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Clay cookware: Variety of designs attests to versatility

| Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009

I don't think I've ever met a clay cooking pot I didn't like ... or want to own.

And I have more than 100 clay pots of every size in my kitchen to prove it: Moroccan tagines, Provencal daubieres, Spanish cazuelas, Italian bean pots, Turkish guvecs and even ceramic colanders, including one I use to steam couscous. I love the way these pots tie me to traditions, deep-rooted ways of cooking, and add flavor and finesse to my food.

I bought my first clay pot at age 19, just weeks after starting cooking lessons with legendary teacher Dione Lucas. She sent me to a French restaurant-supply store in lower Manhattan where my eyes immediately fell upon an odd-looking, low, pot-bellied, earthenware vessel with a tiny covered opening. The shape of the pot fascinated me, and so I bought it for its beauty.

Somehow it survived numerous moves, to Europe, Morocco and the East and West coasts, always beautiful and always producing soft and exceedingly rich beef stews.

Starting on my multiyear study of Moroccan cuisine, I first encountered the ubiquitous two-part cooking vessel called a tagine -- low-rimmed concave plate-like bottom and high cone-shape top. The vessel is ingenious for the way the top cools steam from the stew (or tagine) simmering below, condenses it, then sends it back down into the cooking food.

My favorite tagine, and the one I use most, was acquired secondhand from a Berber family on a field trip to the Rif Mountains. Even when I bought it, this pot bore the scent of Moroccan spices and the patina of long use. To my eyes, it also is very beautiful in that the clay top piece, the cone, has been deeply grooved by its potter with crisscrossing diagonal slashes in the Berber style.

And like all tagines, it makes a fine serving dish, too, conjuring up the special, almost mystical quality of Moroccan tagines -- fresh produce and succulent meat served in a rich, unctuous sauce.

Bean pots made of micaceous clay have been a revelation. My best one, a true beauty, was a gift from chef/owner Katharine Kagel of Cafe Pasqual's in Santa Fe, N.M. Made by master potter Felipe Ortega, it is incredibly light and thin, yet easily holds four quarts. "It will give a sweet, hearty and slightly salty flavor to whatever you cook in it," Kagel told me, and she was right: It cooks beans like a dream.

In fact, all clay bean pots, whether tall or wide, will, with slow cooking, produce delicious aromatic bean dishes, keeping the beans moist and protecting them from burning.

I could go on: There's my huge, yellow, vase-shape cassoule used to cook cassoulets over a wood fire. A set of gargoulettes from Tunisia, in which meat is sealed, then set in the embers of a fire and then must be broken open to access the cooked food. A small meqlah from Lebanon in which I make particularly wonderful fried eggs. And a green glazed daubiere, made by master potter Philippe Beltrando, which produces delicious Provencal daubes.

I asked Beltrando, a tall, lanky, gracious man with flowing hair and beautiful tender eyes, the same question I've asked nearly everyone I've encountered since I started working on this kind of cooking: "Why do you think food tastes better when cooked in clay?"

I found his answer moving and mystical:

"Maybe someday scientists will come up with an explanation," he told me. "It most likely has to do with the even diffusion of heat, soft heat that creates great alchemy in the kitchen. Think of bubbles rising from within a stew, hatching slowly on the surface to the rhythm of a slowly ticking clock.

"But, personally," he said, "I believe something I was told by my grandmother, an extraordinary cook. She insisted that the best daubes were cooked in her oldest casseroles, because, she insisted, pottery has a kind of 'memory' of the food it held, and only a clay pot can keep the 'memory' of the love the cook put into it when preparing the dish."

About Clay Pots

There are several types of clay pots, each with its own set of attributes.

Earthenware, which can be glazed, partially glazed or unglazed, and sometimes is called redware or terra cotta, is the most common. When using earthenware on the stove top or in the oven, moderation always is key, as quick changes of temperature might cause the clay to crack. A heat diffuser always should be used as a buffer when cooking with earthenware pots on an electric or ceramic stove.

Unglazed earthenware pots, including those made from micaceous clay, should be seasoned before use as directed by the manufacturer. Glazed and partially glazed earthenware pots need simply to be soaked once. Glazed pots usually are dishwasher safe, but porous, unglazed pots should be washed by hand to prevent absorption of detergent.

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 used more easily over direct heat on a stove top or even under the broiler.

Clay pots come under different names, depending on the shape and country of origin.

• A Spanish cazuela is a round earthenware vessel glazed all over except on the very bottom. Cazuelas come in a range of sizes, but for most recipes a 10-, 11- or 12-inch pot will be most handy. The cazuela is a real workhorse, as it can stand in for all kinds of Mediterranean skillets and shallow pots and can be used in the oven and on top of the stove.

