer is that the Dutch oven allows a Chef to bake, roast and fry in remote locations without the need of gas or electricity. The original Dutch ovens crossed the American Prairie swinging under the bottom of Conestoga wagons. They were considered such an essential and valuable possession that at the time of his death, and listed in his estate, Daniel Boone's Dutch oven sold at auction for $50.00!
I vividly remember my first experience with a Dutch oven. It was a family horse pack trip in the Greybull Mountains of Wyoming where my Aunt produced the most fantastic meals from the old cast iron Dutch oven. Day after day we feasted on such dishes as Chicken n' Dumplings (click for recipe), pan fried trout, roast Venison, homemade cobblers and campfire biscuits. The first time I tasted Buttermilk Biscuits (click for recipe) baked on coals by a mountain stream made a true believer out of me.
It was many years later in the mid-1980's that I was re-introduced to the Dutch oven. I was working as a Chef/River Guide for Far Flung Adventures (http://www.farflung.com/), a river rafting company in Big Bend National Park. A Dutch oven is essential equipment for a river guide and I quickly adapted my culinary abilities to the wilderness experience.
I have never been far from Dutch ovens since. I've used them in fishing lodges in Alaska and Patagonia, Chile; on river rafting and horse pack trips in the South West, Mexico and Guatemala; and I've even used them for catering a couple of Marlboro ads being filmed on location in West Texas. For that event I fed over 100 people at a time in food prepared solely in Dutch ovens.
The morning before my Oregon cookout I was inspired by the site of fresh Green Tomatoes covered with the first frost of the season in my Niece's garden. Rather then let such a bounty go to waste, I decided the menu for our family gathering would be a traditional West Texas Chuckwagon Cookout. This menu is similar to one of the meals I catered for the "Marlboro Men, sans the wild horses running through the kitchen. You don't need a Dutch oven to cook the following menu, but it sure is a lot of fun.
A West Texas Chuckwagon Cookout (Oregon Style)
Fried Green Tomatoes with Pico de Gallo
Jalapeno Corn Bread
Old Fashioned Peach Cobbler with Cream
Now before you run out to your local Ranch & Farm Supply Store and buy a Dutch oven you'll need to know a few tricks, and you'll also need to pick up a couple of other items while at the feed store.
In addition to a good quality Dutch oven (Lodge Manufacturing is the brand I use) you also need to invest in a pair of heavy-duty leather gloves to keep from burning your hands. The other essential piece of equipment is a pair of "Channel Locks." "Channel Locks" are heavy-duty pliers that can be "locked" in a position that allows you to pick up the very hot lid of your Dutch oven. A heavy-duty pair of tongs and/or a small shovel will also be needed for arranging the coals on the Dutch oven.
The first thing you need to do when you get your new Dutch oven is to read the directions on how to season your oven and how to keep it clean. If you find an old Dutch oven that you can adopt you should wash it thoroughly inside and out. Dry it completely and lightly rub the entire Dutch oven (inside and out, including the lid) with a lard or shortening. I do not recommend using oil for this as it tends to get too sticky as the oven ages.
Place the Dutch oven and the Lid in a preheated 275 degree oven and "bake" for 1 hour. Allow to cool and wipe out any excess oil that remains. After seasoning your Dutch oven it is ready to use and if washed properly after use it will not need to be re-seasoned. Never use soap to clean a Dutch oven! Using soap will destroy the seasoning and it will be necessary to re-season the oven. If you burn something in your Dutch oven, add a little liquid, put it on the stove and bring to a boil. Use a spoon to scrape the burned food out, rinse, dry and wipe with more shortening.
It is very important too always dry your Dutch oven after washing (including the Lid) and to rub a very light coating of shortening over the Dutch oven (including the outside). Store your Dutch oven in a dry place. If you season your Dutch oven correctly and wash, dry and oil it properly, your Dutch oven will continue to improve with age.
The next thing you need to know is how to build a fire. However, you can save yourself a lot of work, and a few trees in the process, by using standard charcoal briquettes.
To use charcoal the essential thing is to put them on, and under, your Dutch oven when they first start to turn white. At that point they will provide maximum heat. If they are completely white when you use them you will have to add additional coals during the cooking process. The Rule of Thumb for using charcoal is seven (7) coals evenly spaced under the Dutch oven and fourteen (14) coals evenly spaced on top. That combination of coals using a preheated Dutch oven should maintain 325 - 350 degrees for thirty minutes, unless of course, it is snowing and/or high winds are blowing, in which case go in doors and use your conventional oven or add more coals.
To preheat your Dutch oven simply set it next to your charcoal while it is getting hot. Remember to turn the oven and Lid frequently to preheat the Dutch oven evenly. It is always a good idea to heat more coals that you think you'll need. I like to keep a steady supply of coals heating at different temperatures in case I need to add some later in the cooking process.
As with all food production, your mis en place should be right next to you while your charcoal is getting hot and your oven is preheating. The next step is to add your ingredients and keep a close watch on the cooking process.
It is frequently necessary to turn your oven 1/4 turn every ten minutes (also, turn the Lid, separately, 1/4 turn) during the cooking process to insure even heat.
One last trick I will share with you has to do with looking inside the oven during the cooking process. Always lift the lid (using your channel locks) downwind from the oven. Otherwise you'll end up with a bunch of charcoal ashes being blown back all over your freshly baked Cobbler.
Once you mastered the basics of your Dutch oven you can find additional recipes on my web site (http://www.chefpatrick.com) and at the International Dutch Oven Society web site (http://www.idos.com/). The IDOS is a great organization of Dutch oven enthusiasts with many links to other Dutch oven sites.
One final note about the Cowboy Beans. Don't try cooking them completely in the Dutch oven as it would probably take days and use a ton of charcoal. Instead, cook them over a stove the day before and reheat them in the Dutch oven.
I recommend that you learn to use your Dutch oven by baking Buttermilk Biscuits a few times just to get the hang of it.
Good luck and let me know how it turns out.
For more Dutch oven tips and techniques, visit our friends at The Outdoor Sports Advisor