Many cooks have a gadget or piece of cookware that they just had to have at the time, but alas, have never used. Maybe there's a Chinese meat cleaver or an oh-so-cute cherry pitter tucked in your kitchen drawer. In my case it is, or was, a 7¼ quart Dutch oven.
After seeing the movie "Julie & Julia" and watching Amy Adams make Child's signature boeuf bourguignon, I had to have a Dutch oven. Then a year, OK, more than a year, went by, and it remained in its box. This month I made a point to get acquainted with my Dutch oven, and now I don't know how I ever cooked without it. Mine is bright red and enamel-coated heavy cast iron. It has all of the qualities of traditional cast iron, but doesn't require seasoning and, if properly cared for, will never rust. The cast iron provides even heat for even cooking and retains heat long after being removed from the heat source, and can move from the stove to the oven for continues cooking. The lid is also heavy and tigh-fitting and comes with a knob that can withstand temperatures up to 375 degrees. After seeing a tip on "America's Test Kitchen," I replaced the standard knob with one from the hardware store that tolerates higher oven temperatures for added flexibility.
My first experience with a Dutch oven came on a childhood camping trip. I remember camping with a family friend filled a large cast iron pot with beef and vegetables, placed it over the campfire and made one of the best vegetable beef stews I have ever had. One of the reasons it tasted so good was because she used garden-fresh vegetables; the other is because it cooked a long time over low heat, developing deep flavor. This low-and-slow approach seems to be one of the most common Dutch oven cooking methods.
I found an abundance of websites devoted to camp-style Dutch oven cooking. After deliciously adapting a campsite apple cobbler recipe to my sleek vessel and home oven, I continued to try different "campfire recipes" and met with similar success.
Feeling confident, I tried my hand at recipes I have made before, like braised short ribs and Julia's boeuf bourguignon. Both recipes require the meat and vegetables to be browned on the stove before adding braising liquid and transferring to the oven, a task easily and deliciously accomplished by using only this one pot. I went on to make risotto, which definitely benefitted from even heat.
By far the easiest dinner I made was roasted chicken and vegetables. To round out the meal I mustered my courage and baked some of Billie Miller's sour dough bread in a smaller Dutch oven I borrowed from a friend. The meal drew raves all around.
The box for my Dutch oven is long gone and I can't imagine how I got along for so many years without one. I hope I've encouraged you to dust off your never-used item and remember why you wanted it in the first place.
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, won the Daily Herald's Cook of the Week Challenge in 2011.