If you're like me, you'd prefer the kind of camping I learned about today: glamorous camping, or glamping. Others can pack in tasteless dried foods. Not me. As long as I can get someone to carry a Dutch oven and some charcoal for me, I'm ready to eat in style on my next camping trip!
I joined nine other eager and hungry students gathered at the Metcalf ranch east of Big Timber to learn about cooking in a Dutch oven. Susan Metcalf, who has a lot on her plate, so to speak, is county superintendent of schools, writes a food column in the Western Ag Reporter, and does all the stuff women do on ranches. She even has time to teach Glamping 101, based on her experience cooking at hunting camps, where everything you need is packed in on horses.
I'll do my best to sum up 4 hours of lessons, but I suggest you take the class if you can. There's nothing like tasting, touching, smelling, which you get a lot of during class. Plus the frozen magaritas are pretty awesome.
Dutch ovens come in all sizes, but Susan suggested starting with a 12-inch with a flat lid. Believe me, you want the flat lid. Otherwise ashes are going to fall right into your food when you take off the lid. (Although keep in mind: "A little bit of grit is part of Dutch oven cooking." Remember this when we get to the mushroom appetizers, below.) Lodge is a good brand that is pre-seasoned and comes with a cookbook to get you started.
Other equipment you should have includes a pair of welding gloves, trivets, long tongs (for placing coals), and a lid lifter. Wood heat is difficult to regulate, so Susan recommends Kingsford charcoal.
On windy days, the food will cook more slowly and you'll need to use more coals. It is also always good to be aware of fire danger. You'll have to plan ahead to make sure you have charcoal at the right temperature when you are ready to cook. If you are using multiple pans, it might be a good idea to have one person assigned to charcoal duty. "Coals are what makes or breaks your cooking," Susan told us.
We started with crab-stuffed mushrooms. Susan mixed ingredients in a "camping bowl," a Ziploc bag that doubled as a decorator bag when she snipped off a corner and filled the mushroom caps.
The 10-inch Dutch oven was first lined with Reynolds Non-stick Pan Lining Paper. You can also buy special Dutch oven liners -- or just put ingredients right into the pan, but Susan warned us that will make a mess. The mushrooms did get a little gritty because of the rounded lid Susan used, but no problem. And by the way, you can use a whisk broom to sweep ashes off the lid before lifting it.
There were 2 layers of mushrooms, with paper between them. We studied our cooking charts and agreed that to bake at 350 degrees, we needed to put 12 coals on the lid and 8 coals underneath the pot. In 25 minutes we were enjoying our appetizers along with plank teriyaki salmon Susan cooked on her gas grill to save time.
Susan has a terrific "cowboy swing grill," which was created by Jerry Yoder based on a photo in Over the Open Fire, by Alford "Johnny" Nix, who has a show on RFD TV and is Susan's favorite Dutch oven cook. You have to bend over to use the version in Johnny Nix's book. Jerry improved the design so you can stand while cooking. If you want to order this attractive and helpful item, leave a comment and I'll forward Jerry's contact information.
Meat and potatoes
Thin strips of New York steak were stuffed with a mixture of cream cheese, spinach, mushrooms, and feta, then rolled with a half-cooked slice of bacon and fastened with a skewer. These went into a 14-inch lined Dutch oven. Instead of layers being separated by paper, the meat was stacked criss-cross for easy removal. For serving, there was a nice Hollandaise sauce.
Cheesy potatoes and leeks were well seasoned and dotted with 2 cubes of butter for 5 pounds of potatoes. (Yes, we ate a lot of butter and cheese; no one complained.) You can use olive oil, but "basically you just want to make sure it's pretty greasy." This was cooked in a 12-inch unlined Dutch oven.
The mushrooms had been "forgiving" and didn't need extra attention, but normally every 15 minutes you must turn the lid of the oven 1/4 turn and the oven itself 1/4 turn in the opposite direction. This helps to evenly distribute the heat. Both the meat and the potatoes took 3 turns, or 45 minutes, at 350 degrees.
On the last turn, foil-wrapped Cowboy Croissants (filled with cream cheese and chives) were set atop the oven to warm.
To save time, Susan used the gas grill for corn on the cob and squash/onion kabobs. Cook the corn halfway, then rub with a mixture of mayonnaise, cilantro, salt, and pepper, and finish cooking. When done, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
Cobblers are a popular Dutch oven dessert because they are "pretty hard to mess up." But Susan got fancy on us and made Black Forest Cake, which, as it turns out, is as easy to make as cobbler but seems extra special.
Pour into the Dutch oven 2 cans of pie filling (ours was cherry), top with chocolate cake mix right out of the box, and dot with walnuts and 2 sticks of butter, cut up. Bake at 350 degrees for 3 turns, or 45 minutes. After it has cooked, pour a bag of chocolate chips on top and let melt.
I nearly swooned when I dipped into my portion that had been accented with whipped cream and a straw-like cookie. It was a warm, gooey, pudding-like confection. A very elegant end to a glamorous camping meal indeed!
We were busy enjoying wine and then those frozen margaritas, so we never did get around to having coffee. But after explaining that you use 1 teaspoon ground coffee to 1 cup of water, boil, and settle the grounds with a splash of cold water, Susan shared the real secret: "People always ask why the camp coffee is so good, and I say, 'it's the creek water.'" This tip will save you the trouble of hauling bottles of fancy water to camp; the Dutch ovens and bottles of wine are heavy enough.
Before you start cooking, rub the outside of the Dutch oven with dish soap. The black from the fire will wash right off. Susan said that Wet Wipes will clean the black off your hands.
If you make something rather messy, first spray the pan with Pam and then use a liner. If you cook directly in the Dutch oven, spray it first with Pam or use vegetable shortening. Butter and olive oil tend to get clumpy, but if you like to scrub, go right ahead and use them.
After the food is gone, clean up right away by rubbing the inside with coffee grounds or sand. Or you can "boil 'em out": fill with water and boil till dry, or at least until all the food is cooked off. Be sure to dry the inside of the Dutch oven, then use a bit of vegetable oil to season it. Place a paper towel inside when you store it to make sure all the moisture gets wicked away.
Whatever you do, Susan cautions, do not store your Dutch oven outside. Even a pre-seasoned Lodge pan will rust on your porch.
There's lots more to know about Dutch oven cooking. Susan teaches Glamping 101 through the Sweet Grass High School Adult Ed program, which is probably the funnest (and funniest) way to learn. But even after class, you will have to experiment to find what works for you.
Someday you, too, may follow Susan's example and serve mousse and creme brulee in fancy little jelly jars at camp to impress your family and friends.