Cooking classic French dishes may be more than enough challenge for most cooks but not for the members of the Cracked Pots cooking group. They recently upped the challenge and re-created some of France’s finest cuisine in cast iron Dutch ovens on a charcoal fire. Members of the group produced poulet provencal, potatoes dauphinois, cherry clafoutis and crusty French bread that were more likely to have come from a French restaurant than from a campfire in Dickinson.
“If you can control the temperature, you can cook anything you want in a Dutch oven,” veteran Dutch oven chef James Young said. “It takes practice, and some trial and error. We all went through our burned stage.”
No burned offerings were on display at the Cracked Pots’ recent get-together, only a spread of French vegetables, entrees and desserts, each cooked over an open fire. Each DOG (Dutch Oven Gathering) sets out a specific theme based on a region, ingredient or holiday, and members concoct appropriate dishes, vying to win a friendly competition.
“Our rules are really simple,” host Glenn Topfer said. “You can slice, dice and prep ahead of time, but it has to be cooked on site. Everyone makes an entree according to the theme, and either a side dish or a dessert in a Dutch oven.”
Selecting the right size Dutch oven also plays a part. “I may use a really big one just to have more surface area,” Topfer said.
Topfer, a Johnson and Wales -trained chef, explained the basics of cooking with coals. “Each briquette is about 20 degrees, and you typically put twice as many on top as under the pot. You don’t want the food to scorch, you want it to cook.”
The Cracked Pots started their DOG events, which they now hold quarterly, in 2011. “A lot of the guys knew each other from being involved in Boy Scouts, and enjoyed cooking on campouts. They wanted to get together and cook in a different setting, where they could have adult beverages along with the food,” group coordinator Becky Snyder explained.
Being able to cook with Dutch ovens can be a practical skill along the coast. “After Hurricane Ike, we didn’t have any power so we used our Dutch ovens to cook everything in the freezer,” Snyder said. “My sister called to check on us and said that our family was probably the only one eating better than they normally do.”
The group is an affiliate of the state group, the Lone Star Dutch Oven Society. There is also an international group with annual meetings.
“In 2011, we were doing pretty basic stuff. We’ve really stepped it up since then,” Topfer said. “We’ve had osso buco, cheesecake, meatloaf with bacon — it’s an amazing group of cooks.”
Even Topfer, a former pastry chef, was impressed by Anthony Young’s French bread. “I wanted to get that iconic baguette look, but the Dutch oven wasn’t long enough,” Young said. Still, the feat of producing a loaf of bread with a crusty outside and soft inside was recognized by all the cooks as worthy of the “best overall” award for the dinner.