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TODAY

Sunday, August 25

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I've got a gift that has become sort of standard with me. It's a cast iron chicken fryer. At the time of this writing, this item is currently on sale at Amazon.

It may seem like an odd gift until you find out how much it can do. I know the faces of people I've given it to have been confused when they've opened a box that weighs about 20 pounds to see the words "Chicken Fryer" staring them in the face. "What? I don't fry chicken?" their faces seem to say. After watching them hem and haw, I end up saying, "It does more than fry chicken. It's like a mini-Dutch oven."

And that is exactly what it is. Most people rarely need an eight-quart dutch oven. But a three-quart Dutch oven is perfect for making tons and tons of different dishes that need long-slow roasting time. The underside of the lid has these little nipples on it. These are the secret to a really good Dutch oven. If the lid bottom were smooth, steam would condense and then drip down in the center. These nipples encourage steam to condense and drip down over the entire pan, giving you automatic basting, reducing the number of times you have to stir, and making the cooking even more flavorful.

Most Dutch ovens are used for campfire cooking. They often have legs on them so they can get airflow underneath them. There is a handle so the oven can be hung over a fire for indirect heat cooking, or at least lifted from the fire fairly easy. The lid often has a lip that goes around it so coals can be piled on top to create even cooking.

This is all well and good, but most of the people I know do all their cooking in their kitchen. Camping fans might be interested in either the International Dutch Oven Society or Byron's Dutch Oven fansite. They're great repositories for the camping cooker.

But since the friends I recently gave this gift to are going to be using it in their home, I thought I might provide them with a few recipes on how to use their chicken fryer as a Dutch oven. The nice thing about it is that since the lid comes off, it also acts like a great deep skillet. If you are frying things in a skillet, it's nice to have one with high sides because it reduces the splattering that lands on your stovetop and makes clean up easier.

Since the friends I gave the most recent chicken fryer to were celebrating their nuptials, it seems perfectly reasonable to give them a bean recipe I found out about through some friends from Texas called Husband-Pleasing Beans. Dutch ovens are also perfect for roasting meat. You'll be limited to meat that will fit in a smaller pan, but unless you're cooking for more than four or five people it will be plenty. And lest you think that Dutch ovens are only good for carnivores, I'll share one of my favorite recipes for Portabello mushrooms.

Husband-Pleasing Beans
3 cups of dried pinto beans (soaked in water overnight)
3 tablespoons of olive oil
1 large onion that has been diced
5 to 6 cloves of garlic that have been minced or sliced
1 large bell pepper that has been seeded and diced
1 jalapeno pepper that has been seeded and diced
3 cans of chopped tomatoes
1 1/2 teaspoons of cinnamon
1/2 cup of barbecue sauce
1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large bowl soak the beans overnight. The next day, drain off the liquid. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Place the skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil, onion, and bell pepper to the skillet and sauté until everything is soft but hasn't started to brown. Add the garlic and cook for a few minutes. Add all the remaining ingredients and stir well to combine. Cover with the lid and place in the center of the oven and cook undisturbed for 1 hour. Then begin stirring every half hour and cook for an additional two hours. Remove the lid and cook for a half hour. Adopt a drawl and eat.

If you want similar flavor without the soaking of the beans and a shorter cooking time, use three cans of pinto beans (including the liquid) instead of dried beans. Combine the ingredients and cook covered for 30 minutes. Remove the lid, stir and cook for another 20 to 30 minutes. Some of the liquid should evaporate. It will still be good but the canned beans can't handle the extended cooking time. The extended cooking time permits the flavors to truly meld and texture of the beans to remain.

Dutch Oven Beef Roast
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 teaspoon of dried rosemary
1 medium yellow onion sliced, but not too thinly
2 pound cut of beef with the word "round" in the name (choose a cut that is evenly shaped)
2 to 3 cloves of garlic minced or sliced
1 cup of beef stock, or other flavorful liquid (red wine, hearty beer, etc.)
1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon of Worchestershire sauce
1 tablespoon of honey
1/4 cup of ketchup or tomato sauce
1 tablespoon of soy sauce
1 bay leaf
5 to 6 whole black peppercorns, or 1/2 teaspoon of ground black pepper
3 to 4 large carrots that have been peeled and sliced into thick rings
2 pounds of potatoes with thin skins that have been washed and cut into bite-size chunks
1 teaspoon of thyme
Salt to taste

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Place the bottom of the Dutch oven over medium-high heat and add the olive oil, rosemary and onions. Stir every few minutes until the onions start to turn golden. Move the onions to the edges of the pan, and sprinkle the garlic on top of the onions, you don't want the garlic to burn. Trim any large chunks of fat from the cut of beef, pat it dry with paper towels, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place it in the middle of the pan. Let it cook for about 2 to 3 minutes on each side. This should be enough time for it to sear, which will help seal in juices. Turn off the heat under the skillet.

In a spouted measuring cup, combine the cup of liquid, vinegars, Worchestershire sauce, honey, ketchup, soy sauce, the bay leaf and the peppercorns. Combine with a fork and then pour the mixture over the roast. Scoop up most of the onions and layer them on top of the roast. This will help them caramelize. Cover with the lid and place in the center of the oven. Let it cook for half an hour.

Now spread the potatoes, carrots, and thyme and salt around the outside of the skillet. Cover again and let cook for 30 to 45 minutes. If you have a meat thermometer, feel free to check the internal temperature of the roast for your preferred doneness. If you don't have a thermometer cut into it with a sharp knife and peek at the color of the inside meat. Either cook for longer or remove the pan from the oven. Place the roast on a plate and cover. Let it rest for 10 minutes before cutting to keep the juices inside the meat.

If you like you can scoop out the potatoes and carrots (which should be done) and turn the liquid in the pan into gravy. Place the skillet over medium heat, add one tablespoon of flour to the pan and stir vigorously with a fork, once it comes to a boil it should begin to thicken. Let it cook for a few minutes, stirring constantly, and it should thicken nicely. If you want it thicker, add flour in half-teaspoon amounts until it gets to be the desired thickness. If it gets too thick, add a small amount of stock or liquid, remove it from the heat and stir until well-blended.

Roasted Portabellos
1 large Portabello per person
1/2 tablespoon of olive oil per mushroom
1 clove of garlic for every two caps
1/2 teaspoon of dried basil per cap
1 thick slice of tomato that is the same size as the mushroom
Salt and pepper to taste
Drizzle of balsamic vinegar over each cap

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F. Break off the mushroom stem (save for stock), and rinse lightly with cool water to remove any dirt. Working over the skillet, pour the olive oil over each cap and rub with your hand to coat evenly. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and basil. Place in the skillet with the top-down. Position a tomato slice over each mushroom. Sprinkle with some salt and pepper, and drizzle the balsamic vinegar over each cap. Cover with the lid and place in the center of the oven for about 15 to 20 minutes. The mushrooms should be soft and tender, and it should smell darned good.

I've never been a proponent of having lots of different sized pans. I like having a few items I can use for just about everything. This is why the stainless steel skillet that came with our cookware set nine years ago is still shiny while the rest of the set is dinged and dented and scuffed. Oddly enough, my cast iron skillets look just about the same as they did nine years ago. And I expect them to look the same nine years from now. Cast iron isn't the perfect element, but it's darned near perfect for cooking with. So the next time you're not sure what to get your friends who cook, follow my suggestion and get them a chicken fryer. They may not understand at first, but they will thank you.

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