Everything you wanted to know about Dutch ovens (but were afraid of having nightmares)

No modern alloy metal or non stick pan can hold a candle to old fashioned cast iron cookware

2nd in a series on cast iron cooking-

I guess the best place to start this blog is to describe what a Dutch oven is and what it’s used for. Since many folks have little knowledge of the Dutch oven let’s then assume you don’t own one.

If you do own one and never use it, then kick out the plant growing in it and give it a good washing. After it regains some of its original self esteem, re season it using the method I describe in an earlier post in this blog called “Cast iron cookware, the cooks holy grail.”

First, lets let’s describe what Dutch oven is.

Think of a heavy cast iron stock pot with a cast iron lid and you’re pretty close to what it looks like.

Q.  Why do some have legs, others none and some have lids with raised rims on them and others not?

A.  That’s because there are ‘indoor’ or flat surface and outdoor Dutch ovens.

Q.  How does a Dutch oven work?

A.   Think of your oven at home. It is a self contained total surround cooking area. A Dutch oven works in a similar fashion. Being able to have its bottom, sides and top radiating heat from all places at once, the food inside is cooked from all directions in an equal temperature. Thus the reason it is called an oven.

Note the legs, lid dimples, raised lid rim to hold hot coals and the handle on this outdoor Dutch oven.

Legs are handy if you’re cooking outdoors on an open fire. Hot coals can be bunched up underneath and having three stubby legs gives it a pretty solid stance on a not so level surface. Outdoor style Dutch ovens usually have a lid with a raised lip on it. That one inch lip allows you to place hot coals on its lid without the coals falling back into the fire or the insides when you lift the lid to check on the food inside.        The coals underneath and on those placed on its top is why the Dutch oven is called an oven and not a pot. It is one of the few true baking tools that don’t need an oven. (Cast iron skillets with a lid can bake but need to be placed inside an oven for even heating).

An outdoor oven should not be used indoors. The legs will prevent the bottom from being heated if you have it on top of an electric stove. On a gas stove, the burner grate will get in the way of the legs and it can tip causing spills.

Typical flat bottomed indoor Dutch oven with rounded lid. Note the handles are made to accept a hanger.

The indoor or flat surface Dutch ovens have no legs. This style can also be used as an outdoor oven if you’re careful in placing it on the coals. Many indoor and outdoor Dutch ovens have tabs on the rim so the oven can be hung over an open fire using a tripod stand as shown below. Since an indoor Dutch oven can be placed within a gas or an electric stoves oven, there is no need for a lid with a raised lid to hold hot coals. Older manufactured Dutch ovens had lids with dimples in the inside of them. This allowed for self basting. Many newer Dutch ovens no longer have these.  😥


Quality;

Before purchasing your Dutch oven, read the earlier post here on cast iron cookware.

Then, before throwing your cash or credit card at the sales clerk inspect the thing! Look for loose fitting lids, or lids that are not completely flush with the edge of the pot section.

Check for uneven wall and lid thickness. An uneven casting will not cook evenly. Most good ovens have a wire bail handle attached to the pot section and a loop handle on the lid for easy lifting. Many newer ovens no longer have these, forget it and look for another one that does. The finish should not be extremely rough, especially on the inside and free of any scaling. All the casting seams should be ground smooth without any sharp edges.

Lastly, examine the origin of the Dutch oven. Foreign imports for the most part, use a lower quality of cast iron and have more defects than domestic ones. In my post on cast iron cookware, I go into this in more detail, I recommend you read it. I highly recommend you search for all of your cast iron cookware including your Dutch oven, at antique dealers, estate sales, yard sales, rummage sales … anywhere that you have the possibility of finding older American made cast iron cookware. While visiting my daughter in AZ this summer, I stopped at a number of “old west thrift stores” and “miscellaneous vintage” roadside sales places. There I found incredible deals on some of the finest cookware American foundry’s ever produced. I Found names like Griswold, Miami, Wagner Ware, Wapak, Herters, G Barthel Norma, Lesauveur Rechaud Pigeon, Scranton Stove Works, Lodge, Western foundry and Stover. Any of these cast iron cookware implements would be a honor to own and cook with.

Accessories

OK, you now own and / or have re seasoned you your cast iron cookware. What else do you need to compliment it?

Gloves. Many folks go and buy leather work gloves. I never recommend leather for this reason alone. Once leather gets heated to a certain point, it transfers that scalding heat quickly to your skin.

I one was at a ‘Chefs cook off’ to help raise funds for a local battered women’s shelter. (Note; You western men know how a woman is to be treated so get off your high horse and start acting like it!)

But I digress. The fellow Trail cook next to me started making fun of my yellow Kevlar cooking gloves. He held up his gauntlet style thick leather welding gloves and proudly told me, “These is what a real man uses to cook with, not them sissy city thangs you got there.”

Now I am the furthest looking thing from being a sissy. 6’2”, nice western bow mustache, 270 pounds and an evil eye that at a cutting glance can punch new holes in leather belts when needed.  So naturally my ire was hefted a bit.

So I told him, “Hey my friend, let’s make a wager, Ten dollars says I can hold onto my hot frying skillet here for a longer time wearin’ my gloves that you can wearin’ yours.”

“Ten? Make that fifty an’ you got yourself a bet!”

Not two minutes later he set his down, ripped off his leather glove and wrapped his hand around a ice cold soda can from his cooler. I not only continued to hold onto my skillet but moved my hand from the handle to the actual sides of the pan and held it up to him while smiling. He got the idea, I got fifty bucks!

Another thing you need is a lid lifter. Anyone who’s ever cooked on an old wood cook stove like mama had, knows you never touch a stove tops ‘eye’ without a lid lifter. The same goes for pot lids.

