Food by Betty Thompson Ambrosia Under the Stars

North Coast Journal

JULY 1995 - FOOD

by Betty Thompson

Ambrosia under the stars

Anybody can cook a tough cut of meat in a Dutch oven - short of a cast-off saddle or old boots - and have it come out ambrosia," says Chip Cannon, blue grass mandolin player, Humboldt State University recreation professor, teacher of techniques in outdoor education and great lover of horse-packing, car camping, canoeing or backyard cooking.

"Anything you can cook in the oven you can cook outside."

Dick Wild, local mule-pack leader and another proficient Dutch-oven cook, concurs - although he claims he will be a "beginner for the rest of his life."

Wild says that Dutch-oven cooking allows you to experience what the pioneers did before the cabin kitchen; you don't have the luxury of turning on the burner and walking away. But cooking over the open fire enhances the outdoor experience. Don't be afraid to experiment.

Select a quality cast iron Dutch oven. These are available locally at Ferndale General Mercantile and many hardware stores. Wagner or Lodge are good brands.

Choose one with three legs and a flanged lid so coals can be put on the top. The lid can be used for frying eggs or pancakes. There are several beautiful tools (gonch hook) designed for removing the lid, but Cannon's favorite is a framing hammer. The claw fits under the lip and the head balances the lid so it doesn't flip.

A 10-inch oven is suitable for two people for dessert or biscuits; a 12-inch is the most popular size; a 14-inch will hold a full meal for six.

Season the oven like any other cast-iron piece. Wild suggests you rub the lip of a new oven with valve grinding compound, spin the lid a few times to polish the edge for a tighter fit. He also says cast aluminum ovens (he likes Scott Manufacturing) weigh one-third of the cast iron, heat faster and cool faster, and allow him to carry more than one oven. Cannon prefers the cast iron version because it retains the heat longer.

You can cook with coals from a key hole fire of preferably hardwood or briquets. Soft wood burns too quickly, which means you're constantly shoveling coals. A general rule of thumb is two times as many coals on the top as on the bottom of the oven.

Outdoor cooking times are similar to the indoor times. Using briquets makes it easier to regulate the heat. To cook with a 12-inch Dutch oven at about 350degrees, use 12 briquets on the bottom and 24 on the top. Both cooks agreed that the tendency for beginners is to use too many coals.

For beginners, Cannon suggests a favorite stew or pork roast, carrots, potatoes and onions plus a little water. Another easy dish is pork ribs (not country style) cut up and covered with barbeque sauce. Add new coals every 30 minutes for the first hour. Total cooking time is about two hours.

Biscuits from a mix, a roll or home-made are easily baked in 10 to 15 minutes in a greased 9-inch pie pan in a 10-inch oven. Use jar rings as a trivet between the pie pan and the oven so the biscuits don't scorch on the bottom.

One of Wild's low-cal favorites is a yellow cake mix made with the addition of a small package of lemon gelatin, egg beaters, no oil and baked in a 12-inch oven lined with foil for easy removal. Place eight briquets under and 12 to 15 on top. Leave for 15 minutes. Remove oven from lower coals and cook 15 minutes longer. Check every five minutes until a toothpick comes out clean. When cool, frost with two tablespoons lemon juice mixed with two cups powdered sugar. Another favorite is stewed prunes with cloves, allspice and cinnamon topped with dumplings.

If you are nervous about Dutch-oven cooking, remember that on cattle drives the cook wielded enormous power. Cowboys in the cook's good graces (bringing in firewood) could mean an extra serving of good grub but complaints to the cook or arguing could mean a little gravel in the cowboy's stew.

This month's recipes are favorites of Cannon and Wild. Any of the dishes can be baked inside as well as outside.


Dutch Oven Beans

I picked up this recipe years ago over in Willow Creek, and I think it's probably one of the best recipes for barbecue baked beans I've ever tried.
Cook 1/2 pound bacon and 1/2 cup chopped onion in Dutch oven. Remove from oven and set aside.
Brown 1 pound hamburger in bottom of Dutch oven. Drain.
Add 1 can kidney beans, drained
1 can lima beans, drained
2 cans pork and beans
1/2 cup ketchup
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
3 tablespoons dry mustard
Add bacon and onions; stir.
Put lid on oven, add coals top and bottom, and bake for 2-3 hours.


Dutch Oven Pan Dowdy

I've heard this recipe called "Dutch Oven Dump Cake" before, but officially it's a pan dowdy. This has been an "ol' standby" for me for the past 20 years when I've needed a good dessert without a lot of fuss. Folks seem to love it, it tastes great and, most of all, it's simple.

Use 2-3 cans of fruit pie filling, one stick of margarine and one cake mix.

Take half of the stick of margarine and melt it in the bottom of the Dutch oven. Add fruit and dump the cake mix on top, spreading it evenly over the top of the pie filling. Do not mix.

Slice the remainder of the margarine over the top of the dessert and put the lid on the oven. Place the oven in the coals with coals on the lid and bake between 20-30 minutes.

Top this off with some vanilla ice cream or whipped cream and you'll find that you won't have to worry about leftovers. Some good combinations are apple pie filling with spice cake mix, cherry pie filling with white cake mix. One of my favorites is peach pie filling with yellow cake mix.

Wild's Pot Roast

My mother immigrated to the U.S. from Germany. This was her basic recipe but I've added my own style to it.

4 pounds rolled roast or rump, blade or lean chuck
2 onions, coarsely chopped
6-8 cloves
6-8 whole allspice
3 bay leaves
1/2 cup dry stout red wine (Zinfandel)
2 packages Lipton onion soup mix or onion mushroom
( Wild adds a handful of chanterelle or boletus)
Potatoes, medium, peeled
Carrots, peeled and cut into thirds

Heat oven, add a little oil. Brown meat well in medium hot oil on both sides. Take out and set aside. Long commercial oven mitts are useful.

Add onions and brown well, some beyond brown. Return roast to oven, add cloves, allspice, bay leaves and red wine. Sprinkle soup mix over the top and add a handful of mushrooms if desired. Cover with a tight fitting lid.

Watch to see how much steam is escaping or look inside. If it is boiling, there's too much heat. Add extra liquid if necessary.

Simmer for 21/2 to 3 hours. The last hour add whole potatoes and carrots. On the open fire use coals underneath. With briquets use 8-10 on the bottom, 3-4 on the top for the first half hour. I keep a pan with coals going so I can add or take away coals.


Betty Thompson has been teaching cooking classes locally since 1974.

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