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Competitive cooks continue a time-tested technique.
Photo: Jacob Kepler (Elizabeth and Clint Combs)
Clint Combs’ Las Vegas home is filled with Western-themed antiques, but the gem in his collection sits in the backyard, hidden in a shiny white trailer big enough to shelter a couple of mid-size cars. It is a refurbished Peter Schuttler chuck wagon, a kitchen-on-wheels used to feed cowboys on the trail more than a century ago.
This particular antique has literally given Combs and his family a taste of the Old West. Every few months, they hook up the trailer and travel hundreds of miles to compete with fellow cowboys and history junkies in chuck-wagon cook-offs in states such as Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming (Combs is actively trying to start some in Nevada). The wagons are required to have the same supplies any trailside cook would have stocked in the 19th century—from tins filled with pungent chili spices to the ubiquitous ceramic jug brimming with whiskey—but it’s those Dutch-oven recipes they all keep close to the vest.
“The first cook-off I saw was in Amarillo, Texas. There were about 40 wagons all lined up, and it was just love at first sight,” Combs says. “Half of the competition is based on authenticity, so you’re judged on the setup. There is no plastic, aluminum, cell phones, or jewelry, and you have to dress the part. Everything is turn-of-the-century. But then I knew I was in trouble because there’s a second part: the cooking. That’s where my sister came in, because she’s a great cook.”
His sister, Tina Stallard, lives with her husband and teenaged children in New Mexico. While she isn’t a scraggly-bearded, irascible cowboy cook like those of legend, she makes a mean chicken-fried steak and has won awards, including a first-place prize for her Dutch-oven cooking at the Festival of the West in Phoenix last year. She even has a pair of fake rotted teeth she wears to give her that certain cowboy look.
Dutch ovens are wide-bellied, cast-iron pots that have been around for centuries. The colonists brought the incredibly durable pots with them in the 1600s, and they were eventually toted to Nevada and other Western states by settlers such as the Mormons and Basques. After the Civil War, the ovens were used during the long-distance cattle drives that began in the West and wound their way up north where beef was in high demand.
At chuck-wagon cook-offs the menu is usually the same: chicken-fried steak, biscuits, beans, potatoes, and cobbler. Everything is cooked over an open fire pit, and only wood coals can be used for heat, Stallard says. The Dutch ovens sit or hang above the coals, and oven temperature is controlled by the amount of coals used under the oven and on the lid.
In addition to her chuck-wagon fare, Stallard makes a tasty doughnut, as well as cakes, stews, cookies—just about anything that can be cooked at home—although “soufflés might be a little touchy,” she adds with a chuckle.
Dutch-oven cooking is not something you learn overnight, however. Beginners should always start with charcoal briquettes instead of wood coals because they are safer to use and it’s easier to control the heat, Stallard says. It’s also a good idea to use familiar recipes, hopefully ones that have already been tried at home.
“It does take an intuitive feeling for timing, and you have no control over the elements,” Stallard says. “I’ve definitely learned appreciation. That’s big. I’ve learned a lot of patience. And the other thing I’ve learned is that it’s very cool to know a part of your country’s history. It’s also finding control in an environment where there is none. You can’t adjust that knob on the stove. If things aren’t going well, you find another path.”
Tina’s Spiced Doughnuts
3 1/2 cups flour
3/4 cups sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
3 tablespoons shortening
3/4 to 1 cup of milk
Heat oil in a 14-inch Dutch oven to about 375 degrees. Mix 1 1/2 cups of flour with the rest of the ingredients in a large bowl. After mixing together well, beat for about 2 minutes. Stir in remaining flour.
Turn dough onto a well-floured board and roll around lightly to coat dough in the flour. Gently roll the dough until it is about 3/8-of-an-inch thick, then cut out doughnuts with a floured cutter.
Slide doughnuts into hot oil with wide spatula. Turn doughnuts as they rise to the surface. Fry until golden brown or about 1 to 1 1/2 minutes on each side. Remove and place on paper towels to drain. Dust doughnuts with powdered sugar. Add some cinnamon to the powdered sugar for a spicier taste.—Tina Stallard
Baking Powder Biscuits
This recipe is adapted from the kitchen for Dutch-oven baking.
2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup milk (buttermilk is preferred)
1/4 cup butter (bacon grease is ideal) warmed
In a large bowl, sift together dry ingredients. Cut in the warm butter/bacon grease until well mixed. While stirring, slowly add milk until blended. Add more flour if necessary to handle as a firm ball. Do not over mix, it will make hard biscuits. Turn onto floured board and roll to 1/2 inch thick. With knife, cut dough into 2-inch squares and place in preheated, ungreased Dutch oven. Replace lid, add about 15 hot charcoal briquettes spaced evenly on top (or on an ungreased baking sheet with sides touching in a 425-degree oven). Bake for 15-20 minutes until lightly browned.—Elizabeth Combs
Oatmeal Dutch Oven Bread
3/4 cup rolled oats (not instant)
1 cup hot milk
4 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon molasses
1 1/4 cups warm water (110 degrees)
1 package (2 teaspoons) active dry yeast
About 5 cups unbleached flour
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Cornmeal or rolled oats for dusting
1 large egg, beaten
Rolled oats for garnish
Put oats in a large bowl, stir in hot milk, sugar, and molasses. Set aside until mixture cools to about 98 degrees. Meanwhile, pour 1/4 cup warm water into a small bowl. Sprinkle the yeast into the water and briefly stir. Set aside.