A trivet is also good thing to have. It’s a cast iron circle with nubby legs on it to set your hot pots on. It prevents leaving burn marks on your counter tops.

Lastly, get a good strong pair of long handled tongs. I’d recommend getting them at a restaurant supply house or online at a supply site. Forget those ones in the grocery store, they’re too cheap.

Temperature  

How to get the right temperature to cook with.

A fellow cast iron aficionado has a web site that explains it better than I can, so I went ahead and copied his method to explain all this to you.

  “On the kitchen oven is a really cool dial. I turn it to 350 and trust that the oven will heat up to and remain at 350 degrees. I put in the food, set the timer, and go do something productive. When camp cooking in the outdoors, there’s a bit more hit-or-miss.
On my Dutch oven, there’s no dial, nothing to tell me how hot the oven is. Since cooking food at a fairly consistent and known temperature is important for success, there are 3 ways I know of for estimating temperature. Depending on your skill level and how you’ll be cooking, one of them should work for you.

Also keep in mind that there are many environmental factors that will influence your oven temperature. Wind might blow heat away; colder air temperature, higher humidity and higher elevation reduce heat generated by coals; direct sunlight makes a black oven a bit hotter. You might consider making an aluminum foil wind shield to place around your oven, but if it is that windy, I would recommend you not have an open fire.”

“Nearly all dutch oven cooking will come out ok if your Dutch oven is about 350 degrees. Some things should be cooked hotter and some cooler, but that’s the temperature for all recipes that fail to include a temperature suggestion.”

Hand test


“Use your hand to feel the heat. Of course, every person has a different sensitivity to heat but this works well for me. Just remove the lid from the Dutch oven and place your hand just above or just inside the oven. Count how many seconds you can keep your hand there before it gets too hot.

 It is about 50 degrees per second counting down from 550, so I just count – “550, and 500, and 450, and 400, and 350, and 300, …”.

Seconds Temperature

1

500+

2

500

3

450

4

400

5

350

6

300

7

250

8

200

“This is my preferred method. It is consistent and detects temperature instead of estimating the amount of fuel. You do release heat so you need to do the check as quickly as you can.”

Counting Charcoal


“Lots of dutch oven cookbooks tell you how many charcoal briquettes to put under and on top of the oven. This is the easiest way to cook since every coal is similar and consistent. If you are like me and use real wood for your outdoor camp cooking coals, it doesn’t help much. Also, different brands of charcoal give off different amounts of heat. But, let’s say you are going to use charcoal…
The normal formula is to use twice the number of briquettes as the diameter of the oven. For a 12 inch oven, you would use 24 briquettes. Depending on the type of cooking you are doing, you need to make the heat come more from the top or bottom of the oven. For example, too much heat on the bottom will burn bread.
To do this, you place more or less of the briquettes on the lid.”


Here is a simple chart:

Baking Most heat from top so bottom does not burn.
Place 3/4 coals on top and 1/4 underneath.
Roasting Heat comes equally from the top and bottom.
Place 1/2 coals on top and 1/2 underneath.
Stewing, Simmering Most heat is from bottom.
Place 1/4 coals on top and 3/4 underneath.
Frying, Boiling All heat comes from bottom.
Place all coals underneath.

Below is a beginners recipe. I recommend trying simple foods at first, especially like baking goods. You can test them out using your Dutch oven inside your kitchen oven. Set to the correct temperature your recipe calls for. Form more recipes, check some of these in this blog. Don’t forget to research more online, there are great recipes folks have posted for your to try. JW

BAKING POWDER BISCUITS*

2 Cup all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder plus 1/4 tsp baking soda
4 Tbsp butter or shortening
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup milk

Instructions: Heat Dutch oven to 400 degrees with 3/4 of coals on top.
Combine flour, baking powder, and salt in bowl.
Cut in small pieces of shortening or butter.
Add milk gradually, stirring until soft dough is formed.
Turn out on a lightly floured board and lightly knead for 30 seconds, enough to shape.
Roll 1/2 inch thick folding the dough over on itself at least four times and cut with open end of tomato paste can.
Place in single layer in Dutch oven.
Bake for 12-15 minutes.

* For these or any recipes, remember to  write down in a log book all your temp and time settings or changes to a recipe for future use.

There is nothing more exciting than showing off your cast iron cooking skills in front of a group of family or friends. When the lid is lifted and that wonderful smelling recipe plows into their nose like a raging bull steam rollers itself into a attention deficit disordered Spanish Matador, you can proudly yell, “Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!”

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Trail cooking for the beginner

Trail cooking. Just the sound of that short sentence conjures up visions of cast iron pots strung over a smoky campfire and an old two gallon coffee pot settled onto a bed of hot coals…  at least to me it does.

I once had a previous post on trail cooking on my now deleted Myspace account. Instead of drawing the folks I had intended it for, somehow it drew the back packers crowd. While I have nothing against back packers, it seemed they had ‘green’ issues with me regarding open fires and meat. Since I and my cooking style didn’t fit their mold of what trail cooking is, I received a number of rude and opinionated comments.  So, hopefully those reading this Heritage and trail cooking blog are more attuned to what I consider trail cooking.

First, unlike the back packing crowd, my idea of trail cooking is not cooking rehydrated pouches of pasta alfredo in micro sized aluminum pans over even smaller Swedish alcohol stoves. If yours is, then instead of acting high and mighty and scowling at you, I want to instead educate and teach you about the wonderful world of cooking full meals outdoors while on the move.

