Thursday, March 22, 2012

Thoughts on Dutch Oven Competitive Cooking

This last week, as a part of the start of my book promotion, I got the wonderful opportunity to help judge the World Championship Dutch Oven Cookoff!  Here are some thoughts on competitive cooking, that I excerpted from my book, "Best of the Black Pot: Must-Have Dutch Oven Favorites".

Here I am, tasting the desserts!
It seems like half the cooking shows on TV these days are competitions.  Even the cupcakes have wars, now.  My son loves to watch them all. While I admit that sometimes I can get caught up in the drama of the moment, for the most part, I’m not so much a big fan.  I’ve been a competitor in dutch oven cookoffs as well.  The two salmon dishes in this chapter were my cookoff recipes, as I competed.

Here are some of my random thoughts on competitive cooking.

The people who do cookoffs are really good Dutch oven chefs.

This is especially true of the World Championship Cook Off, but all of the competitors I’ve seen, even at small, local cookoffs, are really good.  I’ve been very impressed.

The people who run dutch oven cookoffs work really hard.

Organizing and running a cookoff is some seriously hard work.  Setting it up, promoting it, getting sponsors and prizes, scheduling the judges, and many other tasks, make it a very time consuming challenge.  Usually, it’s done for free.  My hat’s off to these people.

I always seem to choke when I cook competitively

Having said all that, I’m not a big fan of competing, myself, because I don’t seem to do well.  I can cook under pressure, even under tight time constraints, but for some reason, when I compete, I choke.

A good example is the blackened salmon.  I did a practice run the week before, and it was incredible.  The timings all came out right, the salmon was to die for, and each of the other dishes was perfect, too.  Then, the morning of the competition, it all fell apart, and I made mistake after mistake.  It was a mess.

For some, it brings out their “A” game

However, I’ve talked with others, and they say that the pressure makes them cook better.  It makes them develop their best recipes, and hone their techniques.

Dutch oven competition is always friendly.

One thing I have seen constantly is how friendly Dutch oven cookoffs are.  I don’t see the viciousness or the backbiting that are so prevalent in other competitive events.  I’ve seen contestants share tools and ingredients with each other, and they’re always swapping stories and recipes in the downtime.

Judging apples vs oranges

One of the challenges with cookoffs has to be the judging.  It is challenging to compare dishes against each other.  I mean, we are talking apples and oranges, here.  Literally, in some cases!  Is this one a better apple than this one is an orange?  What’s the basis for comparison?  Sometimes, I don’t envy the judges their jobs.  Judging any kind of creative endeavor is difficult.

It’s made particularly difficult by the fact that, as I mentioned before, those that tend to participate in Dutch oven cookoffs tend to be good at it.  So, as a result, you have to draw the line between varying dishes that are all top quality.  How can you call a winner?

Now, even thought I’m not the best performer in competition, I have been in and around quite a few of them.  I’ve noticed a lot of things about the competition, so here’s my advice on how to do well at a cookoff:

The best tasting food doesn’t always win

There are a lot of things other than the final product that add up into your final score.  First of all, in addition to the tasting, the garnish and presentation is a part of the score.  In addition, how you present the food can pre-condition the judges opinions of your dish.

Also, there are people called “field judges” who score you on your time spent preparing the dishes.  If your preparation area looks cluttered, disorganized, or even dirty, you can be marked down.  Many people will bring fancy tablecloths and other bits of decor for their preparation areas, and they often will get higher scores for that. How you interact with other competitors and with any spectators could be factored into your score as well.

There are some “standard dishes” that tend to win cookoffs.

While variety and innovation are a good thing, they don’t tend to win cookoffs.  Ribs are very popular, as are roasts of both beef and pork.  Stews and chilis don’t do as well, because it’s a little more difficult to find a great way to present them visually. I also haven’t seen chicken dishes win as often.  International dishes, like asian cuisines or pastas also don’t tend to be as popular.  Exotic dishes that the judges would be unfamiliar with could also be more challenging.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try these.  It does, however, mean that you’re up against additional stress to prove your dish is great.  Make it incredible, and make it look great, and it could win out!

Planning and timing are a BIG deal.

In a cookoff, all of the chefs will begin cooking at the same time, and all will have a deadline time to turn in their dishes.  Some cookoffs stagger the times, so main dishes are presented to the judges, and then, a while later, breads, etc...

In either case, you’ll want to plan your cooking so that each dish will be finished, garnished, and ready to present to the judges right at the time when it’s due.  If you have it finished too early, it won’t look as fresh and won’t be at the peak of its flavor.  If it’s done too late, you might have to present an incomplete dish, or might even be disqualified.

