I've been camping since before I could walk, and camp cooking since I could
hold a spoon and poke a fire with a stick. But I've never had a Dutch oven
until this summer. Now I see what I've been missing!
As it turned out, my birthday this year occurred the day before my husband and
I were to leave on a camping trip. Since we had planned to leave early in the
morning and he had to work late, I had taken the initiative to pack our gear
and supplies, including the food we would cook. We were sharing cooking duties
and meals with my brother- and sister-in-law, so we had only one
"major dinner" to plan. I had planned and packed the ingredients to make a "foil-pouch meal"
of chicken breasts, potatoes, and onions. I had thrown in some sturdy summer
squash to grill over the grate for a side dish. Then I opened my gift.
Normally, my husband understands that, according to the "Complex Laws of
Sally," kitchen/cooking items are not acceptable gifts. But this was, he
figured, a CAMPING item, not a cooking item. And Sally does love to camp.
What the H@## Am I Going To Do With This?
I probably wasn't as gracious as I should have been. It was after 10 p.m.
and I was tired and wanted to get a good night's sleep before our departure. I
did not want to read about Dutch oven cookery and become an immediate expert.
Somehow, beef sounded like a better inaugural meat than poultry, so I pulled
the chicken out of the ice chest and went to the freezer. In the very back, in
a sad, battered little packet of butcher paper, was the Toughest Cut of Meat
Ever: a round steak. I knew Dutch oven cookery was the bee's knees, and that
low and slow cooking could tenderize even the toughest cut -- this particular
steak was from a grass-fed beef and was 3- or 4 years old and probably freezer
burned, but I figured "what the heck." I love a good culinary challenge.
I threw a Ziploc bag of flour into the dry bin and raided the vegetable drawer
of the fridge. To the potatoes and onions, I added some mini carrots and a half
head of cauliflower. Then I went to bed.
Learning On The Fly
As I drove to our destination the next morning, my husband read aloud from the
"Basic Dutch Oven Cookery" primer that came with our new vessel. It seemed that
even heat was best achieved by a combination of overhead and underneath coals,
and that charcoal briquettes were a good way to achieve this. So we stopped at
a mini-mart along the way and got a bag. Easy enough.
Other tools we might want included long-handled tongs (check -- although we'll
have some longer-handled ones next time) and fire-proof gloves (check). This
particular Dutch oven was pre-seasoned, so we wouldn't have to worry about that
step, but we always have some vegetable oil in our camp kit, so we were good to
go for post-cooking re-seasoning.
As my dear spouse read the primer, I began to warm up to the idea of this
new addition to our camp cuisine toolkit. I had always heard great things about
Dutch oven cookery, and my son had won some sort of award for his Dutch oven
prowess on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout, but I had never taken the
plunge. When I saw a roadside produce stand, I pulled over to see what else we might
add to our ingredient stash. Another fat, sweet onion, a gigantic bulb of
elephant garlic, and a handful of rosemary sprigs joined us.
A Thing Of Beauty
I have to admit that, when push came to shove, my husband and his brother did
most of the cooking. There's something about boys -- even 50-something boys --
and a campfire: you just can't keep them away!
I seasoned the flour with salt, pepper, thyme, and a dash of red pepper
flakes from our camp spice kit. Husband Mike trimmed the worst of the freezer
burn off the steaks, dredged them in flour, and browned them in oil. I cut up
lots of cauliflower, one potato, and all of the onions, which they added to the
pot along with a generous splash of good red wine (which we were all drinking
by this time, everyone having warmed up to the experiment). This
simmered while I peeled the cloves from the elephant garlic. We added
those, some mini-carrots, the rosemary sprigs, and more salt, pepper, thyme,
and red pepper flakes after half an hour or so.
More wine was opened. None was added to the pot. Well, maybe a little. In the end, the Toughest Cut of Meat
Ever melted into the cauliflower, which melted into the garlic, which drew
every aromatic out of the rosemary, leaving only the carrots distinguishable
amongst what turned out to be -- no kidding -- one of the finest campfire meals
I've ever eaten. Here's to Dutch oven cooking and the next camping trip!
Sally O'Neal is a travel and outdoor writer who is not afraid of a culinary
challenge and appreciates the mellowing agents in a good bottle of red wine.
For a fine selection of Dutch Oven Cookery, click here.