In this post, I’m going to show you some handy items for the beginner trail cook. In other post, I’ll go through other great outdoor cooking equipment, how to use them like a pro and give you cooking tips on stews, meats, veggies, biscuits breads and more.

By the time I’ve finished my different post on these subjects, you’ll have enough information to confidently step into the role as a real trail cook.

But first, let’s look at what trail cooking is and give you a beginners guide to some basic equipment.

   Trail cooking is a method of cooking ‘on the run’.

While some ranch cooks have permanent outdoor fire rings with iron pot hanger bars in place (as shown in picture above), we are going to talk about a short term set up. Trail cooking is similar to camp fire cooking except that when you trail cook, you set up your cooking process in a way that you make and store a bulk amount of ingredients for future use while on the move. I’ll explain.

If you are making cowboy beans each night, you would not start from scratch each time you made them. Instead, you would go ahead and prepare a bulk amount of soaked and boiled beans that could last 2-3 days.  Such things like vegetables and spices are not included in the bulk amount being cooked as they are added as each days meal are made.  After the bulk amount of beans are boiled up, the amount you need for future meals is then separated and stored for another days meals. The trick is to store them correctly to inhibit them from turning rancid on you. Boiled beans for instance can be drained fairly dry and stored in cloth sacks for a day or two more with no ill effect. By doing this, you no longer have to do daily overnight soaks and then boil them at each meal until they’re soft.

Sour dough biscuits and breads are another part of the meal that should be set up for multiple days meals. The sour dough starter is made in bulk and a certain amount is then drawn off and added to each batch of fresh dough.

The whole idea of trail cooking is that you can move your camp yet easily set up and quickly start cooking once stopped.

The Chuck Wagon was a portable kitchen that traveled ten to fifteen miles each day.

First things first.

 First the fires. I use two different fire set ups depending on the way I’m cooking and equipment I’m going to use. One is the teepee and the other is the log cabin or criss cross method.  Each fire starts with a center of very flammable material called tinder. This can be paper, or carbonized cloth.* around that material can be loosely placed cardboard, dried grass etc. Then covering that are loosely placed twigs from pencil to finger thickness. (Loosely placed is the prime word here.) From this point you can decide what type of fire you wish to cook on and how big you want it to be.

The first is the Teepee fire. This is a fire that concentrates the flame and heat to a single point located in the center of the fire. Placed on end with all its upper tips meeting in the center above and around the tinder fire, you again start with thinner branches or split wood. Each layer of wood becomes thicker until your pieces are 4-6 inches in diameter. Leave a small opening in the side that leads directly into the center of the tinder area. Using a twig with paper or dried grass wrapped around the end of it, light it and place it into the tinder. Add split wood or logs as needed. This is the quickest to start and hottest form of cook fire. An evening campfire is usually a teepee style.

The second is the criss cross or log cabin fire. Start again with the same tinder method as the teepee fire uses.  Similar to building a cabin with Lincoln logs, build a four square structure using pencil thin twigs,  making sure to lay each twig on the end of the twig next to it. When the height is just above that of your tinder fire place a row of “roof” twigs (pencil to finger thickness)  loosely across the top, like a roof. Place another loosely built wall of twigs and thin branches around the original cabin making sure you leave an entry way intact for lighting your tinder. Each wall of surrounding “Lincoln logs” should be thicker until they reach a 4-6 inch thickness. After lighting, this fire is meant to burn down into a hot burning coal bed. Add to the fire to increase the intensity of the hot coals by laying consecutive thin and thick pieces of firewood flat across the fire being sure not to add too many too quickly or you could smother your fire. As mentioned, by building this type of fire, a very thick, hot and long lasting bed of coals are made.

When you deem the fire is ready, just rake the coals somewhat level.  you can place your cooking equipment, and certain foods directly onto the coals. This type of fire has many uses. It provides a flatter surface for Dutch ovens, frying pans, coffee pots and other equipment that cannot be hung over the fire.

                                                                             

The basic grill.  There are again two types of grills I use. One is the above pictured stationary grill on legs and the second is a great little adjustable grill shown further down. I’ve even seen folks use old oven racks as grills as shown below.

The best way to use a flat grill without legs is to set it on top of two large opposing logs with the fire in between the two logs. This not only holds the grill level and in place but reflects the heat into the center of the fire. Rocks can also be used but never use rocks taken from the water, they can explode when water that has soaked into the rock turns into steam.

The adjustable grill. This is my favorite all purpose grill. It’s mounted on an iron rod hammered into the ground and held in place with an attached clamp. Being mounted on the rod allows the grill to be easily moved up and down and rotated away from over the fire. No more burning heat hitting your face when trying to remove your cooked food. Just rotate it 180 degrees away from the fire.

It will hold most frying pans, coffee pots or you can cook directly on top of it. Potatoes, corn on the cob and even hot dogs, burgers and steaks cook easily on it. It dismantles and can be stored in its flat box. This inexpensive trail cooking tool is a must in my book.

Finally, there are some optional pieces of equipment that are real handy if you are serving up food for a crowd but not necessary if you’re just a handful of hungry folks. I’ll go into further detail on these pieces of equipment in an upcoming Dutch Oven post. Below I’ve posted some pictures of these. They include a four legged Dutch oven cooking set, a coffee tilter and pot hanger. Other minor but handy stuff to have on hand are long handle tongs, a long handled basting brush, a iron lid lifter and gloves. I do not recommend using leather as heat transfers through leather quickly. Instead, I use Kevlar oven gloves.

With the increased interest in self sufficiency and return to heritage cooking, trail cooking is an important skill to learn. Many web sites have great recipes for this type of cooking and give great tips.  If anything,  a few tries will sharpen your outdoor cooking skills and give your ego a boost when you cook up a storm of great tasting meals for your friends.

