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Dutch Treats

The new Las Cruces Cast Iron club weighs in with an insatiable love of cooking in old-fashioned Dutch ovens.

By Jeff Berg

 

The sweet bouquets of a new and fresh Chihuahuan Desert spring are broken by a waft of "traditional western life," aromas filling the air at the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces. Besides the scents of the desert, delicious smells escape from an armada of heavy steel pots filled with a variety of slow-cooking foods, everything from bread and biscuits to rosemary-wrapped brisket. The only unwelcome smell, although it is almost a necessity at a gathering like this, is that of the nearby cow pens, which arrives with several warm shifting breezes.

The cast iron chef — he stoops to cook.

The credit for the good smells goes to Las Cruces Cast Iron (LCCI), a new group of cooking enthusiasts whose expertise is applied to an age-old type of cookware, the cast-iron Dutch oven. The monthly meetings are called DOG Functions—short for "Dutch Oven Group."

Headed by Robert Murphy, who is celebrating his 50th anniversary of cooking with the old-time cast-iron cook-all, LCCI already boasts 25 members and monthly meetings. Not bad for a group that just formally organized in January, "although we were tinkering with it since November," Murphy notes.

Murphy is a Las Cruces native and true cowboy gentleman who rises, removes his Stetson, and bows slightly when introduced to a lady ("Ma'am," he says). He first got serious about Dutch-oven cooking back around 1985, as best he can recollect.

Long attached to cowboy and chuck-wagon lore, Dutch ovens have a history that goes back much further than that. Several theories of the cookware's origin exist, suggesting everything from the method used by the Dutch in casting pots in the 1700s, to the possibility of the name being attached by Dutch traders or salesmen when selling cast-iron cookware.

Murphy is sure of one thing: "The Lewis and Clark expedition had two Dutch ovens with them for the whole trip. It was the only thing they had to cook in, and they had them with 'em the whole way."

He adds, "Miners and Basque sheepherders also used them. And on chuck wagons, they were used because they had to make do with what they had on the trail."

Murphy met his first Dutch oven on the trail, back in 1957. A one-time cowboy, Murphy worked on the Cox Ranch, which in part is now part of the Dripping Springs Natural Area, east of Las Cruces.

"I was working on the ranch, and we were a long way out. [Ranch owner] R.H. Cox had said he would fix us lunch," Murphy recalls. "He had five of them [Dutch ovens] going, and I remember thinking, 'What in the world? This is amazing!' I have been tinkering with them ever since."

Murphy cowboyed until he got married. "When I got married I had to go to work," he says with a wry smile.

Post-cowpuncher work for Murphy included operating his own construction company. "I was born in 1941 at the McBride Clinic," he recalls. "That was before Las Cruces had a hospital. I can't say I've lived here all my life, since I'm not dead yet!"

Retired, Murphy says, "I am delighted with the way life is now."

He occasionally teaches Dutch-oven cooking classes at the Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum, and admits to coming to the beautiful facility from time to time "just to harass the staff." Nearby, Lena Bates, the education coordinator for the museum, smiles and nods in agreement with that statement.

In the past, Murphy also led a few cooking classes at the Dona Ana Branch Community College, and really wishes that he could get kids interested in the craft. "I led a youth program about eight years ago, and have cooked a bunch with the Boy Scouts in the past," he says. "It wasn't competitive, and it was just nice to help other people."

Murphy grimaces a bit and continues, "I'd like to see people bring their kids. Just awhile ago, I saw a car that had a—a—what do you call it? A movie player in the backseat. And I thought, these kids need to start looking out the window; they need to see life."

He has three children of his own, two sons and a daughter. Somewhat resigned, he notes, "They aren't interested in cooking, but they sure like to eat!"

He goes on, "My whole life has been around agriculture—ranch life. My dad had a farm, a dairy and a feedlot. But I don't even own a horse now. I ride four-wheelers instead."

 

Murphy rattles off a list of things that can be cooked in a Dutch oven: "Meats, potatoes, broccoli with cream sauce, turkey, lasagna, snow peas, cornbread, upside-down cake, squash stir fry, pizza, cobblers, roast duck. There was one couple that made this chocolate cake with chocolate butter icing. All from scratch. We try and cook most everything from scratch."

Murphy gets up again to fetch samples of this simple but masterful cooking invention. There are any number of sizes of Dutch ovens, ranging from 5 to 16 inches, as measured across the lid of the pot. All are made of cast iron, often with a stainless-steel handle.

"The ones made in Taiwan aren't any good," Murphy says with a knowing tone. "And the best ones you can get are made by Lodge. And make sure you only wash them with hot water—no soap"

Lodge Manufacturing has been making cookware since 1896 at its facility in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. Everything from cornbread pans to grills is offered through their Web site (www.lodgemfg.com), including of course Dutch ovens.

