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Dutch oven cooking
Swiss Steak recipe is made with lots of love
Dutch oven cooking is all about the outdoors — smoke from the cooking fire, aromas the lead you back to your campsite after a hard day of hiking or fishing and an open sky with stars for your night light.
For Darrin Thomas, it's that — but it's also good food made with love.
Darrin, who lives in Sutter with his wife, Heather, and two daughters, Andrea, 11, and Amanda, 10, said that while recipes are important, it's better to make a dish your own. "I cook by recipe, but I also cook by taste. Taste is the big one for me. I'll start with a recipe, but it doesn't stay that way."
Darrin's recipe for Swiss Steak sounded easy: a few chopped and sautéed vegetables, some beef and a few cans of various-style tomatoes. Even his explanation made it sound easy.
"Today I'm going to make Swiss Steak. It's a beef round, thinly sliced, that's going to be cooked in a mushroom, celery and onion sauce.
"The first thing I do is sauté the vegetables in olive oil and butter. When that's done, I'll flour and brown the meat, then deglaze the pan with beef broth. Then I'll add my mushrooms and put it all back in.
"Then we'll add our tomato base into it to break down the meat. Then I'll cook it slow, and we'll have Swiss Steak."
Of course, there's more to it than that. He also has to decide if he's going to use his aluminum or cast iron ovens (they have different heating properties) and how many — and how often — to use charcoal briquettes, so he doesn't burn or undercook the meal.
Darrin said you can make practically anything in a Dutch oven that you can make at home. "You can make ice cream, cookies, pies, cakes and breads. I've seen people do chickens and pigs. There's really nothing you can't do in a Dutch oven, and the bigger the pot, the more you can do.
"When you cook in an oven, you can throw (the food) in and come back later. When you're doing the cooking, you're using coals or you're using wood, so you need to pay attention because it'll burn. But it's not rocket science; it's just the old-fashioned way that people used to cook."
But, most importantly, "You get a little more love and a little more flavor in a Dutch oven."
A Dutch oven, while not uniquely American, is part of America's move west. While its history isn't totally clear (see information box on page D2), the best ovens are made in America by the Lodge and Camp Chef companies, Darrin said. He explained that the pots are formed in sand molds and should have legs and a tight-fitting lid.
Darrin, who also competes in Dutch oven cooking contests, was trying out his new aluminum ovens in preparation for the Sac River Cast Iron Cookers contest that was held Jan. 17 at the Colusa County Fairgrounds.
In that contest, he made pot roast, johnny cakes, Dutch oven potatoes and piña colada cake with his daughters and his friend and R.B. Spencer Heating and Air Conditioning co-worker Tim Gomes.
Getting to the Swiss Steak recipe, he said, "The first thing I'm going to do is sauté our vegetables using olive oil. I just put a little oil in the pan that's one top of hot coals."
The first vegetable he put in was the onion, seasoned with a little Sicilian sea salt. Darrin said he uses sea salt with the onion because it tastes better, and he can use less sea salt than regular table salt.
Next to go in were a few shakes of black pepper and the pre-chopped celery and garlic.
Why garlic, I asked. "Because everything always tastes better with garlic." He uses bottled garlic and then cuts it up so he can decide on the size and shape. Darrin explained it's not vitally important how the garlic is cut up, because "Nothing has to be perfect, because it's just food."
After "sweating" the vegetables for about two minutes, Darrin poured them into a waiting bowl and turned to the meat.
Darrin spiced up some flour with a little salt, pepper and Emeril's Essence spice before dropping in the 1⁄2-inch-thick pieces of beef round.
While some people tenderize the meat before cooking, Darrin sees no need, because the tomato sauce he cooks the meat in breaks it down.
Using the same Dutch oven he sautéed the vegetables in, he poured a little vegetable oil in and then dropped in the meat to brown it. After browning the meat on both sides, he put the pieces into another pan while he poured some beef broth into the Dutch oven to deglaze the pot.
This is an important step, Darrin said, because all the flavorful "good stuff" (meat pieces, flour and seasonings) is stuck on the bottom and sides of the pot. What he said to do was pour in the beef broth, scrape pot's edges and stir everything together as though you were making gravy. He said you can add a little flour to make a thicker broth, if you wish.