* How to make Carbon cloth. Take a 4-6 inch flat can that has a screw on lid on it. Using a nail, punch a hole or two in the top of the lid. Place some pieces of old cloth (6″ X 6″) into the can and screw the lid back on. Place the can over a campfire. You will see smoke coming from the vent holes. When smoking stops, remove the can and let it completely cool down. Once cool, unscrew the lid and you will find pure carbon cloth. It is very flammable when struck by a match or spark and can be safely kept right in the can you baked it in.

(Some photos were blatantly stolen from Google images. What? You think that horrible picture of the hot dogs on the oven rack is me?)

Cast iron cookware, the Cooks Holy Grail

Back to basics, returning to the best.

I now own three complete sets of cookware. First is a conglomeration of non stick pots and pans. Second is my cherished Tramontina Stainless Steel cookware and third… is the holy grail of all cookware, my mixed set of Cast Iron.

The first two I could live without, the third I couldn’t. I called it a mixed set, here’s why. I show little allegiance to name brand. In fact, most of my cookware is so old that if it ever had a name, I’m sure by now the company is long out of business. Many of them are well over 100 years old. The reason I chose each one individually is due to the quality. Even new pots and pans have flaws in them. They may not show but if you look closely at the rim and see a slight difference in thickness, this is a flaw. It will not heat evenly. Now other metallic pans are stamped out or extruded or as in cast aluminum, made with steel dies that cannot deviate in size. They are theoretically perfect.

Cast iron pots and pans are made using a method ages old called sand casting. A box of oily black sand is used to make the pans impression in. Top and bottom.  They put the two halves together, then molten cast iron is poured into the cast box. Once the impression is filled, the box is broken in two and the sand, along with the freshly cast pan, is poured out. The sand is recovered and reused. The pot is then inspected for flaws of any sort and sent for further finishing. A reputable cast iron cookware company has much higher standards of quality than most imports. Those I stay away from, no matter the brand. Another I don’t cotton to are ones with an enamel finish. What’s the point of these? You’ll never obtain the taste of true cast iron cooking with enamel cookware.

So how do you know if a pans any good to buy? In this rare case, name brand does help. Be aware of specialty pans made for famous chefs or merchants. They are usually a cheap import or lesser quality line made by someone else. Think about this, what qualifications do Emeril, Paula Deen or any other celebrity chef have that qualifies them to have their name cast in cookware? None! So don’t get roped into buying some junk cookware because some celebrity stuck their name on it.  I have seen some horrible import cookware on the market with great looking packaging. Remember, you will not be using the beautiful looking packaging to cook with.

A few brands I actually give my two thumbs up on are these. The old, no longer made McClary’s, Older, Griswold and Wagner’s (the later two now owned and manufactured by the American Culinary Corporation. I recommend only the  pre-takeover Griswold’s and Wagoner’s since rumor has it the newer ones made by ACC are made in China and are of a lesser quality. Many of the older lids always had dimples on them for self basting. Lodge cookware (Probably the best made today and are made in America and are my #1 choice for new cast iron cookware), Then there is Browning ( very nice set, lids are excellent, made for the outdoors. Most likely an import but well made) GW Gear (these are OK but they come with a worthless wooden storage crate that many times arrive in pieces. Lids are good though and casting is acceptable, most likely an import)

Some I’d stay away from are. Bayou Classics (cheap import), Stansport ( Chinese import, casting marks and handles are questionable but the dutch oven seems good), Buffalo tools (Import, cheaply made) Most any famous chef brand and unfortunately even Cracker barrel. This is because they cast their name on the bottom causing uneven heating.

Things to know about cast iron cooking and care.

1-      Quality. Scaling is NOT normal. A properly cast and finished pan will not scale if pre seasoned correctly. Look for how well ground out the mold marks are. See if the lid fits snugly and look for thin spots on the rim. Don’t overlook the handle, it should be smooth, even in the hanger hole.

2-      Pre seasoning. Cast iron is the original non stick cookware. Once it is seasoned, nothing sticks to it. Follow the manufacturer’s directions if purchased new. Many are now being sold as “pre seasoned”, that’s all fine and good for the first time cooking, but continue to season the pan as if it were not pre seasoned. To season;  Wash pan in mild dish detergent and dry completely.

Pre heat your oven to 225 degrees. Then using lard, shortening or the least desired vegitable oil, lightly coat the entire pot, inside and out.

Place the pot in the heated oven for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, increase the oven temp to 500 degrees and bake for 45 minutes. Remove when finished and allow it to cool. When cool, the pot should not be sticky, if it is then either too much oil was used or time and temp were too low. Reheating at 500 degrees for another ½ hour should solve the problem. If the pot is an antique or rusty, clean it very well, even using steel wool and a mild detergent, then season twice in a row.

3-      Cleaning. Never, ever, place cast iron in the dishwasher to be cleaned. Only a mild quick cleaning followed by an immediate drying is ever needed. I know of many cooks that simply wipe out the pot with a damp towel then returned to the fire for 1 minute to dry. Re-season by simply wiping a fine layer oil on it. If heavy cleaning is needed then you should re-season it using the oven method. The secret to forming the non stick surface is to allow a build up on the interior of the pot or pan. By wiping with a damp towel and drying it afterward using heat, will begin the buildup. Some of my frying pans, to my best judgment, have never had anything done to them but a good wiping out. I said before, some of my cast iron cookware is over 100 years old! If scrubbing is needed, use a mild detergent and a nylon scrub brush, never metal chore boys or Brillo type pads. If you cook outdoors, you can simply heat the pan until the stuck residue burns into a char. Then just wipe out the char using the damp towel again. Cast iron can crack or warp so never place a hot pot or pan in cold water, let it cool first.

