“My mother always told me to put your heart into whatever you do,” Kent Rollins tells me over the phone. And for Rollins that came to mean cooking on the range using cast iron cookware, utensils, food and his 35-year-old, 385-pound cast iron wood stove nicknamed Bertha all carted around in an 1876 Studebaker chuck wagon sometimes pulled by horses.
“Studebaker was the Cadillac of wagons,” continues Rollins. “It was made in Indiana, President Lincoln requested one. Studebaker was the only one of the wagon makers that made the successful transfer to automobiles. You could order from their catalogue book; they were one of the few companies that had chuck wagons rather than buying a wagon and having it customized.”
I didn’t know any of that and Studebaker’s headquarters was just across the state line in South Bend. I was talking to Rollins, who with his wife Shannon, have millions of viewers on their YouTube cooking show and have just released their latest cookbook Faith, Family & the Feast: Recipes to Feed Your Crew from the Grill, Garden, and Iron Skillet (Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2020; $30). They were scheduled to be in Chicago for a demonstration and book signing but because of the coronavirus the event was canceled. But I still wanted to write about them because having grown up watching Westerns on television, chuck wagon cooking has always fascinated me. Rollins has been doing just that since 1991 and I ask what’s it like.
“It is hard work,” he says, noting that they spent 292 days on the road in one of their busiest years but have cut back to ten weeks or so annually. “But it has great benefits–the places we get to see and the great people we meet.”
Rollins is a folksy-style storyteller and his anecdotes are part of the fun of the book. Writing about his prize winning chili recipe he says that it is has won prizes, but they haven’t.
“However, we’ve gotten a ton of emails from folks who tell us they used this recipe at their local chili cook-off and won,” he writes in the introduction to the recipe in the cookbook and then offers cooking suggestions. “You can use any type of meat, whether it’s ground beef or even wild game. A perfect blend of chili powder, cumin, and oregano gives it a classic chili flavor, and the chipotle chiles take it to blue ribbon status. Beans or no beans is always the question. I do love a bean, and we add kidney beans for more heartiness, but that’s you call.”
Coming up with the recipes for the cookbook wasn’t a problem, Rollins has plenty of them from decades of cooking. Quantifying them is a different story.
“I learned to cook from trial and error because there wasn’t a recipe,” he says. “I still don’t measure. When people say how much is that, I say just enough.”
Not to worry, there are measurements for all the recipes in the cookbook.
When Shannon Rollins, who did the book’s photos, suggested they include her family recipe for banana pudding, Rollins worried it wouldn’t be up to Southern standards. After all, she’s from Elko, a town in northern Nevada.
“I said, well, hold on honey, that’s a southern dish so it has to be perfect, when I tasted it, I told her you’re a southern lady now,” he says, adding that a standard potato masher is the perfect kitchen utensil to use to make this as well as refried beans and other recipes in the book.
I’m not sure I’ll be going out on the Chisolm Trail like Shannon and Kent Rollins but if that ever happens, I’ll know what to cook.
The following recipes are excerpted from Faith, Family & the Feast: Recipes to Feed Your Crew from the Grill, Garden, and Iron Skillet © 2020 by Kent and Shannon Rollins. Photography © 2020 by Shannon Rollins.
Prize-Winning Cowboy Chili
Makes 6 to 8 Servings
1 pounds ground beef or chuck, cut into bite-sized chunks
Salt and black pepper
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 (10-ounce) cans Ro-Tel diced tomatoes and green chiles, drained
1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
1 (16-ounce) can kidney beans, drained
3 or 4 chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, chopped
⅓ cup chili powder
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons paprika or smoked paprika
½ teaspoon ground cumin
Shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream, and chopped green onions for serving
In a large pot or 12-inch Dutch oven, brown the meat over medium-high heat, breaking up the chopped beef or turning the cubes of chuck, 8 to 10 minutes. As the meat begins to brown, season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the onion and continue cooking until the meat has fully browned and the onion is tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Drain the excess grease.
Stir in the Ro-Tel tomatoes and chiles, 1 Ro-Tel can of water, the tomato sauce, kidney beans, and chipotle chiles to taste. Stir in 2 teaspoons salt and the remaining seasonings.
Cover and bring to a boil for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 40 minutes, to let the flavors blend. Serve warm, topped with cheese, sour cream, and green onions, if desired.
Acidic foods, such as tomatoes or barbecue sauces, are harsh on cast iron, but you can cook them in it. Just be sure to clean it well and preseasons it after every use.
