By Jenny Neyman
One hungry onlooker Saturday summed it up best as contestants in the open category of the Alaska Dutch Oven State Championship plunked their cast-iron cook-pot creations down on the judging tables and removed the lids, revealing the still-steaming temptations within.
“I didn’t know you could make all that in a Dutch oven,” a woman remarked to her friend while checking out the myriad dishes served up in the competition, held during Progress Days in Soldotna.
“All that” is a broad term, not particularly in keeping with the precise measurements, exacting temperature control and practiced perfection that goes into cooking competitions. But in this case, it was fitting of the smorgasbord of results — cast-iron pots of bubbling jambalaya and creamy chicken fricassee. Swollen mounds of golden-brown bread, studded with savory flavors or dripping with sticky-sweet confection. And desserts to tempt even the most diet conscious — springy chocolate cakes dusted with powdered sugar or oozing with molten morsels; fruit crisps and cobblers with toppings unable to contain the bubbling juices below, and ooey-gooey goodness with more accoutrements than should be legally allowed in one dessert.
“It has everything decadent you can think of,” said Carla Anderson, of Soldotna, of her dessert offering, a chocolaty pudding topped with fruit crisp and chocolate bits, meant to be served with homemade vanilla ice cream and drizzled with cast-iron-cooked raspberry sauce.
Anderson participated in the competition but didn’t allow her dishes to be in the running for prizes, since she helped organize the event with her husband, Dr. Nels Anderson. It’s the first of what they hope will be an annual event at Progress Days, with the winner qualifying to participate in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships. Anderson said he was pleased with how the inaugural event went. Despite intermittent rain and short notice for the event, there were still eight teams participating in the open, three-pot competition, and 10 in the youth, one-pot competition.
“I’m extremely pleased with the turnout. I was afraid nobody would show up,” Anderson said.
Adam Bauer came up from Homer to participate. He got into Dutch oven cooking from being involved with the Boy Scouts about a dozen years ago. Though his kids are off to college and he’s no longer a Scoutmaster, he still goes on camping trips and keeps up his camping cook skills.
“You know how it is, if I don’t go with them I don’t go,” Bauer said.
He wanted to support Andersons’ efforts in organizing the competition and spread the virtues of Dutch oven cooking to the uninitiated. For Bauer, Dutch ovens are the way to go for outdoor cooking.
He particularly likes them for their temperature control. Dutch ovens hold heat well yet it’s easy to turn up or down the temperature. Simply add a few more coals or charcoal briquettes on the lid or under the three stubby legs to increase the temperature, or remove them to turn it down. For a midsized, 12-inch Dutch oven, 27 briquettes will result in a temperature of 375 degrees, with 18 on top and nine underneath.
“I’m terrible with barbecue,” Bauer said. “It’s like the coals aren’t ready in time and they’re not hot enough and the meal’s late, or it’s too hot and you can’t turn it down again. This is a great way because you’ve got really good control over the heat and you can actually serve something on time. Anything you can cook in your oven at home you can make in these.”
For the competition, he made a chicken fricassee with homemade cheese and zucchini from his garden, a yeast-water-and-flour loaf of bread and a peach cobbler.
“I am absolutely pleased with the way everything turned out. It was just perfect. Everything came out on time, done and nothing got burnt. It’s hard to undo it when it’s overcooked,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. I’m glad Dr. Anderson put it all together, and if there’s a next year, I’ll come back.”
Fred and Sharron Basquez, of Milton-Freewater, Ore., changed their travel plans specifically for the Dutch oven event. They’re touring the state in an RV for the summer and were finishing a leg on the Kenai Peninsula this week when they heard about the competition and decided to stick around Soldotna to see what it was about. Before they knew it, they got talked into participating.
But they travel with Dutch ovens and use them regularly for their meals, so participation was more like a standard night’s dinner than anything out of the ordinary.
“It costs too much to eat out here, and this helps keep the costs down,” Fred Basquez said. “We did a baked chicken the other night. Fred Meyer had blueberries on sale so we did a blueberry thing. We made a tamale pie the other night. We were going to cook a ham tonight but we’ll eat here instead, so we’ll cook the ham tomorrow night.”
The Basquezes are an updated version of the tradition of Dutch oven cooking. The cast-iron, flat-bottomed vessels on stubby legs with heavy lids, also called bake ovens, bake kettles and camp ovens, originated in 18th century England and Holland for cooking over hearth coals. They were popularized in the American migration west, used by explorers, trappers, settlers, peddlers, pioneers, miners, soldiers, cowboys and hunters. But now, instead of being hauled by ox, horse or wagon, they’re regularly packed by RVs, trucks or other motorized vehicles and used at base camps or on car-camping trips.
The design and function of the ovens hasn’t really changed over the centuries, but what comes out of them has. They still do just as well with camp food staples — beans, bread, stew and the like, but a recent resurgence in Dutch oven cooking popularity coinciding with the “foodie” revolution of celebrity chefs has resulted in an explosion of new uses — with Dutch oven chefs adapting ethnic flavors, fancy ingredients, new uses of herbs and spices, and overall shooting for cuisine, rather than just cooking.
The competition Saturday displayed a mix of old and new — some proud staples of traditional trail food, like plain yeast bread and good-old apple pie, and some offerings that may seem more at home with fine white china and crisp linen napkins. The overall winner of the open category went with old and new. Jerem and Jasmine Feltman, of Nikiski, won the overall title for the open competition, taking first place in the main dish and bread categories. Their main dish has an ethnic twist.
“Cajun jambalaya with shrimp and sausage and chicken and okra and all that good stuff,” Jerem Feltman said.
Their bread wasn’t quite as “fancy,” but plenty good enough to impress the judges.
“We just went with just traditional sourdough bread that we made with sourdough starter we’ve been using for about five years,” Feltman said. “So it was pretty simple, but it seemed to turn out good.”
DeRay and Darla Jones, of the Soldotna-Sterling area, took first in the dessert category and third place over all in the open competition.
“We went with an apple-caramel crisp. It was our first time with the recipe, so apparently it turned out,” DeRay Jones said.
Second place overall went to Julie Saltz and her daughter, Makenzey Saltz, of Soldotna.
In the youth competition, Lane Kreider and Brad Guth took first for dessert, followed by Ashley Jones in second, and Cajewl and Brenner Musgrave in third. For the main course, Jaxon Hill and Nina Olsen took first, Lane Kreider and Brad Guth took second and Daniel Lewis and Taylor Forbes took third.
Teams of judges used all their senses to evaluate the food — rating it for how appetizing it looked and smelled, difficulty of the recipe, execution, consistency and texture and, of course, taste. They didn’t have to be experts in preparation, just appreciation of the food.
“I don’t know if I should be the one to judge desserts, because I couldn’t make any of these in my oven,” said Linda Tannehill, with Cooperative Extension Service, one of the dessert judges for the open competition.
After the judging was complete, the food was dished up into tasting portions for the crowd. One of the perks of judging was being able to sample and savor — and re-sample and re-savor — the dishes as much as needed to make an informed choice.
“Judges can have as much as they want,” Dr. Anderson told them.
“Oh, now we’re talking,” said Soldotna Councilwoman Brenda Hartman, one of the dessert judges.
Though Dutch oven cooking is well-suited to keeping and reheating leftovers, that wasn’t a factor in Saturday’s event, as every last scrap and dripping was gobbled up.
That’s just as well, said Bauer. It shows people how good Dutch oven food can be, and means less cleanup for him.
“Last night we made essentially the same set of recipes and we had it for dinner, so I was actually glad that this all disappeared. That was more than I wanted for leftovers, so I’m glad it’s all gone,” he said.