When the oat mixture has cooled, stir in the dissolved yeast and the remaining warm water. Stir in 3 cups of flour, 1 cup at a time. After the third cup, vigorously beat the mixture with a wooden spoon for about 100 strokes. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside for 10 minutes.
After 10 minutes, stir in the salt, then the oil. Stir in enough of the remaining flour, about 1/4 cup at a time, to make a fairly firm, pliable dough. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead with floured hands for 10 minutes, using additional flour on the work surface as necessary. Put the dough in an oiled bowl and rotate to cover all sides. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in a warm, draft-free spot until it doubles in bulk, about 45-60 minutes.
Once the dough has risen, punch it down and turn out onto a floured work surface. Knead briefly, then cut the dough in half. Working with one half at a time, knead the dough into a tight football and place into a lightly oiled 16-inch Dutch oven which has been dusted well with fine cornmeal or rolled oats. Cover loosely with an oiled plastic sheet and let sit in a warm, draft-free location until the loaves have doubled in size, about 30-40 minutes.
Brush the loaves with the egg glaze and sprinkle with oats. Using a sharp serrated knife, make three or four lengthwise diagonal slashes about 1/2 inch deep on top of each loaf.
Place lid on oven and hook pot over fire pit, about a foot above, and heat for three to five minutes. (If you do not have a fire pit and are using charcoal, place the oven on two concentric rings of 20 coals for three minutes.) Remove oven to coal bed or flat fireproof surface. Place a ring of coals 1 inch wide around the oven. Cover lid of oven with coals one layer deep, and keep them freshly supplied to maintain a high heat (about 400 degrees). Check bread in 15 minutes, then every 10 minutes after that. Remove bread when top is brown and loaves are firm, sounding hollow when tapped with the finger, or about 45 minutes. Cool loaves on a wire rack. Makes two loaves.—Tina Stallard
Competition Chicken-Fried Steak with Cream Gravy
3 pounds round steak, 1/2-inch thick
2 cups buttermilk
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cracker crumbs
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon paprika
1/2 cup milk
Vegetable oil for frying (corn, peanut, or safflower oil, but it is also traditional to use lard or solid vegetable shortening)
Cream gravy (recipe follows)
Trim fat off meat, remove bone and cut the meat into six equal pieces. Use a meat mallet to pound the steaks on both sides, until they are 1/4-inch thick. Then cut each pounded piece of steak in half (making 12 pieces total). Place the meat in a container and fill with buttermilk so the meat is covered. Place a cover or foil over the container and place in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, overnight if possible. Drain the buttermilk.
Combine flour, cracker crumbs, salt, pepper, and paprika in a large shallow bowl. Beat the egg and milk together well in another large shallow bowl.
Dredge the steaks in the seasoned flour-crumb mixture, coating them well on both sides. Then use the meat mallet to pound the flour into the steaks. Dip the steaks in the egg-milk mixture, and then dredge them again in the remaining flour. Set the steaks aside in a single layer on a large piece of wax paper.
Pour the vegetable oil to a depth of 1/4 inch into a large cast-iron skillet or 16-inch Dutch oven. Set the skillet or oven over medium heat. The oil will be hot enough for frying if it pops when you sprinkle a few drops of water on it.
Carefully put the steaks in a single layer in the hot oil and cook over medium heat until the bottom side of each steak is golden brown (about three to five minutes). Turn the steaks over and, again, cook until the bottom sides are golden brown.
Transfer the steaks to a heat-proof platter, cover loosely with aluminum foil, and keep them warm in the oven while you cook the remaining steaks and prepare the cream gravy. Makes 6 large servings.
Cream gravy: Transfer 1/4 cup of oil out of the skillet or Dutch oven into a heatproof bowl or measuring cup. Drain the remaining oil from the skillet or Dutch oven, but leave in any particles of batter and pan drippings that stick to the bottom of the pan.
Return 1/4 cup oil to the skillet or Dutch oven and stir in 1/4 cup of flour. Cook for about three to five minutes over low heat, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom of the pan, but don’t let the mixture brown. Then slowly add 3 cups warm milk, stirring with a fork or wire whisk to prevent lumps. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the gravy is smooth and thick. Add salt and black pepper to taste.—Tina Stallard