• You will need at least one deep earthenware or Flameware casserole with a cover to use for cooking soups, daubes, stews, beans and other slow-cooked dishes on top of the stove or in the oven. Gentle and even cooking preserves the flavors and binds them brilliantly. There is less of a tendency for food to burn, and cleanup is effortless. There are beautiful casseroles available online from North America, France, Italy, Spain, Egypt, Turkey, Colombia and Chile.

• Pots made of micaceous clay have a lovely glittery surface and are, thus, left unglazed. One inexpensive line I particularly like, La Chamba, is imported from Colombia. These pots make superb clay cooking vessels that can stand up to direct heat and retain heat beautifully. They are strong and particularly good for cooking slow-simmered soups, sauces, vegetables, beans and stews. They come in the form of skillets, baking pans and casseroles. The La Chamba shallow baking dish is particularly useful for cooking flat breads, scrambled eggs and gratins. La Chamba pots are porous, so don't leave liquid in them for long periods off the heat.

• Tagines have become popular lately, and with good reason. Tagines cook food beautifully and are relatively inexpensive. The high conical -- or dome-shape -- cover, which fits into the shallow base, acts as a kind of closed chimney. Because the heat on a stove top comes from below, the top of the cover remains cooler than the rest of the pot, which causes steam to condense and drip back onto the stew, preventing the food from drying out.

Find Clay Pots Online

Clay pots used to be rather hard to find. But today, they are easily ordered on the Internet. Here are some of Paula Wolfert's favorite sources:

Bram: A little store on the town square in Sonoma, Calif., devoted to clay-pot cooking, stocking glazed and unglazed tagines, glazed bean pots and Colombian La Chamba cookware;

Toque Blanche: Specializing in Colombian La Chamba cookware;

Gourmet Sleuth: Several types of clay pots, including Colombian La Chamba cookware; .

Spanish Table: All things Spanish, and beyond, including glazed and unglazed tagines and earthenware cazuelas; .

La Tienda: Another Spanish cooking Web site, this one has clay bean pots and lidded and unlidded earthenware cazuelas; .

Clay Coyote Gallery & Pottery: Flameware cazuelas, and Flameware clay pots and tagines by Emile Henry; .

L'Atelier Vert: Several types of French clay pots, including daubieres for stews and beans; .

Sur La Table: Glazed and unglazed tagines, and Flameware clay pots and tagines by Emile Henry; .

Tagines: Everything for Moroccan cooking, including glazed and unglazed tagines; .

Cafe Pasqual's: The popular Santa Fe, N.M., restaurant sells Felipe Ortega's micaceous utilitarian cookware through its gallery; .

Tulumba: This Web site devoted to all things Turkish sells earthenware guvecs; .

Sizzling Shrimp With Garlic and Hot Pepper

These recipes were adapted from "Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking" by Paula Wolfert.

She recommends using an 11- or 12-inch Spanish cazuela or straight-sided Flameware skillet. She also recommends using a heat diffuser for slow, steady cooking (especially if using an electric or ceramic stove top).

Total time: 25 minutes.

• 1 pound peeled small (about 60) or medium-large deveined (24 to 30) shrimp

• 1 scant cup extra-virgin olive oil, preferably Spanish

• 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic

• 1 teaspoon mildly hot dried red pepper such as Aleppo or Marash

• 2 tablespoons hot water

• 1/2 teaspoon sea salt

• 1/4 teaspoon sweet pimenton de la Vera (smoked Spanish paprika)

• 4 to 6 slices chewy country bread

Rinse the shrimp and wipe dry with paper towels. Leave them at room temperature for 10 to 15 minutes so they are not ice-cold when they hit the pan.

Combine the olive oil, garlic and hot pepper in the cazuela. Set it over medium-low heat and warm the pan slowly, gradually raising the heat to medium or medium-high until the oil is hot. Continue to cook until the garlic sizzles and just turns golden, for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Immediately add the shrimp and cook until they are firm and curled, for 2 to 4 minutes, depending on their size.

Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons hot water and pinches of sea salt and pimenton. Serve at once right from the pot with the bread for soaking up the delicious oily sauce.

Makes 4-6 servings.

Nutrition information per each of 6 servings: 415 calories, 33 grams fat (5 grams saturated), 112 milligrams cholesterol, 15 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram dietary fiber, 470 milligrams sodium, 0 grams sugar

Moroccan Lamb Tagine With Melting Tomatoes and Onions

The flour tortillas are a substitute for Moroccan flatbread. Cubeb pepper can be ordered online.

Total time: 3 hours and 45 minutes

• 2 1/2 pounds bone-in lamb shoulder arm chops, thick

• 3 tablespoons golden raisins

• 1/2 cup hot water, plus warm water for rehydrating raisins

• 3 large red onions, 1 grated, and 2 thinly sliced, divided

• 2 teaspoons Moroccan spice mixture (see recipe )

• 1/4 teaspoon ground cubeb berries or cayenne

• 1/8 teaspoon saffron threads

• 1 3-inch Ceylon cinnamon stick, lightly crushed (often sold as Mexican cinnamon)

• 1 teaspoon salt, plus more for seasoning

• 1 tablespoon unsalted butter

• 3 tablespoons mild olive oil, divided use

• 6 plum tomatoes, preferably Roma, peeled, quartered lengthwise and seeded

• Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

• 2 tablespoons turbinado sugar mixed with 1 teaspoon ground Cinnamon

• 6 flour tortillas

• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Trim excess fat from the lamb. Cut the chops into 1 1/2 -inch chunks with bones.

