The joys of clay pot cooking

Cookbook author Paula Wolfert's fascination with clay pots began at age 19.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

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, Provençal 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.

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 tripières, 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 Provençal 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.”


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