4-      Cooking tips. Before using, wipe a teaspoon of oil into the pan before pre heating. Then pre heat to warm it up before placing food in them. Never place frozen or very chilled food into cast iron, doing so will cause the food to stick and burn. Soups and watery foods do not require a preheated pot but still wipe a bit of oil in them first.

5-      About Dutch ovens and frying pans. When looking at frying pans, any over 12” should have an opposing handle of sorts opposite the long handle. It may be just a 1” cast nub or a formed loop handle, either works since you’ll never grab cast iron bare handed anyway. Use a lid lifter or pot holder in removing the lid. I am against using the leather gloves so many trail cooks use because leather will hold and transmit heat, causing severe burns. I opt for a heavy cotton or Kevlar cooking glove. Dutch ovens come in two styles, flat bottomed or with legs. Flat bottoms are made for stove top or oven cooking. They can be used over a campfire if they are fitted with the wire hanger handle and work well on electric stove tops.The lids fit as either a normal pot lid or come in the depressed lid style, either works well. Dutch ovens with legs are made for open fire cooking only and will not work on electric stove tops. To use, place the pot directly on top of a bed of coals, then heap coals on the lid, doing so acts to completely submerge the pot in heat. The lid has a depression made in for this purpose.

Cooking with cast iron sounds like a bit more work, but what you put into cooking is what you get back out. Some of my 100 year old pots and pans are still releasing flavor from cooks long gone up to the big Chuck wagon in the sky. Cast iron cookware rarely if ever changes and are for the most part, passed down from generation to generation.  While I do own other cookware, those will most likely never hang from my children’s pot racks, they’ll be sent off to Goodwill. My eldest son has already laid claim though to my cast iron cookware when I too start cooking at the Heavenly Chuck wagon.

Chocolate cake, Homemade vs store bought

 

I recently had the opportunity to dine at what I call a “hoity toity” restaurant here in Florida’s Palm Beach district. While I didn’t get a glimpse of Donald Trump or Jimmy Buffett, I did get a taste of the food they eat on a regular bases while dining out.

I have no complaints about the food in general, in fact both the Sous Chef and Head Chef there are friend’s of mine and produce absolutely excellent dishes equal to any famous ‘Top Chef’. When I started my own restaurant in the Florida Keys a decade ago, both had volunteered their recipe knowledge and culinary skills in my start up .

The meal went well, my fellow dinner guest raved and wished they could get the recipes… until desert came.

While there were a number of choices, the ‘Old fashioned chocolate cake’ was pushed on us by our server. She exclaimed it was made from scratch by the Pastry Chef from an old passed down recipe. We didn’t doubt her so most of the table ordered the cake.

When it arrived on its small golden rimmed white china plate drizzled with chocolate and caramel sauce in fancy artistic patterns something seemed strange about it. It was perfect. I mean absolutely perfect.

I know some of you have had the chance to see or watch videos on how food is photographed. Rarely, if ever is real food used. Real food looks terrible through a camera lens. Nothing looks worse on TV than seeing a cheaply done commercial for some local restaurant using it’s own real food. The colors are off and meat becomes an object of unrecognizable origin. Pizza looks like a plastic Play-Doh disc a kid made.

This dessert had the appearance of the perfect stand in ones used by the professional food video industry. But… I figured since the much bragged about Pastry Chef made it from scratch, it may just taste as good as it looked.  Maybe he was just incredibly good. I figured wrong!

Partway through the silent dessert session, I looked up and glanced at my fellow dinners. Each face showed a different expression. Some looked puzzled, others like they had already over eaten and were eating only out of politeness and others took a bite or two and stopped and like me, looked at the others. I swear, the Old fashioned chocolate cake was nothing more than a Sara Lee job with fancy artwork drizzles over it. Finally someone spoke up loud enough for half the restaurant to hear. “This cake taste like crap!”

All at once everyone agreed and began putting in their own two cents. The server, upon overhearing our comments quietly made her way back to the kitchen. She returned moments later trailing behind the huffy looking Pastry Chef. He stopped and with mocking politeness asked if we had a problem with the desert. The look he gave us was saying, “You better say it was excellent or I’ll kill you with my wildly overgrown Scottish eyebrows.”

Figuring my fellow guest lives were in jeopardy, I flung myself at him as the sacrificial goat offering.

“We we’re just wondering about the cake,” I said, “Our server told us it was home made from a passed down family recipe of yours. Our taste buds say different  and wanted to know if you would tell us which food purveyor you used to purchase it.”

The Scottish eyebrows scrunched, quivered violently and as if having a life of their own, grew in size and became even more disheveled. He sputtered for a few seconds, then realizing we may just have a bit of food knowledge ourselves, turned and stomped back into the kitchen without uttering a word.

“Well,” I said, “I think I just offended Scrooge McDuck.”

The thing is folks, DON’T ever try and pass off an institutional premade food as ‘Home Made’, your dinner guest will know you’re trying to snooker ‘em.

To prove my point, Many ‘Home made’ recipes are not anywhere near as complicated as those premade ones. Ingredients used in many of the institutional recipes are not even readily available to the average cook.   I use ‘Cook’ instead of ‘Chef’ because I still hold that only a school trained cook should title themselves as a Chef.  But, that doesn’t mean cooks are less qualified by any means in producing a great dish. In fact the famous BBQ sauce maker, Stubbs, proudly proclaims on each bottle, “Lady and gentlemen, I am a Cook!”  But I digress.

