“Eating something fresh out of the oven is like a hug you can taste!”
I am a pretty big fan of food. But I would have to say that I am a VERY big fan of dutch oven food! Dutch ovens are easy to use, simple to pack around, quick to clean, and provide some of the tastiest entrees I have ever eat, whether dining in the outdoors, at home, or even in a restaurant.
This chicken meal is the first dutch oven concoction I dared to attempt. It sounded simple enough that I thought I could handle it as a newbie, but it also sounded really delicious. It is a very quick meal, but don’t be fooled by its simplicity, it is far from a plain tasting meal!
Before heading out camping, I like to make my own pesto for this meal. Pesto is SOOOOO easy to make and you can use a large variety of greens, nuts, and cheeses to change it up. In this case, I made an almost-traditional pesto. I say almost because I had to do a nut substitute. A traditional pesto is usually basil, pine nuts, and parmesan cheese. We can’t use pine nuts at our house because of allergies, so I substituted the pine nuts with walnuts. I have also made pesto using tarragon, arugula, or even kale. For nuts, anything will do: almonds, hazelnuts (which I consider the BEST nut in the world! Man those are good! Ha!), walnuts, etc. I usually taste the green I am using and then decide my nut based on that, but there are also tons of recipes online that have different pairing suggestions.
Anyway, I kind of eyeball my pesto when combining everything together. I do this because the consistency seems a little different every time I make it. I don’t know if it has something to do with the moisture contained in the greens or nuts, but it just seems to be different each time. Anyway, I start with two big handfuls of the basil and throw them in the food processor. I also put a handful of nuts in at this time, a little squeeze of lemon juice, two cloves of garlic, and the salt and pepper. I give everything a couple of pulses and check that the nuts are broken up before I turn the machine on all the way. You add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream. I stop and check often until the texture is to the consistency I like, which for this recipe is a little bit runny (Not soup runny! You still want it to hold its shape). I say that I like this a bit runny for this recipe because you spread the pesto over the chicken breasts, and it is easier to accomplish this when the pesto is not too firm. After I get things where I want, I pour in my cheese and give it another few quick pulses to chop up the cheese. Voila! Homemade pesto! Pack it up and your other ingredients, and you are ready to head out!
There are very few ingredients needed for this meal. For the chicken, you need some boneless, skinless chicken breasts (one per person you are serving), the homemade pesto you just whipped up, and a bag of mozzarella cheese. You will also need some spaghetti noodles (or whatever noodle you have on hand would work).
The hardest part of dutch oven cooking is getting the coals started. However, this can be simplified with a cheap, but amazing, little tool: the charcoal chimney! I purchased my charcoal chimney at the Sportsman’s Warehouse for about $20.00 and it was worth every penny. All you do is crumple up a few pages of newspaper and stuff them under the base of the chimney, add your coals, and light the paper. You don’t need lighter fluid or even the match light coals. Initially, the chimney will set the coals on fire, much like the barbeque pit. After a few minutes, the coals will go down and they will start ash over. It takes about ten to fifteen minutes for the coals to be ready. I usually pull mine from the heat when the top ones are half grey and half black. If you wait until the top ones are completely grey then the bottom ones are almost gone. A reminder I ALWAYS need when cooking with my dutch oven is to remember to not set up my dutch oven just in the dirt. The dirt will extinguish the coals (I know, common sense should take over here, but I do it all the time!) I usually set my dutch oven up on a flat rock, but you can also buy really great metal pans that make the process even easier!
For a lot of dutch oven meals, you have to use a specific size of dutch oven in order to cooks things right. This is especially important when making desserts like cakes or breads (which we will get to later, I promise!), but for this meal you can use whatever size you have available. My dutch oven is a 12 inch one, and that is great for this meal because I can usually squeeze in about six breasts.
Before adding the chicken breasts, I place a very thin layer of pesto along the bottom of the oven to prevent sticking. Next, place the breasts (which you can salt and pepper before adding to the oven) in the oven and then lather them with the pesto. That is it! I put 14 coals on the bottom and about 12 to 14 on the top and let her go! I also like to check the temperature of my oven by using my hand to guesstimate where things are at. I read this online, and while it isn’t a fool proof method, I have found that it has not failed me yet. So, place your hand about 6 to 8 inches above the dutch oven. You should only be able to hold it there for about five seconds. If you can do this, you are at about 350 degrees, which is what this chicken needs to cook at. If you can hold it there longer, say ten seconds, you are more around 250-300 and you need to add more coals. If you are only able to hold it there for a second or two, you are too hot, more around 400, and need to remove a couple of coals from the bottom! Like I said before, this is a really great starter meal because it isn’t super temperature dependent. If you are too hot or too cold, you most likely won’t destroy the meal.
After about fifteen minutes, I pour the entire bag of cheese over the chicken. At this point, the chicken needs to cook about fifteen minutes more (the entire dish cooks for around 30-35 minutes). I don’t usually time my dutch oven meals. I actually go off smell, which was a technique shared with me by my brother-in-law (he worked for years as a river guide on the Colorado River and made thousands of dutch oven meals. I consider him my dutch oven mentor!). Going by smell sounds like a weird tactic, but it works and it is crazy! You might THINK you smell your meal a few times and will catch a couple of whiffs, but when the meal is done you will be OVERWHELMED by the smells of your meal and it can be from a good distance away. That is sure fire way to know it is ready to eat! (In this case, you will smell the pesto the most). When I add my cheese, I also go and throw my noodles on the stove to boil.
When putting this meal together, I place my noodles down on the plate first and then lay the chicken breast over the top of the noodles. I also spoon out extra pesto from the pan because it will coat your noodles in an oil that is pesto-y and extra cheese-y! Good stuff there. I like to pair this meal with a white wine and in this case I just did a Robert Mondavi Chardonnay.
This simple, but fantastic, dutch oven meal is a great starting point for learning how to cook with a dutch oven. It is fast and not too complex, but the meal tastes great after a day of hiking, fishing, or hunting! Happy Eating!
* 2 cups basil leaves
* 2 cloves garlic
* 1/4 cup walnuts
* salt and pepper to taste
* 1 teaspoon lemon juice
* 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
Add all ingredients except cheese and olive oil to food processor. Pulse until ingredients are coarsely chopped. With food processor running, slowly add the oil. Add cheese and pulse until smooth.
Pesto Dutch Oven Chicken Recipe
* 4 – 6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
* 1 cup pesto
* 14oz bag mozzarella cheese
* spaghetti noodles
Place chicken breasts and pesto in dutch oven. Cook over coals for 15 minutes before adding the bag of mozzarella cheese. Cook fifteen minutes more. Cook noodles to al dente. Serve chicken breasts over bed of noodles.