From cazuelas to Romertopfs, ceramic vessels cook evenly, deliciously -- beautifully


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Most home cooks keep a file of recipes to make "someday." Which may or may not ever occur. It has taken me two years to get around to ones I flagged in Paula Wolfert's 2009 cookbook, "Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking." Ms. Wolfert is the author of seven cookbooks, and as a teacher, she is thorough, practical, and should be awarded a Ph.D. for lifetime research. It was worth the two-year wait for me to get cracking on the subject.

Ms. Wolfert has more than 100 clay pots: Moroccan tagines, Spanish cazuelas, Provencal daubieres, Turkish guvecs, Chinese sandpots, ceramic-lined slow cookers, bean pots and even a ceramic colander.

Except for a clay Romertopf baker left over from a fad in the '70s, I didn't have any of the other pots that can be used to create the mellow, rich dishes Ms. Wolfert describes. Seduced by myriad shapes, sizes, colors and glazes, I set about collecting. Since her recipes call for the same half-dozen, relatively inexpensive pots throughout the cookbook, I had my work cut out for me. I now have a modest collection. Eight.

All Mediterranean food used to be cooked in clay. But cooking the old way can be a hard sell in these times of the 30-minute meal. Many clay pot dishes linger in the oven for hours. Ceramic pots can break if mishandled. And who has space for but one or two of the unstackable things anyway?


WHERE TO BUY

But the advantages of clay pot cooking are many. Clay pots heat up slowly and stay uniformly hot, cooking food evenly. Cooking in moist heat tenderizes tough cuts of meat. Just as food cooked in a wood-fired oven acquires the taste and aroma of wood, so food cooked in an unglazed clay pot acquires a taste and aroma Ms. Wolfert defines as "earthy." Besides, the pottery is handsome, mostly hand-thrown, and when not being used for cooking, the containers pay their way as objects of art.

Oval clay baker

One of Ms. Wolfert's favorite potters is Philippe Beltrando, who lives in Aubagne, a village near Marseilles, France. When she asked him why he thinks food tastes better when cooked in clay, he said, "Maybe someday scientists will come up with an explanation. Most likely, it has to do with the even diffusion of heat, which I call a soft heat. Personally, I believe something told to me by my grandmother, who was an extraordinary cook. She insisted that her best daubes were cooked in the oldest casseroles because pottery has a kind of 'memory' of the food it held, and only a clay pot can contribute that to a dish."

While in France last summer, I visited his studio/shop, met Monsieur Beltrando and purchased a small casserole, the only one that would fit in my suitcase. It is now my favorite dinner-for-two clay pot.

Cazuelas

The traditional Spanish casseroles are round earthenware vessels glazed all over except on the very bottom. They can stand in for all kinds of casseroles, skillets and shallow pots. They're flexible and can be used in the oven or on top of the stove. But a caution: if you have an electric or ceramic range top you must use a heat diffuser as a buffer for the first few minutes; then the heat can be raised to medium. Yes, the cazuelas are lead-free. I've picked up a few at outdoor markets during trips to Spain, but they are easily found at cookware shops in the States. I use them for Spanish eggs, bean or lentil dishes and the occasional one-layer olive oil cake.

Micaceous cooking pot

Pots made of micaceous clay have a lovely glittery surface from flecks of mica and are always unglazed. They make strong, superb cooking vessels that stand up to direct heat and retain heat beautifully. They're an excellent choice for stews, slow-simmered soups, vegetables and beans. My black La Chamba is part of a family of skillets, baking pans and casseroles hand-made in Colombia and available at Annex Cookery, Homestead, and online.

In Santa Fe, N.M., Cafe Pasqual's carries a line of Apache mica clay cookpots by master mica potter Felipe Ortega, known as the father of micaceous utilitarian pottery and whose work is in the Smithsonian Museum. There also are pots by Brian Grossnickle, who apprenticed to Mr. Ortega. Alas, when last in Santa Fe, I didn't spring for one, and those gorgeous pots will forever be "the ones that got away."

Romertopf clay baker

This baby really does have a food memory. Mine has been hauled out every couple of months for more than 25 years, usually to cook a no-brainer chicken. If you are of a certain age, I'll bet you have one, too.

All clay pots have their idiosyncrasies. The Romertopf, especially, comes with two caveats. You must soak both the bottom and top of it in water for 15 minutes before using. That allows it to create and maintain steam. And this clay baker as well as some of the others is always placed in a cold oven. Only when the clay pot is on the oven rack do you set the oven temperature and let both the oven and baker heat up gradually.