If you question whether or not those strange sounding additives in an institutional recipe change the flavor, ( or are even good for you) I challenge you to make this old fashioned ‘from scratch’ chocolate cake and compare it to the taste, texture and post dining sugar / caffeine  rush of  the store bought variety. I think your Grandma would approve of the homemade one and you can honestly tell your guest, “It’s from scratch”!

“Andy? If you mention that hussy Sara Lee one more time, you’ll be sporting this spoon where the sun don’t shine!”

 

Real, from scratch, Old Fashioned Chocolate Cake*

Preheat oven to 350

Dry ingredients

1 ½ cups of all purpose unbleached flour

1 cup of granulated sugar

3 Tablespoons of cocoa powder

½ teaspoon of salt

1 teaspoon of baking soda

Wet ingredients

1 teaspoon of vanilla

1 Tablespoon of vinegar

½ cup of melted butter

1 cup of warm water

**

Directions

In a large mixing bowl, mix all dry ingredients until well blended. Set aside.

In a smaller bowl, using a fork, whip the wet ingredients together until blended.

Making a depression in the middle of the dry ingredients, slowly pour the wet ingredients into the bowl of dry ingredients. Mix the wet and dry ingredients together using the fork.

Do not whip, just blend them well.

Pour into greased and floured cake tins. (I still don’t trust the non stick stuff.)

Place in the ovens middle rack and bake for 30 minutes.***

When finished, remove from cake tins and cool on a cooling rack.

When cooled, use a bread knife to slice off the rounded top of one of the finished cakes. Use this shaved cake as the bottom layer. Place the rounded unshaved one as the top when frosting the cake.

* This chocolate layer cake recipe is from my collection of heritage recipes. Modern measurements have replaced the originals (eg; a tad bit of cocoa, a few spoonfuls of butter,  a scoop of sugar…)

** In the ‘olden days’, fresh eggs were not always available, especially out west. It was common to use vinegar mixed with milk to prevent crumbling. The vinegar soured and curdled the milk bonding the flour together.

*** Use a toothpick to determine doneness. Each oven bakes differently. When inserted into the middle of the cake, the toothpick should come out dry.

Cocoa chocolate frosting

10 Tablespoons of very soft room temperature of butter

5 cups of powdered sugar

1 ½  teaspoons of vanilla

15 Tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder

½ cup of milk (hold back 2 Tablespoons of milk and add as needed while mixing to achieve desired thickness)

Directions

Beat the butter in a large mixing bowl until fluffy. Slowly add ½ of the powdered sugar amount (2-3 cups) and mix well. Beat in 6 Tablespoons of milk and add vanilla. When well blended, add the cocoa powder and remaining powdered sugar. Beat well until desired consistency is found. If too thick, add the last of reserved milk as needed.

Apply to cooled cake ( ¼ inch in thickness) then chill cake until frosting sets up.

How to frost a cake ; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1ZAcSazfvE

COWBOY BEANS, Also known as, Whistle berries, Pecos strawberries and Fart-n-darts

courtesy of Google Images

In my latest travels out West, I had to make a stop at a small eatery in Cave Creek Arizona where they serve what I think is the worlds greatest bowl of beans. More a bean soup than anything else, the dish simply burst with the flavor of beans. Sitting there enjoying my big bowl of beans in their own gravy, I made a vow that when I got back home I’d  re create this recipe. The menu at the place simply said, “Cowboy Beans” so I was left on my own to discover their recipe.

Within a few days of returning home, I dragged out my heritage recipe collections to see if any I had came close to the recipe they served up there in Cave Creek.  Nope.

I discovered that all my recipes were of the variety that made thick, brown sugar and molasses style beans. Similar to the popular Boston Baked beans or store bought Bushe’s or Campbell’s Baked beans.  These, I am positive, were not the same style found whipped up by trail cooks from their Chuck wagons.

I had never thought much about what kind of beans those Cowboys really ate and that got me thinking. Exactly what kind of beans did they really eat while out on the trail?

They surely didn’t do the molasses style since that would have meant traveling with loads of brown sugar and jars of molasses. The sugar would have quickly hardened into a rock and the molasses , being rare out west, would have been worth its weight in gold.

Since many trail drives started out in or around Texas, it made sense then that the spices,  beans and cultural taste would be indigenous to the Mexican influence.

I scoured the Western cooking blogs and web sites and found to my amazement, most posted nothing but common syrup thick pork –n-bean recipes and even at that, they used canned rather than dried beans.

Now I have a slight sugar problem, not bad mind you but enough to make me alter my cooking habits a bit in order I don’t fall over dead before I complete my personal bucket list.

So I went about searching through every type of cook book from Western to Vegan for a healthier, non sugar recipe and still I could not find what I had in mind.

Then I found it. When I had been camping out in Texas, I ran across a State of Texas sponsored history attraction that was dedicated to the Texas Trail drives. There amidst the Charles Goodnight collection, was an old Chuck Wagon showing how it was set up. Alongside it in a glass and wooden case, was the reproduction of a few common recipes used back in the day. I photographed them closely and then immediately forgot about them.

Suddenly remembering this, I opened up my Kodak collection of photos and found what I had been searching for. Their recipe for ‘beans in gravy’ eaten on the trail.

Well, I immediately converted the recipe into today’s amounts and whatnot. I changed the sautéing of the veggies in butter and oil versus a “a good hand sized glob of suet” (it sounds worse than it is, suet was a homemade tasty unfiltered lard .

While the beans stayed the same, I had to guess on what a ‘ Mexican pepper’  was,  so I used a combination of one  Poblano and two Cubano peppers. There are many I could have used but these are common down here. I charred them up on an open fire like written but changed from canned to fresh and roasted, my diced up tomatoes. All in all, the new recipe was near as possible to that of the real Chuck Wagon one.

