Monday, December 21, 2009

Clay Pot Cooking: Food of the Soul

The first clay pot Paula Wolfert purchased was an earthy, full-figured tripière, a pot used for cooking tripe. Wolfert was all of 19 and was attracted to the pot because of its looks; she didn’t even know what tripe was. But, it sparked a life-long passion for clay pots and the techniques for cooking in them. Today, Wolfert is the author of eight cookbooks and the recipient of numerous awards, including the James Beard Award, the Julia Child Award, and the M.F.K. Fisher Award. In 2008, the James Beard Foundation inducted her work into the Cookbook Hall of Fame.

If you don’t already know Wolfert, you should get acquainted now. Back in the 1970s, she introduced eastern Mediterranean foods to Americans, including San Diegans. Along with Julia Child and Jacques Pepin, Wolfert taught at The Perfect Pan Cooking School, San Diego’s culinary focal point in the late 70s and 80s.

Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking: Traditional and Modern Recipes to Savor and Share
Her new book, Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking, collects all the tidbits and techniques she’s learned through her travels and years of living in Morocco and brings them to us, home cooks looking to transform the basic ingredients of a meal into something sublime. Wolfert says she was looking for the oldest dishes made in the Mediterranean that are still being cooked. These are the important dishes and they’re truly the ultimate in slow-food cooking.

The original title of the book was supposed to be Confessions of a Clay-Pot Junkie and it’s easy to understand her addiction. I’m the same about teapots. It’s all about the textures, the curves, the colors. And how the properties specific to the elements these beautiful pieces are composed of dictate the results of what we ultimately eat and drink.

“Food cooked in clay tastes different,” she says. “Especially in unglazed and micaceous clay pots. It cuts down on the bitterness of foods. There’s a sweetness to it. And, the way the food cooks in clay holds its shape better and holds in nutrients differently than when food is boiled or fried. A metal pot is inert. An unglazed earthen pot brings out more flavor and even absorbs flavor.”

Wolfert is most fond of stovetop cooking and the book’s recipes reflect that, although it includes many recipes for oven cooking. An inexpensive Chinese sandpot on the stove on low heat can cradle simple small Yukon gold potatoes with sea salt. “Shake them in the pot from time to time,” she instructs. “The moisture from the potatoes stay inside. Or, cube peeled butternut squash and put them in a sandpot and cook it slowly at low heat. The voluptuousness and flavor of the squash comes out. The moisture stays inside.” The latter is  the beginnings of her “Pumpkin Soup with Creamy Roquefort.”

One of my favorite recipes in the book is the “Garlic and Egg Soup as Prepared in the Aragon.” Years ago, I used to eat something similar at a little Spanish restaurant called Iruñas in Cambridge, Mass. It’s a very simple recipe that uses an inexpensive Spanish cazuela. Slowly sauté sliced garlic, add dried bread cubes and fry them. Season with pimentón de la Vera (smoked Spanish paprika). Add hot water to cover the bread and cook until the soup is thickened. Season it with salt and pepper, then break a couple of eggs into the cazuela, place it in a pre-heated 300-degree oven and bake for about five minutes until the whites are set and the yolks still runny. Delicious.

In her book, Wolfert details the variety of pots, the differences between the types of clay, and how best to use each kind of vessel. She explains that unglazed earthenware pots “coddle food, bringing out bright natural flavors and aromas…” Stoneware, which is high fired and usually glazed, is wonderful for oven baking, but should never be used on top of the stove. Many of us already are using clay for cooking but not thinking of it that way. Your Emile Henry casserole dishes are ceramic, for instance. So, is the insert in your crockpot.

But wait. Wolfert doesn’t equate cooking in a crockpot to cooking with clay pots. “The problem with the crockpot is that it makes everything steamy because of the high walls and the metal on the outside,” she explains. “The heat goes out first and then back to the clay. That’s why it takes seven or eight hours to cook something. With a glass cover, there’s no way for the steam to get out or allow some evaporation.”

Using a Moroccan tagine, however, creates a different slow cooking environment. Tagines, with their shallow base and typically high conical or dome-shaped cover, are meant for stovetop cooking. The cover is like a closed chimney. Moisture goes up the dome and falls down onto the food, which is receiving bottom-up heat.

La Chamba Clay Casserole, Large
So, if you are curious about clay-pot cooking and want to buy a few pieces to start, which do you select? Wolfert jokes that you can give up prime rib and buy spareribs. With the price difference, you can buy a sandpot. Instead of leg of lamb, buy a shoulder and a cazuela. Substitute another expensive cut of meat with something cheaper and get a tagine. Or move into a Korean clay pot or a bean pot. Many of these pots are interchangeable in terms of function. Among Wolfert’s favorite pots are the Catalon Le Flambadou casserole and the smooth black La Chamba casserole. You can find online sources for all of these in the book.

When I mentioned my intention of buying from local potters, she was quick, however, to warn that potters who work with lead-based glazes and who are baking clay at home kilns may not be able to reach a high enough temperature when they fire their pots. That could result in lead leaching into food. It’s why she also doesn’t recommend people buy Mexican pottery for cooking, even cazuelas. There’s no color in the glaze, but some of the Mexican cazuelas use additional color glazes for decoration, which could cause problems.

Wolfert’s hugely enthusiastic about the new flameware pots coming out. These very practical flameproof ceramic cookware pieces contain mineral elements that prevent the vessels from expanding and contracting with sudden changes in temperature, which allows them to be used over direct heat on a stovetop or even under the broiler. “It doesn’t give you the taste of the earth,” Wolfert says,” but it cooks evenly and beautifully.”

Emile Henry has a new line of Flame-Top Ceramics. Nigella Lawson also has a line. And, there are vendors selling their own versions online, including and Bill Sax.

Now those home cooks who have gas burners or traditional electric coil burners should be fine with stovetop clay pot cooking (you’ll need a diffuser with electric burners, of course). But those who, like me, have a ceramic cooktop will have to take a different route. You can’t put the clay pots directly on the cooktop and my research (and a call to Maytag customer service, which is the manufacturer of my stove) determined that you can’t use a diffuser either. Wolfert patiently helped me through this challenge, and at her suggestion, I ended up buying a CucinaPro 12-inch Griddle and Crepe Maker. The griddle acts as a diffuser. You get great temperature control and the heat can go up to 450 degrees. I used it to make the “Clay Pot-Roasted Eggplant with Cheese” and admittedly it takes longer, but it worked beautifully.

Yes, it all takes longer. Clay pot cooking just takes awhile and requires some patience, but it yields magnificent flavors and textures you won’t get from metal. “I’ve been cooking in clay for 50 years,” says Wolfert. “I do notice the difference. But you have to put in the extra time.”

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  1. Have an old German clay Romertopf pot. Anyone know anything about them?

  2. These are wonderful for roasting meats. I've made chicken in mine and it always comes out delicious. And, you can use it like a cloche and bake bread in it. Check online to see if there are directions for using it -- there's soaking involved -- that you can keep on hand.

  3. Carondg, I made a good roast chicken in my old Romertopf last night. Used a temperature of 400 degrees for 1 hour and 15 minutes plus 15 minutes without the cover to crisp the skin which is the recipe in my ancient Romertopf cookbook. Breast came out a bit dry the rest was delicious. Will keep experimenting. Thanks for the suggestion.