Time to cook

Now it's your turn to sample Ms. Wolfert's cookbook. "Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking" describes the three main materials of the pots: earthenware, stoneware and flameproof ceramic, also called flameware. She offers 150 recipes, both classic and contemporary. A sampling: Soupe au Pistou, Corsican Minestra, Lamb Shanks and Lemon Potatoes, Slow-Cooked Pork with Sage, Mustard and Tomatoes, Straw and Hay al Forno, Greek Semolina and Yogurt Cake.

If you love your time in the kitchen, I guarantee you will enjoy taking on the challenge of learning this ages-old way of cooking. Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma, though somewhat limited in stock, are good places to start collecting your ware.


SOME GOOD ADVICE

Ms. Wolfert offers good advice for first-time users.

• Unglazed earthenware pots should be seasoned before use as directed by the manufacturer. Glazed or partially glazed earthenware pots need simply be soaked once. Glazed pots are generally dishwasher safe, but porous unglazed pots should be washed by hand to prevent absorption of detergent.

• When using earthenware either on the stove top or in the oven, moderation is always key, as quick changes of temperature may cause the clay to crack. A heat diffuser should always be used as a buffer when cooking with earthenware pots on an electric or ceramic surface stove.

• When removing clay pot from the oven after baking, place both pot and lid on a cork pad, trivet or folded towel. Keep hot clay pots off cold surfaces.

• Flameware, the popular name for flameproof ceramic cookware, is newer on the market but is extremely practical. This type of stoneware contains mineral elements that keep vessels from expanding and contracting with sudden changes in temperature (as conventional stoneware does), thus allowing them to be more easily used over direct heat on a stove top or even under the broiler.


Cazuela Sizzling Shrimp with Garlic and Hot Pepper

PG tested

This traditional recipe will transport you right to Spain. Use an 11- or 12-inch Spanish cazuela. Use a heat diffuser for slow, steady cooking if you are using the cazuela on an electric or ceramic stove top. The Aleppo pepper variety of hot pepper, if you can find it, is named after the town Aleppo in northern Syria. Serve more bread than you think you will use because the olive oil is delicious. All guests will be dunking away.

  • 1 scant cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
  • 1 teaspoon mildly hot ground dried red pepper, such as Aleppo
  • 1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined, patted dry with a paper towel
  • 2 tablespoons hot water
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon smoked sweet Spanish paprika (pimenton)
  • 4 to 6 slices chewy country bread

Combine the olive oil, garlic and hot pepper in a cazuela or skillet. Heat over medium-low heat; gradually raise the heat to medium or medium-high until the oil is hot. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic sizzles, 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the shrimp; cook until firm and curled, 2 to 4 minutes, depending on their size. Sprinkle with hot water and pinches of sea salt and paprika. Serve with the bread.

Makes enough for 2 or 4, depending on side dishes.

-- "Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking" by Paula Wolfert (Wiley, 2009)


Romertopf Clay-baked Chicken Stuffed with Serrano Ham and Olives

PG tested

Slivers of cured country ham and chopped mildly pungent Manzanilla olives are a popular combination in Spanish recipes. The ingredient list is long, but it's mostly a job of assembly. The oven does the work. If you haven't used your Romertopf since, oh, back in the hippie '70s, dig it out. To get a nice crispy skin, remove the cover of the clay pot in the final stage of baking.

  • 1 chicken, with liver, 3 1/2 to 4 pounds, preferably organic
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 large cloves garlic
  • 1/3 cup pitted and chopped green olives, preferably Manzanilla
  • 3 ounces sliced and slivered ham, preferably Spanish serrano ham
  • 1 cup cubed stale bread without crust
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 stalks celery, sliced
  • 1 carrot, sliced
  • 1 leek, sliced
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tablespoon brandy
  • 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

Cut off the wing tips and neck from the chicken and set aside. Rinse the chicken inside and out and pat dry. Rinse the chicken liver, pat dry and coarsely chop. Heat the olive oil in a medium conventional skillet. Add the onion and garlic and cook over medium heat, stirring until soft and golden, about 7 minutes. Add the chopped liver, olives and ham and cook for 3 minutes longer.

Stir in the bread, parsley, nutmeg and 1/2 teaspoon pepper and cook until the bread is partially crisp here and there, about 3 minutes longer. Remove from the heat and let cool completely. Add the egg and blend well. Cover the stuffing and refrigerate.