Let me say this. I was thrilled with my beans, they were absolutely delicious!

Sometimes heritage recipes aren’t as tasty, well formed or as good looking as those of today, but a heritage recipe whether good or bad does something a modern recipe can never do. It lets you literally touch the past by using your tongue.


 

 Ingredients

2 cups of dried (not canned) red beans

2 cups of dried (not canned) pinto beans. Some folks advise to pressure cook these guys before hand to get ’em soft

1 large yellow onion (Spanish or Sweet is fine) chopped up fine

3 Tbl chopped up garlic

3 green chili, Cubano, Poblano (your choice of Mexican ) peppers. Grill or roast them up for a minute then then chop them up

3 ripe tomatoes, grill them up for a minute then remove seeds and chop them up

1 Tbl vegetable oil for sauteing veggies (if using olive oil, use light to reduce the olive flavor)

1 Tbl of butter added to sauteing oil

7 quarts of water (for added flavor use 2 cups of vegetable stock and 5 quarts of water)

1 large ham bone with meat attached, pig foot or large slab of salt pork or suet. (Add extra pork fat if using ham bone for taste and

for added ham flavor, add 2 packets of Goya Ham Concentrate to the mix)

Spices

1 1/2 tsp coriander seed (toast them up first in a small skillet for bursting flavor, toast until you smell them)

1 whole unbroken bay leaf (remove after cooking)

OPTIONAL,  Add 2 dried hot red chili peppers (1/8 tsp of cayenne pepper can be used instead if you ain’t got chilli peppers)

1 tsp of black pepper during simmering

1 tsp of salt during simmering. (Salt to taste,  add more salt if desired when almost finished cooking)

Cooking instructions

Soak beans overnight in water to cover, changing water once; drain.

When beans are ready, saute onion, garlic, green chiles and tomatoes in butter and oil in a large stock pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat.

Add water / stock and ham bone then bring to a boil.

Add beans, toasted coriander seed, bay leaf and dried chilies.

Continue to boil for 30 minutes, then lower heat, cover and simmer for three to four hours.

After a few hours of simmering, remove the lid, leave it off, and season beans with salt again to taste.

Continue to cook until beans are soft but not mushy.

Remove ham bone and bay leaf before serving.

Makes about 16 servings

Fire roast the tomatoes before chopping them up

Chop up the tomatoes

Chop the onion up into small pieces

Saute veggies in butter and oil

Add Ham bone. I save my ham bones from previous hams by freezing them after the ham is eaten. Add fat to the ham bone as by itself, it will be too lean.

Add microwave heated ham to pot

Roast up the Coriander in a skillet

Fill pot with 7 quarts of water and start to boil. Add beans only after pot is boiling

Boil covered for 4 hrs then uncover and add salt

Don’t forget to remove ham bone, fat and bay leaf when cooking is finished.

Old west ditty.

“Beans, beans the musical fruit,

the more you eat the more you toot!

The more you toot, the better you feel,

So eat your beans at every meal!

Moist, sweet creamed corn cornbread

I returned from my Western States adventure with mixed emotions. Oh, don’t get me wrong now, I had myself a great ‘Ol time. I went discovering, (read my blog at www.campfireshadows.com) gold prospecting, wandered around the desert and mountains… I just had a ball!

What I meant to say though, was after unpacking my vehicle, putting all my wash together, repacking all my outdoor gear etc, I stepped into the kitchen and stood there just looking. The one room I love to make a mess in was spotless, like no one lived here. It looked down right lonesome! My pots hung without movin’,  my stove had no drips on it, my sink was empty… dang it if I didn’t feel bad starin’ at it.

Well, bein’ a fella that doesn’t sit around mopin’, I opened the fridge to see what I had readily available for that evenings dinner. I wasn’t about to go out and fast food it, I did that travelin’ all the way back home!  Inside the freezer I still had some containers of chilli I could thaw out, all I needed was some of my cornbread mix to go with it.

I usually make a giant tub of corn bread dry ingredient mix and keep it in the freezer. When I want corn bread, I scoop out 3 cups of the dry mix and add a single batch amount of wet ingredients to it.

By 6pm I had a quart of thawed and heated chilli and my cornbread skillet ready to pop into the oven.

I use a cast iron skillet to bake my corn bread in. The thickness of the cast iron makes sure the baking is even and the sides brown the cornbread perfectly to a golden brown.

As I was maulin’ my meal, I wondered how many folks even eat cornbread anymore. I know the ones I know up in West Virginia eat it with nearly every meal. Someday I’ll post their Cornbread casserole recipe! But like most people, they follow the directions on the package and end up with a dry ‘Ol crumbly cornbread that when eaten, imitates you draggin’ yourself through the Sonora Arizona desert at high noon with no water! Dry!

Well my cornbread ain’t that way at all! Soft (almost cake like), sweet, pieces of real corn within it, and best of all…Moist!

Try this recipe out just once. If you don’t like it… well, if you don’t like it then your taste buds must be damaged to all get out from all that dry crusty stuff you tried draggin’ over your tongue with previous corn bread recipes!

Corn bread

Dry mix ingredients;

1 1/2 teaspoons of salt

2 teaspoons of baking powder

1 1/2 cups of all purpose unbleached flour

1 1/2 cups of corn meal

½ cup of granulated sugar

Wet ingredients;

2 large eggs

1 cup of milk or butter milk

1/2 can (15 oz size of can) of creamed corn. Use only half of the can then freeze the rest in a zip lock bag for future use

2 Tablespoons of melted butter

 

Directions;

              pre heat oven to 400 degrees

1-      Using a spatula, mix dry ingredients together well in a large mixing bowl.

