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For most of my life, if you asked me what I liked to cook, I would have told you that I couldn't cook to save my life. If you ask my parents, they'll gladly tell you about the time I burned spaghetti while it was still boiling in the water. But a little more than a year ago, I discovered the magic of cooking. I realized that cooking is so easy, anyone can do it. All it takes is the right tools for the job, and that's why I'm asking you to make one small investment and get one of the few cooking tools that absolutely must belong in any kitchen: a cast iron dutch oven.
This is a typical 5-quart cast iron dutch oven, manufactured by Lodge and sold at Wal-Mart for about $28. It sells at Amazon.com for about $33 (with free shipping). Other brands of cast iron dutch ovens can be found for even less at low-end discount stores such as Big Lots, Ocean State Job Lot, Christmas Tree Shops, and sometimes T.J. Maxx and Marshall's. Other pots are sold at those stores as "dutch ovens," but I recommend going for an all cast iron pot without any rivets, screws, or "silicone" (i.e. plastic) parts. A one-piece cast iron dutch oven is nearly indestructible and likely to last the rest of your life, if it is properly cared for.
I don't care if you can't boil water – if you have one of these iron pots, then you can cook ANYTHING. You can make delicious healthy meals that will feed your entire family for less than the cost of a single take-out pizza. Once you start cooking in cast iron, you'll wonder how you ever got along with out it - and you'll throw those stupid Hot Pockets in the trash.
This is the basic recipe for a simple dutch oven meal. All you need are some of your favorite vegetables and a package of your favorite meat – whatever kind you like. Here are some potatoes, carrots, celery, mushrooms, and an onion, but you can use anything you like. I bought this package of chicken drumsticks at Stop & Shop for $2.50, and it's often on sale for far less. You can use any meat that you fancy – chicken, beef, fish, or no meat if you prefer eating vegetarian. You can use this simple cooking procedure on any number of ingredients, and you'll be able to use your dutch oven to feed yourself and your family, many times over.
Most important of all, this meal is healthy and it is cheap. If you include the cost of this vegetable oil and seasoning, it all comes to less than eight dollars (and of course you can use the oil and seasoning for many more meals at no extra cost). You can't even get a small pizza for eight dollars these days.
If you don't think you can wash and chop vegetables, just go to the supermarket and buy a bag of frozen vegetables. Be sure to get the bagged frozen kind, not canned – canned vegetables are made with large amounts of sodium. The cost of produce has increased drastically recently, and you'll find that a one-pound bag of mixed "stew" vegetables typically sells for $1.50 to $2.00. The cost of the fresh vegetables listed here will probably come to between $3.00 and $4.00 – roughly the same, or less, than the bagged vegetables. Adding the $2.50 cost of a package of meat, that comes to somewhere between $5.00 and $6.00. From there, you only need to get some store-brand generic vegetable oil, plus my favorite spice combination – so-called "Italian seasoning." I like this spice combination because it has all of the basic spices commonly used in stew cooking, minus salt and pepper, so it can be used by anyone including diabetics. It can be found at any dollar store, or at a supermarket for less than a dollar.
Once you have all of your ingredients together, simply scrub your vegetables under lukewarm running water. You don't have to peel the potatoes and carrots – unpeeled potatoes taste terrific when cooked, and you can't tell the difference between a cooked unpeeled carrot and a peeled one. Furthermore, there are nutrients in the skins that are lost when the skins are removed.
After washing, chop the vegetables into large pieces.
Cover the bottom of your dutch oven with a thin layer of vegetable oil, about a tablespoon of oil.
Add all of your chopped vegetables to the dutch oven and mix them around. Sprinkle "Italian" seasoning on top. This is my favorite spice combination, because at a cost of one dollar or less you get a mixture of oregano, sage, rosemary, thyme, marjoram, and basil – all of which are must-have spices that are well worth the cost of obtaining separately. For a first step, this so-called "Italian" seasoning will give you all of them at once.
Place the meat on top of the vegetables. You can add salt, pepper, and garlic powder to the meat if you want, plus more Italian seasoning.
Add one cup of water to help steam the chicken. (If you have it, you can use broth instead of water.)
To kick it up a notch, add half a cup of white wine in addition to the water! (This step is optional. The alcohol in the wine boils out as the pot cooks.)
Cover the pot and place it in the oven.
Set your oven temperature to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Wait two hours. You don't even have to pre-heat the oven; the two hour waiting time includes time for the oven to heat to 400 degrees. Here is where the cast iron pot does your cooking for you. Cast iron is an excellent retainer of heat, and the heavy iron lid will prevent moisture and flavor from escaping your food. After the first half hour of heating up to 400 degrees, the pot will cook the food in its own juices for an hour and a half.
After two hours, use potholders, oven mitts, or cloth towels to remove the pot from the oven.
And this is the result:
Regardless of what kind of meat you are cooking, two to two-and-a-half hours in a heavy iron pot at 400 degrees F will thoroughly cook it. The meat will be so tender, you won't even need a knife to cut it.
You can vary the ingredients to include just about any type of food you want to cook. Casseroles are made in this manner: just lay the meat on top of a bed of rice, using 2 cups of water or broth for every 1 cup of uncooked white rice (see also: How To Cook Rice). Add a can a can of cream of mushroom soup for flavor, plus any additional vegetables, spices, or flavorings you want. You can make this with chicken on the bone, or unboned; you can make steaks, ribs, roasts, chops, shoulders; and just add more liquid to the pot to make stew. Lower the temperature to 250 degrees F (just over the boiling point) and leave the pot in your oven for several hours, and you have a slow cooker that will put the best crock pot to shame. Make an entire roast chicken by simply coating the chicken with seasoning, placing it in the dutch oven on a bed of vegetables, and cooking it at 400 degrees for two to three hours. In short, this recipe is the foundation for a hundred different meals or more, all delicious and satisfying. It is the start of a mouth-watering and delectable journey into the world of cooking, one where you – yes, you! – will learn the truth: anyone can cook!