Bring the chicken and stuffing to room temperature. About 2 hours before serving, soak both the unglazed clay pot bottom and lid in cold water to cover for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, stuff the chicken. Drain the clay pot. Put the chopped neck and wing tips, the celery, carrot and leek in the bottom of the clay pot. Lay the chicken, breast side up, on top. Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with brandy, vinegar and 2 tablespoons water over the chicken.

Cover the pot and place in a COLD oven. Set the temperature at 475 degrees and bake for 1 hour. Remove the pot from the oven and place on a wooden surface or folded kitchen towel to prevent cracking. Put the lid on another kitchen towel. Transfer the chicken to a work surface. Strain the juices into a conventional skillet, skim off the fat and boil down to a syrupy sauce.

Now here's a good finishing step. Place the chicken on a rack set on a baking sheet and return it, uncovered, to the oven to finish roasting and nicely brown the skin, about 10 minutes. Allow the chicken to rest 10 minutes. Then carve and serve each portion with some of the stuffing and some of the sauce. Makes enough for 4.

-- Adapted from "Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking" by Paula Wolfert (Wiley, 2009)


Provencal Game Hen for Two

PG tested

In the bottom of a small oval clay pot, place a sliced onion, 3 or 4 whole peeled cloves of garlic, a finely chopped carrot, a finely chopped stalk of celery and a small sprig each of parsley and thyme. On top of the vegetables, place a rinsed and dried Cornish game hen (about 1 pound) breast side up. Rub with a bit of olive oil and season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Sprinkle with a few drops of brandy and water.

Cover the dish and place in a cold oven. Set the temperature at 475 degrees and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove the pot from the oven and place on a wooden surface, a cork hot pad or a folded kitchen towel to prevent the dish from cracking. Put the lid on a separate kitchen towel.

Transfer the bird to a work surface. Strain the juices into a conventional pan, skim off the fat and boil down to a syrupy sauce. Carve the bird and serve with the sauce.

Makes enough for 2.

-- Marlene Parrish


Veal Shanks and Marrow Bones La Chamba

PG tested

I use my large black La Chamba ceramic pot made in Colombia. When shopping for veal, make sure that the bone of each piece has a soft marrow center. Be sure to give each diner a small, narrow knife (a lobster pick works in a pinch) to remove the creamy marrow from the bone. Plop the marrow onto a thick slice of toasted peasant bread, and sprinkle liberally with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. This is such a handsome dish, plan to have a trivet on the table, and serve directly from the pot.Tip: Any time you have at least a cup of leftover wine, pour it into a jar and freeze. It's just the right amount called for in many recipes, including this one.

  • 4 to 6 meaty, bone-in veal shanks, weighing 8 to 12 ounces each, about 2 inches thick
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 small carrots, peeled and sliced
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and sliced
  • 1 celery stalk, diced
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 1 cup tomato puree
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest

Heat a large, heavy conventional skillet. Add 2 tablespoons of oil and 2 veal shanks and brown them on both sides, seasoning with salt and pepper as they brown. Remove them to a plate, add the remaining 2 veal shanks to the skillet and repeat. Do not crowd the pan. This will take a total of about 15 minutes. Remove them to the plate.

Add remaining 2 tablespoons oil, and add the garlic and vegetables and cook over medium heat until the vegetables are soft, about 10 minutes.

Place the vegetables in the bottom of a large clay pot. Add the veal shanks, nestling them into the vegetables. Combine the wine and tomato puree in a small container, then pour over the meat and vegetables.

Cover the casserole with a piece of parchment paper, fit the lid into place and set the pot in the oven. Turn on the oven and set the temperature to 300 degrees.

Cook for about 2 to 21/2 hours, or until the meat is tender to falling off the bone and the juices are reduced.

Remove the pot from the oven and place on a wooden surface or folded kitchen towel to prevent cracking. Put the lid on another kitchen towel. When ready to serve, remove the meat to a heated platter.

Some cooks like to strain the sauce, but others prefer to keep the vegetables and juices as is. Combine the parsley, garlic and lemon zest in a small bowl. Then stir the mixture into the sauce, strained or not. Correct seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer on the stovetop for 2 minutes. Pour the sauce over the meat. Serve with baked polenta and pass crusty peasant bread. Makes 4 generous servings.

-- Marlene Parrish


Marlene Parrish: marleneparrish@earthlink.net .


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