2-      In a separate smaller bowl whisk together eggs and milk.

3-      Stir in melted butter and creamed corn into the milk and egg mixture. Do not whisk.

4-      Create a low spot within the center of the dry mix bowl and slowly pour and mix the wet and dry ingredients together

5-      Pour into a 9” cast iron skillet or round 9” cake pan.

6-       Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown and the cornbread springs back when lightly when pressed with the spatula.

* Photo by the author in his kitchen

True Southern biscuits and gravy

 

Hands down this recipe makes the best biscuits and gravy you’ll ever eat.

 

Nothing disturbs me more than stopping in to a greasy spoon somewhere and seeing Southern ‘Biscuits and gravy’ on the menu. I love biscuits and gravy! Ordering them though is another matter all together. I bet, no, I know, when my breakfast arrives my plate will contain those horrible institutionally pre frozen biscuits drowned in that white soapy tasting gravy that sells in #10 cans!

What really amazes me is when I run into this down here in the Southern Boonies you’d think the folks in town would run the cook out on a rail! I mean Southern? Pu-lease!

First of all, biscuits have to be made fresh, and they’re so easy to do so. I can lay out a breakfast of biscuits and gravy from scratch just as fast as if using pre made junk. And… it taste dee-licious!

When friends come down here to visit from out west or (shudder) up North, the conversation always seems to get around to ‘real’ Southern food. I’m not kidding here but my biscuits and gravy are always held up as “real Southern food”. The reason? The recipe is well over 100 years old…and given to me by someone who’s family has been here in the South since the early 1800’s. This is a true Heritage recipe. I have “modernized” it for convenience sake. After all, who would know that a ‘passle’ of salt is equal to 1/2 tsp or running your wood cook stove at ‘very quick’ is equal to 450-500 degrees.

Biscuit recipe  (read entire recipe through before starting)

2 Cups of unbleached all purpose unbleached flour (not bread flour)

4 teaspoons of baking powder

1/2 teaspoon of baking soda

3/4 teaspoon of salt

2 Tablespoons of butter

2 Tablespoons of shortening (The original recipe calls for pork lard and it still makes the best tasting biscuits!)

1 cup of buttermilk. (Powdered buttermilk mix can be used. It works great and last for months or you can make your own.  Simply add 1 Tbl of white vinegar to each cup of milk, stir and let stand 15 minutes until curdling starts , then use.)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Gather all ingredients, baking pans etc, before starting. Flour is best if chilled ( I always keep mine in the fridge anyway. Flour beatle’s can easily hatch in warm flour. Also make sure your baking powder is not out of date or your biscuits may not rise!). Chilled flour will prevent butter and shortening from melting too early.

In a large mixing bowl, (do not use an electric mixer for this recipe)  combine chilled flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Using your fingertips, rub butter and shortening into dry ingredients until mixture looks like crumbs. (The faster the better, you don’t want the fats to melt.) Make a well in the center and pour in the chilled buttermilk. Stir just until the dough comes together. The dough will be very sticky. Add enough flour to the bowl until it looks like the dough can be rolled out. The dough is to remain a bit sticky so be careful not to add so much flour that the dough becomes a bread dough.

Turn dough onto floured surface, dust top with flour and gently fold dough over on itself 5 or 6 times. Press into a ¾ inch thick round. Cut out biscuits with a 2-inch cutter. (A small drinking glass works well.)  Push straight down through the dough while twisting cutter to free the biscuit from the dough pile. Place biscuits on a ungreased baking sheet so that they nearly touch. Reform scrap dough, working it as little as possible and continue cutting more biscuits out of it.

Bake until biscuits are tall and golden brown on top, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Sausage gravy recipe

1 lb plain or sage spiced breakfast sausage*

½ teaspoon of pepper

dash of salt (if desired)

1 teaspoon of ground sage

3-4 Tablespoons of flour

4 cups of milk

Brown sausage while adding salt, pepper and sage to browning sausage. Preheat milk to very warm temperature but not to scalding. When sausage is almost completely browned, add the 3 tbl flour sprinkling it evenly over sausage. Brown flour with sausage for 2 more minutes.

Add the warm milk while stirring constantly. Boiling will be noted. If needed, add milk or small amounts of flour to get the consistency you like in your gravy.

Pour over biscuits (broken up or whole)  immediately and serve hot.

 

* How to make your very own breakfast sausage from scratch;

Use either 2 lbs of pork butt or pre ground bulk pork sausage. (if pork butt is used; dice into 1/4″ pieces)

1/2 lb of fat back. Cut it also into 1/4″ pieces.

Mix pork and fat together then grind in either a hand or electric meat grinder

In a large bowl mix the ingredients listed below by hand into in to the ground pork; Never use an electric mixer.

2 tsp salt

1 1/2 tsp pepper

2 tsp of fresh finely chopped sage leaves or 1 tsp of powdered sage

2 tsp of fresh finely chopped thyme leaves or 1 tsp of powdered thyme

2 tsp of fresh finely chopped rosemary or 1 tsp of powdered rosemary

1 Tbl of brown sugar

1/2 tsp of nutmeg

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

1/2 tsp of red pepper flakes

Combine all ingredients and chill for 1-2 hours to tighten meat up. (I chill mine overnight to increase the flavor). Using the fine grinder blade, grind pork . If using pre ground bulk sausage chill and mix all ingredients together well.  Cook as above recipe instructs. (To make into patties just roll into balls, flatten into a 3″ round and cook in a medium heated skillet.)