So, begin with the end in mind.  I created a spreadsheet and planned out each phase of each dish, counting backwards in time from the presentation deadline.  That way, at any given moment in the competition, I knew what I needed to be working on.
Cook with a friend.

One of the biggest mistakes I made in my cookoff experiences is that I cooked alone.  First of all, pulling off three dishes in three hours to competition quality is crazy for a single person.  Second, having a friend there with you is a lot more fun.

Even with my own difficult experience in cookoffs, I really think that at some point, everyone should do a competition.  It’s a wonderfully unique experience, and you’ll learn a lot about yourself and about Dutch oven cooking by doing it.  Go into it for the experience, not necessarily for the win, if you have to.  Do your best, and have a great time.


Mark has discovered a love of Dutch Oven Cooking. Mark also has other sites and blogs, including and his MoBoy blog.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Dutch Oven Parmesan Garlic Beef Chunks (Brazilian Style)

This recipe and story is from my Dutch oven cookbook, "Around the World in a Dutch Oven"

My wife and I went to this Brazilian BBQ house a couple of weeks ago.  I always love the exotic meats they make, and I love how they bring them by your table.  Delicious stuff, and I want to learn how to make each one!

This time, one stood out for me.  It was a delicious combination of garlic and Parmesan cheese.  I had never tasted that on a chunk of steak before.  I was enthralled.  I wanted to figure it out, so every time the waiter brought it by I got, like, three chunks.  I felt like a pig, but I had to get the tastes.

Then I had to adapt it to the Dutch oven, because it’s not being turned on a spit.  I wasn’t quite sure how to do that.  At what point should I add the Parmesan and the garlic?  As a sort of sauce at the end, or should I cook the steaks with it on?

These are the things that keep me up at night.  Most definitely a first world problem...

Dutch Oven Parmesan Garlic Beef Chunks

The Meat

12” Dutch Oven
20-22 coals below

  • 2 ½ lbs beef steak or roast
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 1 tbsp pepper
  • ½ tbsp paprika

The Parmesan Garlic Drizzle

8” Dutch oven
10-12 coals below

  • ¼ cup butter
  • 3-4 cloves garlic
  • Several very liberal shakes of Parmesan cheese

The Potato & Veggie Side Dish

10” Dutch Oven
16-18 coals below

  • 2-3 Medium Potatoes
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2 sweet peppers (of different colors
  • Olive Oil
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Parsley

Since you’re going to have three Dutch ovens going to make this meal, you’ll want to start a lot of coals.

I started with a nice roast and cut it into squares about an inch to an inch and a half square.  Think about a good shish-kabob size.  I seasoned the chunks by putting them in a zip-top baggie with the seasonings, and shaking them up.  I let them sit to absorb the flavors.

In the meantime, I started slicing up the veggies and potatoes for the side dish.  Somewhere in all of this, I also spritzed the inside of the 10 and 12 inch Dutch ovens with a thin layer of oil, and set them out on the coals to preheat.

I took out the veggies and meat.  Then I added a drizzle of olive oil to each Dutch oven, and let that heat to shimmering.  I tossed the meat into the 12” and the veggies into the 10”, and gave both a stir to coat the food with the oil.  I put a lid on the 10”, and divided the coals evenly above and below, to bake the potatoes.

At that point, I had to pay close attention to the meat.  I wanted to sear it, and also to cook it to about a medium or medium-rare done-ness.  Unfortunately, I found that my thermometers didn’t work so well in such small pieces of meat.  So, I just had to stir and guess.  It didn’t take long.  I pulled them off the coals, and put them on a plate under some aluminum foil to rest and settle.

In between all of that, I had minced up the garlic  I and added it, the butter, and the Parmesan cheese to the 8” Dutch oven.  I put that on the coals, not so much to cook, but to melt and blend.

Soon the potatoes were done and it was time to assemble it all and serve it up.  I put a few chunks of meat on each plate, brushed on the butter sauce (being very liberal with the cheese and the garlic chunks), and plated the veggies along side.

It was amazing, and I dare say that I nailed the flavor match to the restaurant!  I was amazed at both how elegant and exotic it looked, and, at the same time, how simple the recipe was.

There are more great easy recipes for dutch ovens and Dutch oven recipes: Chicken.


Mark has discovered a love of Dutch Oven Cooking. Mark also has other sites and blogs, including and his MoBoy blog.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Penne Alfredo with Blackened Cajun Chicken

I was working on a chapter on herbs, spices, and flavorings for my next book, “Black Pot Beginners”, and I wanted to test out the Cajun blackening mix on chicken, instead of salmon, like I had done a few years ago. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it, though, what to serve it with.  Rice? Potatoes?  Those both sounded good, but in the end I decided on penne pasta with an alfredo sauce.

