Mark R. Vogel
Cookware is made from myriad materials, although some form of metal is the most common. Different metals of course, have different properties, and thus each one has its own constellation of pros and cons.
Cast iron is inexpensive, durable, becomes very hot and maintains its heat. Nothing short of a grill will sear your meat like cast iron. That’s the good news. On the flip side cast iron is reactive. That means it can chemically interact with acidic ingredients. It can also rust, and food tends to stick to it. For these reasons cast iron pans must be “seasoned.” This involves coating the entire pan, inside and out with oil or shortening and baking it to seal the fat into the pan. This inhibits rusting and provides a non-stick surface but naturally this layer eventually breaks down and the process must be repeated. Some cast iron pans are coated with enamel. This is an attempt to ameliorate the dilemmas of cast iron while maintaining its strengths, particularly the exceptional heat conduction.
A Dutch oven is a cast iron pot (usually of large size), with a snug fitting lid. There are a number of theories as to how the Dutch oven got its name. The first comes from the fact that during the 1600s the Dutch had the most advanced method of forging cast iron into cookware. The English later patented a process based on the Dutch design, and popularized it in Britain and the American colonies. Another theory ascribes the pot’s name to the Dutch merchants who sold them. Finally, some posit that the Dutch reference emanates from the Dutch settlers in Pennsylvania who used the pots regularly. Indeed, any or all of these sources could have combined to form the final namesake.
In America, the Dutch oven took on iconic status. Legs were added to it so it could rest above a fire or smoldering coals. A special flanged lid (who some credit to Paul Revere), was also devised so that hot coals could be placed on top of it without embers dropping into the food. Surrounding the pot with a heat source truly turned it into an “oven.” Dutch ovens were indispensable for frontiersmen, pioneers, and explorers such as Lewis & Clark. Utah was particularly enamored with the Dutch oven, so much so that the state’s legislature named it Utah’s official state cooking pot in 1997.
Modern Dutch ovens are designed to be used on a stovetop (or inside an actual oven), have a smooth, legless bottom, a heavy lid, and handles on either side of the pot. A modern version is the aforementioned enameled cast iron. As stated, the enamel eradicates the negatives of cast iron, namely rusting and reactivity. However, while you can deep fry in cast iron, such high temperatures are not recommended for enamel. Le Creuset is the quintessential example of the modern, enameled Dutch oven and certainly one of the best on the market.
Dutch ovens are the cooking vessel of choice for soups, stews, braises casseroles, and any other slow, long, simmered dishes. Pot roast, Bolognese sauce, baked beans, chili con carne, and cassoulet, are all ideal for a Dutch oven.
Nowadays the term Dutch oven has been bandied to the point that cookware manufacturers use it to describe any large part, regardless of the composite material. Purists would argue that only a cast iron vessel, enameled or not, can be considered a Dutch oven. If you must stray into some other element, such as stainless steel, ensure that it is a heavy gauge steel with a proportionately heavy and tight-fitting lid. Thicker steel will sear food without burning it, as well as distribute and maintain heat better. It will be devoid of “hot spots” since the thermal energy is uniformly dispersed. Heavier steel will also not warp over time. Finally, a heavy, snug lid will seal in the heat more thoroughly, and reduce moisture loss during cooking.
CHICKEN & SAUSAGE STEW
3 red bell peppers, roasted, skins and seeds removed
1 lb. boneless chicken thighs or breasts
½ lb. sweet Italian sausage
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil, as needed
1 medium-large onion, chopped
5 cloves of garlic, chopped
3 cups chicken broth
2 batches of baby spinach
Chopped parsley to taste
Roast the peppers by placing them in a pre-heated broiler, or on top of a gas stove burner until they are charred. Place them in a covered container to steep and cool. Remove the skins and seeds, cut them into strips and set aside.
Cut the chicken and sausage into bite size pieces and season with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven until it just starts to smoke. Add the chicken and sausage and remove as soon as they are browned. Add the onion and more oil if necessary and cook. Add more salt and pepper. When the onion has started to soften add the roasted peppers and then the garlic. Cook for a few minutes more. Deglaze the pot with the chicken stock, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom. Return the chicken and sausage to the pot, bring to a boil and then simmer uncovered for a few minutes. Begin adding the spinach, in batches if necessary, until it wilts and is completely incorporated. Taste and adjust seasoning, finish with fresh parsley and serve. Don’t forget some bread for dipping.