An evening of chuck wagon cooking in the mountains

[[PRINTED WITH THE PERMISSION OF THE ALPINE AVALANCHE]]
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Last Saturday, as guests of our friends Beth and Larry Francell, we attended the Friends of Camp Mitre Peak Chuck Wagon cook-out at Camp Mitre Peak Girl Scout Camp, in the shadow of the mountain that is easily identifiable from towns away. Beth has been a long-time board member and supporter of the Girl Scouts, with lifelong memories from attending Camp Mitre Peak as a Girl Scout from Midland. The Last Call Band provided entertainment for the evening, and can often be found playing at Cueva de Leon in downtown Fort Davis on Thursday nights.

Anyone who has driven between Fort Davis and Alpine has seen the large outcropping, named after a Bishop’s mitre, standing majestically to the side of the highway. Organized hikes are led up to the top of the mountain, where you can clearly see Jeff Davis County, Presidio County and Brewster County.

We’ve driven down the three-mile road to Camp Mitre Peak before, but turned around at the entrance. Camp Mitre Peak was purchased in 1947 by the Girl Scouts of the Desert Southwest. There are a dozen cabins, tent and RV camping sites, indoor classrooms and kitchen facilities, with a swimming pool nestled in the mountains. Girl Scouts also learn horseback riding and archery while at this wonderful camp snuggled in the Davis Mountains.

The chuck wagon meal, cooked over open coals, was provided by Cocklebur Camp, led by Head Cook Sam Howell of Odessa. Sam started Dutch oven cooking in Boy Scouts at the age of 12, having come from a rich family history of farming and ranching that began with his grandfather in the late 1800s. The Cocklebur Camp wagon  is a “standard” wagon from Flint Michigan, produced between 1882 and 1912. The guys are members of the American Chuck Wagon Association, and participate in many events state-wide  as well as private catering all throughout the year.

While I’ve never taken my Dutch oven cooking outdoors over hot coals, I have used it outdoors over propane many times. The 6-quart enameled cast iron Dutch oven by Lodge is probably the most-used pot in our kitchen, indoors or out. It can be used in the oven or on a burner, retains even heat, and holds a large quantity of food. That’s  a good thing when it comes to meals like beef stew or chicken-n-dumplings, which are two of my favorite things to prepare in the Dutch oven. With a hint of fall in the West Texas air lately, I’m ready to make a big pot of beef stew.

The Cocklebur Camp cooks served us beans and creamy herbed potatoes cooked in dutch ovens, and a melt-in-your-mouth prime rib they cooked in an old Army field oven. The delectable meal began with a salad bar and ended with a peach cobbler. The fellows even have a cookbook available on their website at www.cockleburcamp.org.
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Dutch Oven Beef Stew
(inspired by the cooler weather blowing into the Davis Mountains)

Oil for searing

Flour for dredging

2-1/2 pounds beef chuck, cut into 2-inch cubes

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 medium onions, sliced and chopped

5 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon tomato paste

8 cups beef broth, homemade or low-sodium canned

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1/2 tablespoon thyme

2 bay leaves

1-1/4 pounds medium red potatoes, quartered (about 7 to 8 small potatoes with skin on – red potatoes stay firm, Russets will turn to mush)

6 medium carrots, cut into 2-inch pieces

3 celery stalks, cut into 2-inch pieces

1 large can of Italian whole, peeled tomatoes, lightly crushed

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

 

Heat a large Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid over medium-high heat. Pour in enough oil to fill the pan about 1/4-inch deep. Spread flour out on a plate, or put it in a one-gallon ziploc bag. Season half the beef generously with salt and pepper, then dredge in the flour (If using the plastic bag, add flour and beef cubes to bag and shake vigorously to coat the meat with flour). Shake off the excess flour, and add to the pan. Sauté the meat, uncovered, stirring only occasionally, until well-browned, about 8 minutes. Transfer the beef to a plate. Discard the oil and wipe out the pan, then melt the butter over medium high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, until lightly browned, about 1 minute more. Return the beef to the pot and add broth, and bring to a simmer. Add the parsley, thyme, and bay leaves to the pot. Cover and simmer, stewing the meat until tender, about 1-1/2 hours. Skim any fat from the cooking liquid. Add the potatoes, carrots, celery, and the tomatoes, and bring back to a simmer. Stew, uncovered, on top of the stove, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has thickened and the beef and vegetables are tender, about 1 hour. Stir in the Worcestershire sauce and season with salt and pepper to taste.  Note: Beef chuck is the best choice for stew because of having more marbeling than other cuts. You can also use a thick steak cut into cubes.

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