Cowboy Cooking Outside Cortez, Colorado [Gallery]

Low and slow is the way to go, whether at home or on the range

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By David Hammond

Last week I was in Southwestern Colorado, mostly visiting archaeological zones – Mesa Verde, Lowry Pueblo, Hovenweep National Monument and others – but also eating as much local and locally prepared food as I possibly could (this is how I suffer for you, #myhardlife).

On my last night in Cortez, Colorado, I was invited to dinner at Rodney Carriker's Canyon Trails Ranch. Carriker rents out horses to dudes (in the old sense of the word, meaning tin horns, tenderfoot-types, amateurs, doofs like me who want to play cowboy for a day). He's a cowboy himself, a real one, and among many other things, a cook.

"I made about three hundred pounds of beef for the rodeo yesterday," Carriker said, as he cranked a winch that lifted up a Dutch oven that had been sitting in a barbecue pit sunk about 10 feet or more into the ground.

"I just throw the wood in there, light it, and then lower in the meat. It cooks in about 12 hours," he explained. Cooking in the earth, a technique also used by native peoples in what is now Mexico and the Southwestern United States, makes a lot of sense: the heat is contained, the surrounding soil acts as an insulating agent, and in a very warm environment, you're not further heating the air ambient.

Once the Dutch oven was out of the ground, Carriker pulled off the lid to reveal a large cut of beef, topped with peppers, tender as could be, full of flavor, elementally delicious. The beauty of this style of cooking is also that you don't have to do a lot to render even a tough cut of meat tasty.

My friend Gary Wiviott, BBQ Life Coach, Pitmaster at Barn & Company and co-author (with Colleen Rush) of "Low & Slow" volumes 1 and 2, once told me that "The whole point of barbecue is to take a tougher, perhaps inexpensive cut of meat and make it more delicious by cooking it at a relatively low heat for a long time."

Low and slow cooking tenderizes meat and makes it tastier than would likely be possible with other cooking techniques. It takes time to dissolve fats and diffuse wonderful fat flavors. You could probably tenderize even horsemeat with this technique, which no doubt was done on occasion. If you're out in the middle of nowhere, and your horse is maybe injured, Carriker believes, as do I, that dinner that night could very well be what you rode in on. It's hard to believe Roy Rogers might have considered having Trigger for dinner, or the Lone Ranger, Silver, but it could easily have happened that way many times.  

At home in Oak Park, we use a Weber Smoky Mountain to slowly cook meat, with or without smoke. This low cost cooker (we bought ours for around $200) is a good way to get the benefits of cooking in the earth without digging up your backyard. The low heat is very forgiving, and it enables you to set up the grill and leave it alone for hours while the meat slowly cooks, becoming more delicious as time goes by.

Along with the fantastic beef that Carriker prepared, he served homemade biscuits, Cole slaw, and what will go down as maybe my favorite potato salad ever, served warm, spud chunks with cheese and chili peppers, kind of a wild west take on German potato salad, though without the vinegar.

The Dutch oven is one of the most versatile cooking devices – Carriker made pretty much everything but the slaw in them – and although you can cook with a Dutch oven on your home stove, it's made to be used with hot coals underneath as well as on top, slowly cooking the food from lid to base.

As we sipped tequila, I looked over Carriker's chuck wagon, which he had set up near the pit. It seemed to be a fully functional vehicularized kitchen, with drawers for flour and salt and compartments for condiments and the usual utensils.

"What kind of food do you think that cowboys ate on cattle drives," I asked.

"Beans," said Carriker, "lots of beans. And probably squirrel, or whatever they could hunt. The food was probably not very good. A lot of cattle drives would probably also send riders into town to pick up supplies. The thinking is that they would have a chuck wagon and a supply wagon. The supply wagon was the one they'd send into town."

After dinner, Carriker fed a corral of horses and took us into his barn to show us his wheel-making operation, where he works wood and shapes the metal rims to create wagon wheels the old-timey way. 

Talking to Carriker, who began his professional life at Xerox (!), you get a sense for what it must have been like to work on the plains during cowboy days, living life mostly on your own terms, taking care of horses, learning new skills (like working iron and making wheels), and being a welcoming host to others who might come along the trail.


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