This is my beloved Dutch oven. I gave this vintage pot to my parents years ago, wondering what my mom might cook. Baked beans? Rice casserole? A hunk of brisket? Nope. The cast-iron pot sat for three decades, plus or minus a few years, on the raised hearth of their modernist ranch living room fireplace, with the cover on, never to have been cared for. It was more to look at, not to use. My parents just didn’t make food in rugged cooking vessels.
Now that my parents are both gone, I rescued it from its lonely perch on the hearth before someone buys the house and tear it down. Popping off the lid revealed a rusted patina of neglect. There was no sign that it was ever cared for with a drop of flaxseed oil or Crisco or even sprayed with Pam, “God’s gift to cast-iron.” Nor were there loose bits of burned food scraps—something that might’ve been a throwback to a past life of colonists and settlers, or cowboys, prospectors, miners and their families who migrated west to settle the new territories in the 18th and 19th centuries. They couldn’t very well take their home ovens with them on horseback or in chuck wagons or on a cattle drive, so they had to learn how to cook entire meals in a single pot over a campfire.
Symbol of a pioneer past, especially in the American West, it is all the rage again. Even if it’s a black behemoth like mine weighing in at ten pounds from a foundry near streams and swamps and lakes with names like Turtle Pond and the Pucasset River Marshes. For me, there is some dreaminess in its vintage, as this was the cookware so essential to pioneers who found themselves out on the land.
However, if vintage is not your thing, you could get the brightly colored enameled cast-iron petite rounds, ovals, and “round wides” in bright red, orange, yellow, green, and turquoise that Le Creuset makes.
I am seeing a surge in cast-iron cooking. Based on the growing membership in local chapters of Dutch oven cooking societies; championship cook-offs starring the cast-iron pot; designation as the state cooking vessel by the governors of Arkansas, Texas, and Utah; and cookbook experts who are either writing about the pot or judging contests of foods cooked in it. And yes, some recipes use goat, quail, squirrel, or roadkill as cuisine.
Of the many clean-up methods on the Internet, Field and Stream got my vote even though it was pretty labor intensive: a lengthy scheme of washing with soap and water (I am never ever to use soap again), drying it out in a 350° oven, then following an itinerary of Kosher salt, white vinegar, more drying out in the oven, more scrubbing, lathering with canola oil, and so on, for four or five hours. If all this didn’t work, it could’ve been Halloween décor. But a beautiful sturdy pot emerged.
SOUTHWESTERN BAKED CHICKEN
If you are cooking over charcoal, place 10 to 12 hot coals under the oven and 12 to 14 coals on the lidded top. If you are using a gas grill, maintain a 350°F. temperature for 45 minutes. Then, for the next 10-15 minutes of cooking, either add more coals or raise the gas grill’s temperature to 400°F. You can bake the chicken in an indoor oven, starting it at 350°F. for 45 minutes, then raising the temperature to 400°F. for the last 10 to 15 minutes.
8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 cups buttermilk
2 cups panko breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon each: salt, paprika, seasoned salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon each, toasted and ground: cumin seeds, coriander seeds
2 tablespoons melted butter
- Place chicken thighs in a ziplock bag with the buttermilk. Refrigerate four hours or overnight.
- Smear butter all over the sides and bottom of the Dutch oven.
- Mix the breadcrumbs and spices in a bowl. Drop each chicken thigh into the mixture, coating it well on both sides. Place in Dutch oven, and cover.
- Place the Dutch oven into a campfire, charcoal fire, or in a gas grill. Bake for 45 minutes.
- Remove the lid, brush melted butter over the chicken pieces. Return lid to pot; increase the heat to 400° by loading 10 additional coals on top or adjusting the burners on your gas grill.
- Bake until the breadcrumb topping is browned and chicken is tender.
Serve with a side salad of black beans, corn, avocado, and tomato with citrus dressing.