Cowboy-Style Philly Cheesesteaks
Makes 6 servings
“Don’t hitch the wagon up and drive all the way to Philadelphia for this one, ’cause we’re doing this cowboy style,” says Rollins.” I use skirt or flank steak because they have great flavor and typically cost less than the rib eye. I let the steak marinate for at least four hours. My favorite part of this dish is the cheese sauce. We use provolone, which has a light, natural smoke flavor, with a little horseradish for some zest.”
2½ to 3 pounds skirt or flank steak
2 tablespoons meat tenderizer
Salt and black pepper
2 bell peppers (1 green, 1 red)
1 large yellow onion
2 tablespoons butter, melted, plus more for the rolls
6 hoagie rolls
Cheese Sauce (see recipe below)
Rub lime juice on one side of the steak. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of the meat tenderizer and rub it in, followed by salt and pepper. Flip and repeat on the other side. Cover and refrigerate for 4 hours; remove 30 minutes before grilling.
Meanwhile, clean, oil, and preheat the grill to medium-high. Cut the bell peppers into large pieces remove the seeds and veins. Cut the onion into large slices.
Grill the veggies and steak until the steak is medium rare to medium and the vegetables are tender and slightly charred, 2 minutes per side for the steak and 2 to 3 minutes for the veggies. Press the veggies down slightly while grilling for more even cooking. Remove from the heat and let cool enough to handle.
Chop the veggies and place them in a large cast-iron skillet with the butter. Chop the steak and stir it in with the veggies. Simmer over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Butter the inside of the hoagie rolls and grill them butter side down over medium heat until toasted.
Spoon the meat and veggies into the hoagies, top with cheese sauce, and serve.
Makes about 2 1⁄3 cups
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup all-purpose flour
2 cups milk, plus more if needed
8 ounces provolone cheese
1½ to 2 tablespoons prepared horseradish
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in the flour until smooth.
Stir in the milk and cook, stirring frequently, until thickened to a creamy consistency, 3 to 5 minutes. Tear the provolone into pieces or cut into chunks, slowly add it to the mixture, and cook, stirring, until smooth and melted, 2 to 3 minutes.
Stir in the horseradish to taste. If needed, slowly add more milk, about a tablespoon at a time, just until the cheese sauce is pourable. Pour over the cheesesteaks.
Loaded Tater Bombs
Makes 8 potato balls
“Don’t ever wonder what you’re going to do with those leftover mashed potatoes anymore, though it’s worth making them just so you can have them for this dish,” writes Rollins. “These fellers are packed with layers of flavor. They’re mixed with green onions, bacon bits, cheddar cheese, and sour cream and then deep-fried. Panko breadcrumbs give the perfect outer crust for a crunch.”
3½ cups mashed potatoes
1⁄3 cup bacon bits (store-bought or fresh-cooked)
1⁄3 cup diced green onion
Salt and black pepper
½ to ¾ cup all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
About ¼ cup sour cream
1⁄3 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 large egg, beaten
2 cups panko breadcrumbs
Peanut or canola oil for frying
In a large bowl, stir the potatoes until smooth. Stir in the bacon bits and green onion; season with salt and pepper to taste.
Stir in enough flour so the potatoes hold together and aren’t sticky. Reserve about 1/3 cup of the potatoes for coating the potato balls later. Flour your hands and roll the remaining mashed potatoes into 8 balls.
Form a deep well in the middle of each of the balls with your finger. Layer in a heaping teaspoon of the sour cream, followed by 1 to 2 teaspoons of the cheddar cheese.
Bring the outside edges of the potato balls together to seal at the top. Add some of the reserved 1/3 cup of potatoes to the top to seal, if needed.
Brush the balls with the egg and generously coat with the breadcrumbs.
In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, heat 3 to 4 inches of oil to 350ºF. Add a few of the potato balls at a time and deep-fry, turning frequently, until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from the oil with a slotted spoon and let cool slightly on a wire rack. Serve hot.
Makes about 8 servings
1 ½ cups heavy cream
½ cup sugar
1 cup milk
1 (5-ounce) package instant vanilla pudding mix
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
6 or 7 large ripe bananas
1 (11-ounce) box vanilla wafers
In a medium bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the cream and sugar until stiff. Cover and refrigerate.
In a large bowl, beat the milk, pudding mix, and condensed milk until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes.
In a small bowl, mash 1 banana with a fork until smooth. Beat into the pudding mixture. Cover and refrigerate for about 20 minutes, or until it reaches a thick pudding consistency.
Meanwhile, thinly slice the remaining bananas.
Arrange half the vanilla wafers in an even layer in the bottom of a 9-x-13-inch baking pan.
Fold half the whipped cream into the pudding mixture. Evenly spoon the pudding mixture over the wafers, then layer with the sliced bananas and remaining whipped cream. Crush the remaining wafers and sprinkle them on top. Cover and refrigerate for 20 minutes, or until you are ready to serve.