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Clay pot alchemy

Wolfert is the author of the newly published "Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking."

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 like to say that every pot in my collection tells a story. Here, in no particular order, are a few of them:

I bought my first clay pot at age 19, just weeks after starting cooking lessons with legendary cooking 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 sales clerk told me it was used to cook tripe. Back then I had no idea what tripe was, but the shape of the pot fascinated me, and so I bought it for its beauty.

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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.

Oddly, I’ve used it only once for tripe, until, this last year, when San Francisco chef Loretta Keller, who collects clay tripieres, came to my house in Sonoma to cook with me. The tripe cooked so slowly and evenly that when she uncovered the pot, it fell apart at the touch of a fork. The resulting dish was wonderful, rich, layered flavors and sensual melting textures, further proof, if I still needed it, that food -- almost any food -- always tastes better when cooked in clay.

Early in my career, when I was catering parties in New York, I prepared Spanish dishes for wealthy twins who lived on Fifth Avenue. Among the illustrious guests that night were poet Allen Ginsberg and Beat generation novelist Jack Kerouac.

Everyone seemed to like my food, especially a garlicky prawn dish prepared in an earthenware Spanish cazuela. In fact, Kerouac was so enamored he wandered into the kitchen, studied me for a while, and then announced: “Great legs!” It was lovely to hear such words from such a famous writer, but I was such a hard-core foodie at the time I didn’t realize he was referring to my gams; I thought he meant the long thin legs of my prawns!

Years later, I was living in Morocco, starting on my multiyear study of Moroccan cuisine. It was here that I first encountered the ubiquitous two-part cooking vessel called a tagine -- low-rimmed concave plate-like bottom and high cone-shaped 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.

Above all others

I’ve acquired numerous tagines through the years, some homely, others quite ornate, but my favorite, 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 is also 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 (mica-rich) 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-shaped 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 added, “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.”

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food@latimes.com

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Where to 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 devoted to clay pot cooking, stocking glazed and unglazed tagines, glazed bean pots, and Colombian La Chamba cookware. www.bramcookware.com

Toque Blanche: Specializing in Colombian La Chamba cookware. www.mytoque.com

Gourmet Sleuth: Several types of clay pots, including Colombian La Chamba cookware. www.gourmetsleuth.com

Spanish Table: All things Spanish, and beyond, including glazed and unglazed tagines and earthenware cazuelas. www.spanishtable.com

La Tienda: Another Spanish cooking website, this one has clay bean pots and lidded and unlidded earthenware cazuelas. www.tienda.com

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

L’Atelier Vert: Several types of French clay pots, including daubieres for stews and beans. www.frenchgardening.com

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

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

Cafe Pasqual’s: The popular Santa Fe restaurant sells Felipe Ortega’s micaceous utilitarian cookware through its gallery. www.pasquals.com /galeria.html

Tulumba: This website devoted to all things Turkish sells earthenware guvecs. www.tulumba.com

-- Paula Wolfert

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What you need to know 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 is sometimes called redware or terra cotta, is the most common. 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 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 be soaked once. Glazed pots are generally 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 it’s 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 also 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 wide 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 both 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 very popular lately, and with good reason. Tagines cook food beautifully, and they are relatively inexpensive. The high conical -- or dome-shaped -- cover, which fits into the shallow base, acts as a kind of closed chimney. Since 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.

Paula Wolfert

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Sizzling shrimp with garlic and hot pepper

Total time: 25 minutes

Servings: 4 to 6

Note: 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). Aleppo pepper can generally 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.

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

1. 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.

2. 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, 2 to 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.

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

4. 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.

Each of 6 servings: 415 calories; 15 grams protein; 15 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 33 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 112 mg. cholesterol; 0 sugar; 470 mg. sodium.

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Moroccan lamb tagine with melting tomatoes and onions

Total time: 3 hours and 45 minutes

Servings: 4 to 6

Note: Adapted from “Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking” by Paula Wolfert. She recommends a glazed earthenware or Flameware tagine, or a 10- or 11-inch Spanish cazuela with a cover. She also recommends using a heat diffuser for slow, steady cooking (especially if using an electric or ceramic stove top).

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

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

3 tablespoons golden raisins

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

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

2 teaspoons Moroccan spice mixture (see below)

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)

Salt

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

3 tablespoons mild olive oil, divided

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

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons turbinado sugar mixed with 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

6 flour tortillas

1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

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

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

3. 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, about 10 minutes. Do not brown the meat. Add the half-cup hot water and gently increase the heat to slowly bring it to a boil.

4. 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, about 2 hours.

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

6. Remove the top of the tagine and tilt the pot to pour all the liquid into a medium conventional skillet. Skim the fat off the top of the liquid; then boil it down to three-fourths cup. Season with salt and pepper to taste. 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, about 5 minutes. Serve at once or reheat gently over medium heat.

7. Just before serving, warm the tortillas, tear them into large pieces, and spread about one-third over a large serving platter. Spoon about half the contents of the tagine on top. Repeat with another third of the tortillas and the remaining contents of the tagine. Top with the last of the tortillas and a sprinkling of parsley and serve at once.

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.

Each of 6 servings: 599 calories; 34 grams protein; 41 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 33 grams fat; 12 grams saturated fat; 114 mg. cholesterol; 13 grams sugar; 778 mg. sodium.

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Basturma

Total time: 3 hours and 40 minutes

Servings: 6 to 8

Note: Adapted from “Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking” by Paula Wolfert, who credits Ayfer Unsal for sharing her recipe. She recommends using a heat diffuser for slow, steady cooking (especially if using an electric or ceramic stove top) and calls for a 2 1/2 - to 3-quart bean pot or Turkish guvec. Aleppo pepper can generally 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.

1 cup dried white kidney beans

Salt

1 onion, chopped

1/2 large 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

1. 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.

2. 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 up to 45 minutes.

3. 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 may cause the pot to crack).

4. In a small conventional skillet, cook the basturma in the olive oil over medium heat until it just begins to crisp, 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.

Each of 8 servings: 175 calories; 10 grams protein; 16 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams fiber; 8 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 6 mg. cholesterol; 2 grams sugar; 571 mg. sodium.


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