It turned out to be both complex and simple.  It’s simple, in that it only took about an hour to an hour and a half to do the entire meal (not counting the thaw time for the chicken), and that no one part was really complicated.  However, I was doing essentially three things at once (cooking the chicken, cooking the pasta, and making the alfredo sauce).  It was tricky to balance them all to be done at about the same time.

First, I mixed up the Blackening powder mix.  I would recommend doing a double or triple batch, and storing the excess in an old spice bottle.  Make sure you label it, or you’ll look at it in three months and say, “What on earth is this stuff?”

Mark’s Blackening mix

  • 2 tsp cumin
  • 2 tsp crushed coriander
  • 2 tsp garlic powder
  • 2 tsp coarse ground black pepper
  • 2 tsp thyme
  • 3 tsp paprika
  • 3 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • ½ tsp cayenne pepper

Now, here are the ingredient lists and instructions for all the rest of the parts of the dish!

Mark’s Blackened Chicken:

12” Dutch Oven
24+ coals below to start, then...
12-14 coals below
13-15 coals above

  • 4 boneless skinless chicken breasts, thawed and patted dry
  • 1-2 Tbsp olive oil
  • Mark’s Blackening Mix

The Pasta

10” Dutch oven
20+ coals below

  • 1 lb of penne pasta (or, actually, any kind of pasta you like)
  • Some water

The Alfredo Sauce

8” Dutch Oven
10+ Coals below

  • ¼ cup butter
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • ~3 Tbsp flour
  • 2-2 ½ cups milk
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Nutmeg
  • ½ cup shredded mozzarella
  • 4-6 Tbsp grated Parmesan cheese 

To time this out just right, I started by figuring out which of the three steps would take the longest.  I figured it would be the pasta, because the water would take some time to boil.  Then, I figured the chicken would be the next longest, and finally, the quickest and easiest would be the sauce.  They don’t all really have to come out at the same time, but you want it to be pretty close, so no one element has too much time to cool.

I started by lighting up a full chimney of coals.  Once I got some white on them, I set them under the 10” Dutch oven, about half to ¾ full of water.  I set the lid on the Dutch oven, because I can never get enough heat to boil water uncovered.  Also, all throughout the steps, I kept adding more coals to the chimney to keep plenty of fresh coals.

While that’s starting up, I added some more coals to the chimney, and began preparing the chicken.  I took out the thawed chicken breasts and laid them out on paper towels to pat dry (both sides).  Then I sprinkled them pretty liberally with the spice mix.  Actually, when I did this, I shook them in a zip-top baggie with the spice mix.  This turned out to be way too strong.  So, when you’re dusting the breasts with the seasoning, go heavier than you would if you were just shaking on a little salt and pepper, but not as heavy as it would get if the breast were dredged in spice.

Once there’s spice mix on both sides, I let them sit for a while, to absorb the flavors.

Meanwhile, I spritzed the inside of a 12” Dutch oven with a bit of oil spray, and put it on some coals.  A lot of them.  After it’d been on a bit, I drizzle in the olive oil and let that heat to a shimmer.  The Dutch oven was quite hot by this time.  I put the chicken breasts in the Dutch oven, and they immediately started sizzling.  I let them sit, cooking uncovered, for several minutes.

It was at about this point that I could see that the water was boiling, so I added the pasta, and set the lid back on.

I turned the chicken breasts over, and let them sear on the other side.

At this point, I also put the 8” dutch oven on some coals and put in the butter to melt.  While that was going, I ducked inside and quickly diced an onion, and minced the garlic.  I tossed that in to the melted butter to saute.

All along this time, I kept checking the pasta, to get to the “al dente” stage.  I also took the chicken off the coals as they were, adjusted them to be the numbers below and on the lid, as shown above, and set that aside to finish cooking through.

I added the flour to the butter and onions, and stirred with a spatula to make the roux.  I added it a tablespoon at a time.  I was looking for it to be thick, but still a bit runny.  I let that cook for a bit, too.  I still wanted it to be blonde, not red or brown, so I didn’t cook it too long.  I added the milk and the spices, and put the lid on.

When the pasta was to the right doneness, I pulled it off the coals, and drained the pasta with a colander. I poured that back into the Dutch oven, so its residual heat would keep it warm.  At this point, the chicken was cooked all the way through.  While I was waiting for the milk to boil, I sliced the chicken with long diagonal cuts.

Once the milk was boiling, I added the cheeses, and kept stirring while they melted.  I used brick parmesan and a grater, too, because I like the stronger flavor.

Then, I brought it all together.  Pasta in the bowl, a couple of spoonfuls of sauce on top, and a few slices of chicken on top of that.  It was delicious!

Mark has discovered a love of Dutch Oven Cooking. Mark also has other sites and blogs, including and his MoBoy blog.


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