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How many guest ranches have you visited where, without exception, every meal is cooked on an iron, wood-fired kitchen range?  If you're like me, I could answer that question using a single word:  None.  If you've ever wanted to eat delicious, family-style food, cooked over a wood-fired stove, you owe yourself a visit to Meling Ranch.

Photo:  Our story of the wood-fired kitchen range begins with the picturesque wood shed, located east of the main dining room.

Its not that Meling Ranch has to rely upon a wood stove as their sole source of heat, as their kitchen features an industrial-sized gas range, a microwave oven, and other modern appliances.  I asked Andrea Meling why they use a wood-fired range to cook all of their meals, and she replied, "Two reasons.  We have a lot of wood available, and its free, and when we use the stove, we can cook everything at the same time."  Two good reasons, solicited directly from Andrea Meling.

Photo:  Geeeez!!  Meling Ranch has lots of wood, ready to burn for the kitchen range, the fireplace in the dining room, and the wood stoves that heat motel rooms.

I had never seen anybody cook regular meals on a wood stove before, so I spent a great deal of time in the kitchen watching Andrea, Julie and Jicelia preparing meals and cooking them on the stove.  Cooking is a passion in my life, and one of my favorite ways to relax, and I'm always interested watching people use different methods, and different appliances.  A iron, wood-fired kitchen range is certainly a low-tech, fascinating kitchen appliance, that really captured my imagination.

Photo:  It's not high-tech, but an axe and a wheelbarrow keep Meling Ranch supplied with fire wood.

The stove is located in the kitchen annex, a separate building located off the kitchen, which is located in the large dining room building.  The kitchen annex is mostly open to the great outdoors, covered in window screen to keep out the insects.  During cool or inclement weather, canvas covers can be rolled over the windows to protect the interior, but that precaution is rarely needed, as when the stove is fired up, it radiates a lot of heat.  Despite the fact that the main kitchen has every modern appliance, most of the meals are prepared in the kitchen annex.  In the end of the room near the door, there is a picnic table where the staff eat their meals; I requested to eat with the staff at their table for my last breakfast at Meling Ranch.  However, that's another story...

Photo:  Smoke is rising from the kitchen annex, so that means the wood-fired kitchen range is ready to go.  Note the bell mounted just to the right of the door, which is rung to announce that meals are ready.

The wood box is located in the far end of the annex, and it has a door that opens to the outside, so the person delivering the wood doesn't actually have the enter the building to fill the box.  The chore of replenishing the wood box falls upon Sam, the junior of the ranch hands, who goes out to the wood shed, and fills a wheelbarrow with wood from the ample pile of wood from the shed.  Most of the wood is used in the range is cut to the length of around a food, which is the optimum size for the stove.  Pine and cottonwood are used, as ample Coulter pines and cottonwood trees grow on the ranch.

Photo:  Jicelia and Julie chat, as Sam places fire wood into the wood bin, located in the kitchen annex.  Wood can be delivered to the kitchen from the outside this way.  The wood-fired kitchen range is to the right of the photo.

I had the opportunity to watch the girls fire up the stove before breakfast.  First, they grab a half dozen or so pieces of wood from the wood box, lift one of the round lids from the top of the stove with a lifting tool, and load the wood in the right-front corner of the stove.  Then, they add kindling on top of the wood, and pour a small amount of diesel on top of the wood, and light the fire with a kitchen match.  As the wood begins to blaze, the lid is closed, and the stove begins to heat.  Of course the stove has a stove pipe, so all the smoke goes up the chimney.  The cast iron stove is very efficient, and it reaches cooking temperature in only about 20 minutes.

Photo:  Jicelia demonstrates how to light a fire in the kitchen range.

This stove is very large, and has two ovens and 12 removable lids on the top of the stove, and lots of space in between.  How do you regulate the heat in a wood-fired kitchen range?  You can't simply turn a knob and adjust the heat as you can on a gas or electric stove, nor can you add or remove wood.  Naturally, I had to ask Andrea about how they regulate the heat, and she gave me the very simple answer that you simply move items around on the top of the stove, as different parts of the stove are hotter than others.  The fire is built in the right, front corner of the stove, and the iron cooking surface above the stove is the hottest part, and naturally, the farther you are away from the fire, the cooler it is.  For example, fried eggs need to be cooked on high heat for a short amount of time, so the cast iron skillet is placed on the lid directly over the fire, and the girls cook perfect eggs over easy every time.  If an even hotter stove is desired, wood can be loaded on the left side of the stove as well, but that is rarely desired.

Photo:  All is well and good in the kitchen, as Jicelia works in the kitchen, Uncle Manual looks on, and Julie prepares salsa on the wood stove.  Note the coffee pot is located on one of the hottest burners...

As far as the oven is concerned, the fire is located next to the oven, and the oven is insulated for even heating, and Andrea told me that they regularly bake bread, cornbread, pies and cakes in the wood-fired oven. They have even roasted ham and turkey in the oven for Christmas and Thanksgiving, especially if they have a lot of Americans as guests.

Photo:  Jicelia and Julie demonstrate how to cook bacon, eggs, coffee and refried beans on a wood-fired range, to make a delicious breakfast.

The stove provides a lot of heat in the kitchen, and probably feels good on a cold winter morning.  It also implants a wood smoke smell in the kitchen annex, the kitchen and the dining room, which you notice as you enter the building.  Personally, I find the slight wood smoke smell to be earthy and delicious.  I'd like to believe that food cooked on a wood-fired kitchen range taste better, but to be honest with you, I really can't tell the different.  However, with a food fanatic like me, it makes the meal a lot more interesting.

Photo:  A "girl's-eye view," looking out through the screened windows of the kitchen, overlooking the grassy courtyard.  Due to the warmth radiated from the wood stove, the kitchen is open to the elements most of the time, but in inclement weather, it can be sealed by roll-down canvas flaps.

If you long for the simpler times, and want to enjoy delicious meals, cooked over a wood-fired range, a visit to the kitchen annex of Meling Ranch is a must!  You'll be glad you did.

Copyright(c) 2007 eRench Productions. All rights reserved. This site has been published on the web since January 19, 2005.