By Jenny Neyman
Olive rosemary asiago cheese rolls, paella with saffron rice, caramel pecan cinnamon buns and three varieties of tenderloin, stuffed with everything from asparagus and spinach, to pine nuts and lemon zest or feta cheese and prosciutto.
It sounds like the menu from a fussy, five-star establishment. That wasn’t quite the case July 25. Picture, instead, the breeze shooing off mosquitos in Soldotna Creek Park, gingham-patterned plastic drapes over picnic tables and disposable utensils.
As for the setup to produce such fine cuisine? No state-of-the-art kitchen with all the latest gadgets here. In fact, only one gadget was used, and it’s been in roughly the same state since its invention in the last 1700s. Enter the humble, but honored Dutch oven.
“Anything you can cook in a kitchen, on a range or a regular oven you can cook in Dutch oven,” said Rod Hutchings, of Anchorage, who, along with Ray Wall, was one of five teams competing in Soldotna’s annual Progress Days Dutch Oven Cooking Competition.
Wall recently submitted paperwork to start a new Dutch oven cooking chapter in Anchorage, and was half of a team representing Alaska at the International Dutch Oven Society World Championship Cookoff in Utah last year. In regional competitions, as in the state-level event at the Alaska State Fair and the world cookoff, each team makes a bread, a dessert and a main dish, and everything has to be prepared and served to the judges in a Dutch oven or on its lid.
“In this particular case I’m looking for 17 on the top and seven on the bottom, which will hopefully get me about 350 degrees. It’s very particular. (Counts to 15.) So I’m two short,” Hutchings said.
It’s part exact science, and part best guess.
“It’s fairly predicable but it depends on the wind. Like right now the wind’s picked up so that’s probably blowing a lot of our heat off,” said Stefanie Ferguson.
As Ferguson explains, you can’t just turn a knob to immediately increase or decrease the temperature.
“Pork is so temperature dependent, especially pork loin. If it’s too hot, if we cook it too much, it gets really dry,” Ferguson said. “But it has to be at a minimum temperature of 145 to serve, so it’s temperature critical. And then the other issue is making things attractively brown. If you’re not careful you end up with gray food, and that isn’t very appetizing.”
This is the third year of the competition for Ferguson and partner Molly Noyes, maternity department nurses of the aptly named team Buns in the Oven. They took a break before bringing their bread dish to the judges table to sample the entries in the dessert round, including their apple tart.
“The main thing I always worry about this is that the pie crust won’t be tough and it’ll be cooked,” Ferguson said.
“It’s pretty flaky,” Noyes said.
“And it is cooked. I think it’s good. OK, we did the best we can do,” Ferguson said.
But was it good enough to win?
“The lemon meringue pie’s pretty good, I like it,” Ferguson said.
“The cinnamon rolls are good, too,” Noyes added.
“Yeah. It’s tough. This is tough competition this year,” Ferguson said.
The lemon meringue came from Rick and Sally Oelrich. The trick with the pie is to get the crust perfectly browned first, then add the lemon filling and the meringue on top.
“And then just brown the top of the meringue with the coals on the top. You guess at the coals for the wind and you make sure the meringue doesn’t burn so you lift the lid quite a bit on that one,” Rick Oelrich said.
Julie Saltz and her mom, Toni Cooper, chose their menu first for taste then originality, then appearance. This year that meant a Spanish paella for the entrée and really going out on a limb for their dessert.
“It was a Bulgarian recipe, so Google translator called it like this apple rosy tart, but it’s got an almond crust with an orange vanilla custard and then apples on top in shapes of flowers and homemade apricot glaze on top of that. But Google translator wasn’t helpful in some parts. We kind of had to guess,” Saltz said.
Brenner Musgrave shakes some hot coals onto a Dutch oven to cook his entree course.
Three other teams chose pork tenderloin for their entrée. Brenner Musgrave and Brennan Mitzel’s entry was stuffed with chopped fresh parsley, feta cheese and sliced prosciutto.
“Well, pork was on sale, so that’s how we got this one,” Musgrave said.
As Musgrave explained, the pork still had another 30 minutes of Dutch oven lovin’ before they would know how it turned out. Their caramel pecan cinnamon rolls, though, were already getting rave reviews.
“That was to die for,” raved a spectator. “Two guys made those caramel pecan rolls? That makes me laugh. That was awesome.”
This was Musgrave’s first time in the adult division, having participated three times in the youth competition. He recruited Mitzel to join him, who didn’t have previous Dutch oven experience, but already had a healthy portion of the right attitude.
“I enjoy cooking. It’s a good life skill, and it’s also a beautiful day. I would have been inside playing video games otherwise,” Mitzel said.
Noyes and Ferguson took the gold for their cast iron prowess. As the winning team of the Progress Days Dutch Oven Cookoff, they can go on to the Alaska State Fair, with that winner representing Alaska in the world competition in Utah.
2015 Soldotna Progress Days Dutch Oven Cookoff Results (courtesy of the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce):
1st: Molly Noyes and Stephanie Ferguson
2nd: Rick and Sally Oelrich
3rd: Rod Hutchings and Ray Hall
Novice: Brenner Musgrove and Brennan Mitzel; and Julie Saltz and Toni Cooper
1st: Ben and Emylee Wilson
2nd: Will Anderson and Parker Kincaid
3rd: Anchor Musgrave and Mathew Lewis; and Talon Musgrave and Calven Mitzel
Other participants: Aiden Willets and Rory Nelson; MaCady Musgrave and Anna Henderson; Joshua Henderson and Nathanial Patat; Michael and Brittany Lewis; and Trenton Steadman and Mika Wong
Junior Mini Division
1st: Luke Anderson and Justin Hanson
2nd: Blake and Corey Lewis
3rd: Golden Musgrave and Hyrum Henderson
Other participants: Simon and Avery Willetts; Grayden and Abraham Musgrove, and Andrew, Arianna and Sydney Steadman