The final steps were simple. Return the vegetables and meat to the Dutch oven and add three cans of tomatoes: one large can of tomato sauce; one regular can of diced tomatoes and peppers; and diced tomatoes, garlic and oregano. Darrin added some Worcestershire sauce and a dash of Emeril's Essence spice, then let everything slow cook for about two hours.
On the day I was there, Darrin served the Swiss Steak over potatoes, but he said it goes just as well over rice or noodles.
• Darrin Thomas' Award-Winning Dutch Oven Swiss Steak
Preparation time: 45 minutes
Cooking time: At least two hours
Yield: 10 servings
2 pounds beef bottom round
2 teaspoons Sicilian sea salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
3⁄4 cup all-purpose flour
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic (or more, if you prefer)
2 stalks celery, chopped
1⁄2 pound mushrooms, sliced
1 can tomato sauce (29 ounces)
1 can diced tomatoes and peppers (14.5 ounces)
1 can diced tomatoes, garlic and oregano (14.5 ounces)
1 teaspoon Emeril's Essence spice
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
11⁄2 cups beef broth
1⁄2 cup red wine, optional
Vegetable oil for cooking
Cut meat with the grain into 1⁄2-inch-thick slices. Add salt and pepper to flour. Dip meat into flour.
Add sufficient oil to cover bottom of 4- to 5-quart Dutch oven. Using medium heat, brown meat on both sides (about two minutes per side) and set aside.
Pour onion, mushrooms and garlic into heated oil and "sweat" — or sauté — until softened, about one to two minutes. Scoop into waiting bowl.
Deglaze pot with beef broth, scraping bottom and sides of Dutch oven as though you were making gravy.
Return meat and vegetables to Dutch oven; add all three cans of tomatoes and add further spices to taste.
Stir and let simmer for about two hours (longer if you have the time) to let the meat tenderize and the tastes to mingle. Check and stir about once every half hour.
Serve with potatoes, rice or noodles under the meat and sauce.
Darrin was born and raised in Williams and has lived in the Yuba-Sutter area for past 20 years. For the past 18, he's worked at R.B. Spencer Heating and Air Conditioning in Yuba City.
He said his daughters are both in a 4-H Dutch oven club in Colusa.
Darrin and Tim took second prize at the Sac River Cast Iron Cookers contest for their piña colada cake.
History of Dutch Ovens
According to John G. Ragsdale, the name "Dutch oven" has been applied to a variety of cooking pots, kettles and ovens over the years. The origin of the name "Dutch oven" is uncertain, but Ragsdale suggests a few theories.
• In 1704, a man by the name of Abraham Darby traveled from England to Holland to inspect a Dutch casting process by which brass vessels were cast in dry sand molds. Upon returning to England, Darby experimented with the process and eventually patented a casting process using a better type of molding sand as well as a process of baking the mold to improve casting smoothness. Darby eventually began casting pots and shipping them to the new colonies and throughout the world. Ragsdale suggests that the name "Dutch oven" may have derived from the original Dutch process for casting metal pots.
• Others have suggested that early Dutch traders or salesmen peddling cast iron pots may have given rise to the name "Dutch oven."
• Still others believe that the name came from Dutch settlers in the Pennsylvania area who used similar cast iron pots or kettles.
To this day, the name "Dutch oven" is applied to various cast pots or kettles. The most common application of the name is to a cast iron pot or kettle with a flat bottom having three legs to hold the oven above the coals, flat sides and a flat, flanged lid for holding coals. These ovens have a steel bail handle attached to "ears" on each side of the oven near the top for carrying.
Other pots may also be called a "Dutch oven," such as cast aluminum Dutch ovens and cast iron pots or kettles with rounded lids, flat bottoms and no legs.
Lodge Manufacturing Co., a major manufacturer Dutch ovens, distinguishes two types of ovens by calling the rounded top flat-bottom oven with no legs a Dutch oven. The oven with a flat lid with a lip around the edge and a flat bottom with three legs, it calls a "camp oven."
Ragsdale indicates that cast metal pots have been in use since the 7th century. The Dutch oven of today has evolved over the years, as various manufacturers made refinements and improvements over previous version of cast metal pots.
The shape of the "ears" has evolved, as has the length and thickness of the legs. The lid also has seen many changes, ranging from rounded to flat, and from no lip to various shapes of lips or flanges.
Source: "Dutch Ovens Chronicled, Their Use in the United States" by John G. Ragsdale.
Contact Appeal-Democrat reporter John Hollis at 741-2400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.