Murphy flips over the cover of one of the larger pots. "You can also use this as a skillet to fry eggs," he points out.

 

Next Murphy grabs a handful of accessories that he and other chefs use with their Dutch ovens. One is a multi-pronged device that he uses to pick up the lid of the pot when it is over the fire. Another, simpler contraption—looking like a long coat hook—serves the same purpose, but does not offer the same amount of control on the lid.

Robert Murphy's
Dutch Oven Peach Cobbler Recipe

1 stick butter

2 1/2 cups flour

1 1/3 cup sugar

2 heaping tablespoons baking powder

dash of salt

cinnamon or nutmeg to your liking

3 cups milk

1 gallon (#10) of sliced peaches, well drained

Melt butter in a 12-inch Dutch oven. In a bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and optional cinnamon or nutmeg; mix well. Add milk to the flour mixture and stir just to combine. Pour mixture on top of melted butter in Dutch oven. Add drained peaches on top of mixture. Cook for approximately one hour at 350 degrees or until top dough is lightly brown. Ingredients can be halved for a smaller cobbler.

It is the third gadget that Murphy is most proud of. Dutch ovens traditionally have three stubby legs, kind of like cut-off milking stools. This item, designed and made by Murphy himself, is used to grab one of the legs, so you can tip liquid out of the pot without burning yourself. One hand on the handle, a tip and a grab with what one of the other cooks calls a "mini-biscuit ring," and the job is done. This LCCI meeting might actually be the public debut of the tool, which Murphy has christened the "pot tilter." It draws instant interest from the other Dutch-oven cooks.

All of Murphy's Dutch ovens have a tag on them with his initials and the size of the pot. He makes and distributes these to other cooks, so everyone can identify their cookware after the potluck-type feeds that usually accompany the LCCI's events. "They all do look rather alike," offers another cook.

At the Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum gathering, large, flat containers of community charcoal are being used for heat, as the cooks aren't allowed to dig a fire pit—the preferred method of heating up a Dutch oven. Each cook has his or her own grill-type device on which to put a Dutch oven. At home, Murphy discovered that his stove could accommodate a Dutch oven rather nicely if he removed a grate.

Spectators, mouths no doubt watering, gather around the gently steaming Dutch ovens. Some have questions as well as appetites.

"How long do you cook it?" Murphy asks the question he's just been asked. "Why, you cook it until it's done!"

Evidently that "recipe" works just fine for the LCCI chefs. Recently, a dozen of the LCCI folks went up to Glenwood for a Dutch-oven cooking competition. All told, between 45 and 50 Dutch-oven chefs showed up, and the LCCI attendees won top honors. But Murphy says, "We didn't want the Glenwood folks to get swelled up because we did so good, so we gave them back the prize money and donated the tools that were in the raffle. The courtesies from that [Glenwood] group made us feel so welcome, it felt more like a community than a group."

There were 206 meal tickets sold at the event, at $5 apiece, so the Glenwood folks should have a good amount of capital to help get the word out about Dutch-oven cooking.

 

"Some people laugh at what we do," Murphy acknowledges, "but they don't see the fellowship and the gathering of folks exchanging new ideas, or improving on recipes. I never used to share my recipes, but this is a good group. They'll say this is good, but let's make it better. So, it's good to be sharing.

"Sometimes folks are afraid to try it, and say, 'What if we burn it?' To which we tell them, 'We'll throw it out and try again,'" he adds with a laugh.

By this time the LCCI chefs are hard at work preparing any number of dishes, including two rubber chickens, which are stuck in a large stewpot—"they're almost done," jokes the chef. Spectators occupy part of a row of folding chairs, and watch quietly but happily as the food starts to take shape. You can almost hear their stomachs growling.

These are the Dutch oven "groupies," as they were baptized earlier in the day.

"We just love the food," one woman replies when asked about her interest in this event.

Four "groupies" stumble a bit when asked about their favorite Dutch oven dish. It is as though there are so many choices, there is no way that they could decide. Finally one woman answers, eyes wide and alight, "I love the breads and the biscuits."

Another woman adds, somewhat dreamily, "The meats are good, too!"

The third woman chimes in with a non-food thought, noting that what they really like is the camaraderie that is shared by the Dutch-oven cooks with this gaggle of spectators.

Lastly, the lone gentleman of the group checks in with his dry comment: "It takes real talent to be a groupie!

 

Las Cruces Cast Iron meets monthly at the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum. For more information, or if you just want to be a groupie and hope for a sample or two, contact Robert Murphy at 526-4219 or lcci@zianet.com. The museum also sponsors Dutch oven cooking classes. Contact Lena Bates, education coordinator at the museum, for details,
522-4100.

 

A carb addict, Jeff Berg challenges you to make him a biscuit better than the ones from Dutch ovens. Please.

 

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