If you have to pack it in, it had better be useful.
That’s the mantra if you’re camping anywhere, but especially if you are setting up camp above 9,000 feet, in the National Forest near Sig Creek, where often you won’t hear – let alone see – neighbors.
Over the years, veteran Durango campers Peg and Ron Ochsenreiter, Deb Uroda and Charles Siegele have graduated from pitching a tent to packing an RV. What hasn’t changed is their flagship cooking utensil – the Dutch oven.
Two weeks ago, nearly a dozen lucky guests gathered at the group’s campsite to enjoy a braised pork and dumpling dinner with a sour cream peach cake finish, courtesy of the camping couples who say eating well is high on their camping must-do list.
Being outdoors is no excuse for leaving cooking creativity at home. It’s an opportunity to dazzle each other and all who come within nose-range of their outdoor kitchen, which consists of two charcoal chimneys and a pair of Dutch ovens, plus a corkscrew or two and a bottle opener. You get the idea.
Camping is about hiking, reading, cooking and connecting with each other, Uroda said.
“I used to say you could sleep when you’re dead,”she said. But now she has added napping to the must-dos.
Contrary to what you might believe about Dutch-oven cooking, there was no napping for the Ochsenreiter-Uroda tag team, as they banked coals in the charcoal chimney and counted out briquettes to get a feel for how much heat is braising the pork roast.
So is Dutch-oven cooking science or art?
“It’s an art,” Uroda said.
Watch the two count coals and strategically place them according the diameter of the pot, and you’ll plant both feet firmly in the science camp. Then, as mouth-watering scents waft from the fire, you’ll find yourself drifting over to the art camp.
There are no thermostats in the woods, where cooking temperature is assessed by holding the palm of one’s hand an inch to an inch and a half above the cooking kettle.
“If you can count to three, you’re at 350 degrees,” Uroda says. According to the traditional formula of Dutch-oven cooks, the ability to hold one’s hand steadily above the kettle for two seconds indicates a 400 F oven, while a five-second hold means you’re at 250 F. If you are looking for a temperature somewhere in between, calculate based on how long your hand can stand the heat at an inch or so above the kettle.
Preparation for this meal started in the early afternoon, when Peg and Ron Ochsenreiter loaded metal charcoal chimneys with briquettes. Some recipes, such as breads, call for a preheated kettle. Others, such as Ochsenreiter’s Peach Upside-down Cake, start with a cold kettle.
To keep the heat reasonably constant, Peg Ochsenreiter recommends having a backup supply of half-grayed charcoal ready to add, noting that the coals whiten to ash before they start to cool. She went through nearly 24 pounds of charcoal before the dinner bell sounded nearly four hours later.
Meanwhile, Uroda trimmed, seasoned, tied and floured a 6-pound pork loin. She chopped two onions, coated them with flour and lightly browned them in a 12-inch Dutch oven before adding 4 cloves of minced garlic and the meat. Charles Siegele donned a pair of leather work gloves and rotated the kettle and its lid a quarter turn at timed intervals.
Uroda counted the hot coals and spaced them below and upon the rimmed lid to ensure the roast would brown evenly. Chicken broth and beer were added and replenished as the roast braised in the liquid essence of meat drippings seasoned with onion, thyme, cloves and garlic.
“Whatever beer you have on hand works” Uroda said. The resulting broth was the perfect medium in which to drop dumplings that swelled to a savory finish, while the pork roast rested on the platter before carving.
“The hard part is to not look in the pot for 15 minutes and just trust the heat,” Uroda said of the biscuit-textured dumplings that sopped up the gravy. Uroda’s Texas roots reflect her appreciation for hearty, flavor-rich comfort food, such as the dumplings she loved as a child.
While Uroda flipped through a favorite cookbook, Peg Ochsenreiter pulled out a vintage egg beater snagged at a flea market.
“I paid too much for it, but look how well it works,” she said as she creamed the butter and sugar for her Palisade peach dessert, crafted from the fruit of last summer’s harvest.
“You count four coals less than the diameter of the kettle to place under the Dutch oven and add four coals more than the diameter of the lid to place on the top,” Ochsenreiter explained.
Dutch-oven cooking requires a watchful eye, as well as some basic cooking instincts, to know when a dish is ready. Ochsenreiter poured the batter over the peach filling, expecting an hour of baking time at 350 F, but the cake was done in less than 30 minutes.
“We’ve had some spectacular disasters,” she joked, noting that last year her family spent 70 nights camping outdoors between March and October. Both families get the camping bug early in the season, rain or shine.
“‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.’ That’s what we used to say,” Uroda said. “Now we’ve changed that to say, ‘There’s just bad attitudes.’”