By Jenny Neyman
In their home lives, Stephanie Ferguson, Molly Noyes and Jamie Doremire all enjoy cooking. In their professional lives as nurses in the obstetrics department at Central Peninsula Hospital, they’re used to working together, shouldering a lot of responsibility, staying calm under pressure and performing complex, detailed tasks with care, compassion, efficiency and — where appropriate — a good dose of humor.
When those two realms come together, as they did in a cooking competition over the weekend, the results are success, though through some unorthodox means.
“Molly massaged the chicken,” Ferguson joked in explaining how their roasted chicken won the highest score of entrees in the Alaska State Dutch Oven Cooking Competition, held Saturday as part of Soldotna’s Progress Days festival.
Saturday was the third annual Dutch oven cook-off, though it was the nurses’ first time entering, much less even cooking in the cast-iron pots, which were a staple of wagon trains and cowboy camps in the era of Western migration. They’ve lived on in family traditions and Boy Scout camping skills and have seen a resurgence in popularity across the country in recent years.
Longtime Scout leader Dr. Nels Anderson and his wife, Carla, of Soldotna, founded the Last Frontier chapter of the International
Dutch Oven Society and organized the first Alaska Dutch Oven State Championship in 2010 as part of Soldotna’s Progress Days celebration. They were looking to spark interest in a style of camp cooking that is perfectly suited to the hunting expeditions, road trips, boating journeys and myriad other types of camping outings in Alaska, for those who want more than the standard hot dogs and warmed-up cans of beans for dinner. Anderson, an OBGYN, sparked the interest in the nurses, as well.
“We’ve never done it before. But Dr. Anderson, who delivers the most babies at the hospital, comes and hangs out sometimes and chats and he talked us into it,” Ferguson said. “So he’s responsible for this. We decided, we cook in a kitchen, we’ve cooked over a campfire, we’ve cooked on grills, how different can it be?”
Vastly, yet not much, as it turns out. The nurses were surprised to discover that Dutch ovens can cook absolutely anything a kitchen oven can — stews, roasts, baked goods, etc. — and even has some skillet capabilities, for browning meats, crisping bacon or frying up potatoes.
“We realized it was a lot more versatile than we thought, and it’s something I decided that I would do again in the future whenever we go camping, because then we’re not restricted to just cooking over a campfire, when sometimes you don’t want to get ashes in your food,” Ferguson said.
They devised a menu impressive by even full kitchen standards — herbed roasted chicken with smashed potatoes, rhubarb crisp and
NeeNee’s famous rolls.
“My kids call their grandma ‘NeeNee,’ so these are NeeNee’s rolls. My mother-in-law has very famous rolls that she sells in Mississippi, and so I called and told her that her rolls are getting entered in a Dutch oven contest and she was excited beyond belief,” Ferguson.
The rolls are famous for their flavor, she said.
“They’re incredibly rich. There’s already shortening and sugar in them, and the butter comes later. Very Southern. It’s not deep-fried, though, so it’s not completely Southern. Though I bet you could deep-fry in these ovens. If we’d really thought about it, we could have made French fries,” Ferguson said.
But Dutch ovens differ from kitchen ovens in one particularly challenging aspect — heat control. They cook by stacking hot charcoal briquettes underneath the pots and on top of the lids. If a pot is too hot or too cold, coals can be added or removed, but the temperature doesn’t change as quickly as it would in an oven with a dial set up or down.
In camp, an error in temperature control might mean dinner is a little late or a little early. But in the cooking contest, there are strict time limits to be followed. In the adult division, for both novice and experienced cooks, the teams must enter three dishes — an entrée, bread and dessert — all with set, staggered time frames. When time is up the dish must be brought to the judges, whether it’s underdone, overdone or cooked just right.
“That’s the hardest part is the timing, because you want it to still be warm by the time it gets to the judges table but you don’t want to
overcook it,” said Sarah Michael, of Sterling. She and her friend, Amanda Larboy, entered the Dutch-oven cook-off for the first time last year and did so well they ended up placing third overall, even beyond the novice division.
This year they made a raspberry-peach pie, Southwest stuffed bread and a prime rib roast with stuffed mushrooms.
“I’m worried about the meat,” Larboy said. “You don’t want it to sit in there too long even after there’s no heat on them because the meat will still cook.”
They had done a trial run of their menu last week and tried it out on friends, and they are no strangers to cooking in Dutch ovens.
“This is all we cook in when we camp, but we cook over the campfire and so we decided last year that we would try it here. So we came here and it was like a whole new world,” Michael said. “All these people who knew the timing and knew what they were doing. But it’s better to look that way, whether or not we are — you just have to look like you know what you’re doing.”
Across the cluster of tents and tables set up for the cook-off at Soldotna Creek Park, Josselyn O’Connor, of Soldotna, and her dad, William Burke, made no bones that this was a new experience for them — “Oh yeah, we checked novice,” O’Connor said — though they did look coordinated in their attire, at least, with matching hats and jackets representing their homeland of Scioto County, Ohio. Burke came up to Soldotna in part to visit his daughter and family, in part to fish, and particularly to compete in the cook-off.
“We’re a family of cooks, we cook all the time, but we’ve never tried this before,” Burke said.
“It’s been about four weeks for me,” O’Connor said.
“And about six weeks for me,” Burke added.
They’ve learned so far to keep their dishes flavorful, but simple, with a menu of sausage and lentil stew, jalapeño cornbread and apple streusel pizza.
“A lot of these people are doing some really intricate dishes — bread with yeast, and they make up their own fillings for dessert, and stuff like that,” O’Connor said. “All of our recipes are truly things that would be easy to make out at a camp.”
They were counting on their family roots in cast iron to bring them good luck. The family’s foundry business used to make cast-iron stoves, Burke said, though, admittedly, that was about 100 years ago.
“We used to make wood- and coal-burning stoves, and today it’s air conditioners, and parts for cars, parts for power transmission equipment,” he said.
In their practice so far, team Scioto County said they’ve learned the importance of heat control and timing, and that having fun should be the most-important goal, because when all else fails, having a good time is the only part the cook can still control.
“I’ve learned you can still ruin them. I did that dessert for a dinner party in Ohio last Sunday night in the Dutch oven. I burned it, and everybody sat and said, ‘Will, this is burnt.’ But they ate it anyway,” Burke said.
Having fun was the biggest ingredient in the nurses’ cook-off experience, as well. They ended up placing first in the novice division,
third overall in the adult division and their roasted chicken was the judges’ favorite entrée of the day.
“We’re thrilled, it went a lot better than we were expecting,” Ferguson said. “But that doesn’t even matter, we’re just having fun. If we cared about that then we’d be nervous and not having a good time.”
Third annual Alaska State Dutch Oven Cooking Competition
- Adult division: First place, Nels Anderson and Lane Kreiger; second place, Joel Warner with Sportsman’s Warehouse; third place, “Buns in the Oven” team — Molly Noyes, Stephanie Ferguson and Jamie Doremire; Sarah Michael and Amanda Larby; Rick and Sally Oelrich; and Julie Saltz.
- Adult novice division: First place, “Buns in the Oven” team — Molly Noyes, Stephanie Ferguson and Jamie Doremire; second place, William Burke and Josselyn O’Connor.
- Junior division: first place, John Vinzant and Dillon Hutchings; second place, Cajewl Musgrave, Savannah Kreider and Derrick Lewis; third place, Michael and Mathew Lewis; and Brenner and Talon Musgrave.