Soak the raisins in warm water for 15 minutes to rehydrate.

Meanwhile, place the lamb, grated onion, Moroccan spice mixture, cubeb berries or cayenne, saffron, cinnamon stick, 1 teaspoon salt, butter and half the oil in the tagine. Place on a heat diffuser if possible, uncovered, over low heat until the aroma of the spices is released, for about 10 minutes. Do not brown the meat. Add the 1/2 cup hot water and gently increase the heat to slowly bring to a boil.

Drain the raisins. Cover the meat mixture with the onion slices and raisins and spread the tomatoes, cut side down, on top. Cover the tagine, reduce the heat to low and cook until the lamb is tender, for about 2 hours.

When the lamb is almost ready, set an oven rack on the middle shelf of the oven. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Remove the top of the tagine and tilt the pot to pour all the liquid into a medium-size conventional skillet. Skim the fat off the top of the liquid; then boil it down to 3/4 cup. Season with salt and pepper. Spread the reduced juices over the tomatoes in the tagine. Remove and discard the cinnamon stick. Scatter the sugar and ground cinnamon on top. Place in the oven and bake, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Switch the oven heat to broil, dribble over the remaining oil, and cook until crusty and lightly charred, for about 5 minutes. Serve at once or reheat gently over medium heat.

Just before serving, warm the tortillas, tear them into large pieces, and spread the pieces of two tortillas over a large serving platter. Spoon about half the contents of the tagine on top. Repeat with another two tortillas and the remaining contents of the tagine. Top with the last of the tortilla pieces and a sprinkling of parsley. Serve immediately.

Moroccan Spice Mixture (La Kama)

• 1 tablespoon ground ginger

• 1 tablespoon ground turmeric

• 1 tablespoon finely ground black pepper

• 2 teaspoons ground Ceylon or Mexican cinnamon

• 2 teaspoons ground cubeb berries (optional)

• 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Combine the ginger, turmeric, black pepper, cinnamon, cubeb berries and nutmeg and shake well to mix thoroughly. Store, tightly covered, for up to 6 months.

Makes 6 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 599 calories, 33 grams fat (12 grams saturated), 114 milligrams cholesterol, 34 grams protein, 41 grams carbohydrate, 4 grams dietary fiber, 778 milligrams sodium, 13 grams sugar


This recipe calls for a 2 1/2- to 3-quart bean pot or Turkish "guvec."

Aleppo pepper can be found in Middle Eastern markets and cooking stores, as well as online. Marash pepper can be found at select Middle Eastern markets and online.

Total time: 3 hours and 40 minutes.

• 1 cup dried white kidney beans

• Water

• 1 teaspoon salt, plus more for seasoning

• 1 medium-size onion, chopped

• 1/2 large sweet red bell pepper, diced

• 3 to 4 ounces basturma, shredded

• 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

• 1 tablespoon tomato paste

• 3 green cardamom seeds, bruised

• 1 teaspoon Marash or Aleppo pepper

• Freshly ground black pepper

Pick over the beans to remove any grit. Rinse the beans under cold running water; then place them in a large bowl with 6 cups water and 1 teaspoon salt. Soak for at least 4 hours or overnight.

Drain the soaked beans, reserving the soaking water. Put the beans, onion and red bell pepper in the pot. Stir in enough reserved water just to cover the mixture, about 1 3/4 to 2 cups (reserve the remaining water). Cover the pot, set it on a heat diffuser over low heat, and slowly bring to a boil while gently increasing the heat; this can take as long as 45 minutes.

Boil for 5 minutes, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and continue to cook, covered, for 1 1/2 hours, removing the lid from time to time to keep the beans at a constant simmer. If the beans begin to dry out, heat the remaining soaking water and add as necessary. Adding the water cold might cause the pot to crack.

In a small conventional skillet, cook the basturma in the olive oil over medium heat until it just begins to crisp, for about 3 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for 30 seconds. Add the cardamom seeds, Marash or Aleppo pepper, a pinch each of salt and pepper and 1/4 cup water. Bring to a boil; then remove from heat and add to the beans. Stir gently, cover, and cook over low heat for 1 hour. Serve hot.

Makes 6-8 servings.

Nutrition information per each of 8 servings: 175 calories, 8 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 6 milligrams cholesterol, 10 grams protein, 16 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams dietary fiber, 571 milligrams sodium, 2 grams sugar

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