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The dish: Going dutch

Endless simmer: Paul Dicianno and some of the ingredients for creating Dutch oven dishes such as his stuffed pepper stew.
Photography by Sabin Orr
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Photography by Sabin Orr

There’s no debate about this recreational pot: the Dutch oven, staple of campfire cuisine. Meet its master

Paul Dicianno has an extensive collection of cast-iron pans in his kitchen. Tiny ones for melting butter, slightly smaller ones for eggs. There’s a large one, well-seasoned with the ghosts of garlic and oil past, for prepping meats and veggies. But the big boy, the star of the show, is the Dutch oven. It’s nothing more than a squat, humble, 12-inch iron pot with stubby feet and a flat lid. Bury it under coals and set embers underneath, and you’ve got yourself a stalwart of trailside cooking.

It’s the muse for Dicianno’s culinary and rustic adventures, and the centerpiece of a campsite subculture that asks rugged chefs to work high magic from a low kitchen.

It’s night in Henderson, cool and pleasant. As he fusses over the coals underneath the oven, Dicianno points out that when it’s windy, the coals burn twice as fast. It’s not a problem on this night, which is great, because there’s enough smoke that if it carried, the neighbors would be complaining at best, inconveniently dialing 911 at worst.

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On this night, though, smoke billows slowly upward from an iron table, sweet and heavy. It makes you think of every Boy Scout camp, every illicit high-school bonfire. Dicianno busies himself in the radiant heat of the coals, moving food from that big prep skillet to the Dutch oven. He’s making Thai chicken panang. Simmer a little oil and garlic, then add chicken, coconut milk, some white onion, Thai chilis and panang curry.

Once he empties the skillet into the oven, Dicianno turns to his charcoal chimney. It’s like a pitcher open on both ends, stuffed with charcoal. He makes his own wicks out of cotton balls, candle wax and an egg carton. When the fire is taking the charcoal it glows like a campground jack-o’-lantern. Once it’s hot, he rings briquettes under the oven and on top of the lid.

The effect makes for a sort of cowboy broiler, heat coming from both sides. Dicianno has a chart that tells him roughly how many coals to use on each side to reach a certain temperature. Not that you need anything too specific — one of the nice things about this type of cooking is that you don’t need to babysit it. It takes low, constant heat and plenty of time. Perfect for throwing on the coals, kicking back with friends, possibly a beer or four.

Which is how the whole thing started. Hunkered down in camp with friends. Dicianno isn’t an accidental chef and he isn’t a trained culinarian. He lives in that gray space so many food enthusiasts do, of developing those skills through years of a — oh, God, this is terrible, but we have to do it — simmering love affair with food.

“I grew up in an Italian family, so my grandmother always cooked,” Dicianno says. “I grew up with a lot of good food around me. I’d always watch. All my aunts, who are now long since gone, their parents were from Italy. I’d sit there watching them roll homemade meatballs and make gnocchi. Even though I don’t remember the recipes exactly, it all kind of stuck with me.”

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It turned into something more formal two years ago. Dicianno, 50, owns a carpet-cleaning business by day. He’s also a member of the Vegas Hikers Meetup group, sort of a quasi-formal online collective designed for outdoors enthusiasts to get together.

Some other members schooled Dicianno on one-pot wonders in the Dutch oven. It didn’t take long for that campfire staple, chili, to give way to more experimental dishes. You get a little bit of a reputation among friends, and all of a sudden they’re pushing you into cooking contests.

The first one was at Valley of Fire in 2014. There were only 15-20 people cooking. Why not?

“I’m not a super-competitive person where I have to win everything. I just thought it would be fun, and I’m cooking anyway. I had this recipe book my dad had that all the old-timers at his RV park on Lake Erie put together. They had this recipe for stuffed-pepper stew.”

By the time the judging started, around a hundred people came from neighboring campsites. Dicianno took second and the people’s choice, which got him into the Nevada State Dutch Oven Championship at Cathedral Gorge. He went back to the well on the stuffed-pepper stew, and again took the people’s choice award.

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Last year he took another people’s choice at Cathedral Gorge with his Thai chicken. Looking for types of food not typically prepped in traditional outdoor cooking, and using fresh ingredients, has helped garner attention for Dicianno’s dishes. It’s not hard to see why. The curry comes off, even after less than an hour in the pot, with a balanced flavor of pleasant heat and a rich, creamy coconut. Vegetables still pop and buttress the texture of the dish. The curry has a little zip, but it’s nothing that would upset any but the most boiled-potato palettes.

“For me, I like pots of stuff. Stews, chilis, soups. Something that’s hearty,” he says. “Something that goes with a beer, maybe. Something with garlic. As soon as I get that garlic simmering in the pan, people come around.”

The competitions have several categories, from main courses and sides to desserts. There are elaborate semantic arguments over what does and does not constitute a proper bread entry. (Stuffed breads or banana bread need not apply.) Some people take it as far as making cakes in their Dutch ovens — elaborate affairs like pineapple upside-down cake, or black forest cake. Because you can stack ovens one on top of another, using the coals on the lid of one to serve as the bottom heat source for the next, Dicianno says he’s seen people come up with an entire Thanksgiving dinner, with a small oven on top for the gravy.

Not that he plans on getting quite that ambitious anytime soon. For his next entry he’s considering something Indian. You can see how that would work. A Dutch oven isn’t wildly far afield from a tandoor. Plus, it has the advantage of dishing out just fine from one pot. The simpler the better. There’s a kind of frontier honesty to working within your limitations.

“I wouldn’t consider myself a good cook,” he says. “I would say I have a knack for throwing things together.”  

 

Paul Dicianno’s Stuffed Pepper Stew

This is the recipe that locked up a second-place finish and people’s choice pick in Dicianno’s first Dutch oven cook-off. This isn’t one that’s set in stone, either. Rather, this recipe is a jumping-off point. Dicianno doesn’t make it the same way twice, and neither should you.

 

Ingredients

Six green peppers cut into one-inch pieces
10-12 ripe tomatoes of varying types, diced

Three pounds of hamburger

One large onion, chopped

Four garlic cloves, chopped

30 ounces of water

Three tablespoons of olive oil

Two cups of rice, uncooked

Salt, pepper and spice to taste

 

Preparation

1. Cook rice and set aside to cool.

2. Brown hamburger over medium heat in your cast iron pan, careful to keep the meat in medium-sized chunks.

3. Add chopped onion and garlic and sauté for five minutes, then drain.

4. Add the hamburger, tomatoes, water, olive oil and green peppers to the Dutch oven. Cook one hour or until tender, spice to taste.