Clay pots irresistable in design, function

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What do a Romertopf Schlemmertopf, tagine, and donabe
(donabay) have in common?

They are all earthenware pots with covers, from different parts of
the world. The high-domed Romertopf and Schlemmertopf are from
Germany, the pyramid-shaped tajine (tagine) is from Morocco, and
the round donabe is from Japan.

Using clay pots is an ancient method for cooking. You can now find
the modern cousins of handmade pots in beautiful matte glazes of
brown and black from South and Central America on shelves in
gourmet kitchen shops and cookware Web sites. Are we only now
discovering what has been known for so long? Using clay is an easy
and healthful way of preparing food.

Clay is porous and a good conductor of heat. These pots also hold
the heat. They come in a variety of combinations of unglazed and
glazed, and the cooking methods vary accordingly.

Both the tagine and the donabe have glazed covers but the tagine’s
bottom is completely glazed and the donabe’s interior bottom is
glazed but the exterior isn’t. Both pots can be put directly on a heat
source.

Once the food is arranged in the pots, there is little left to do. The
style of eating from these pots is communal. Diners sit around the
pot and take food from the casserole onto their own plates.

Abderrahim Ibouzir is the owner of the Morroccan Bazaar, 2302
Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge. He remembers sitting on the
floor around a beautifully decorated tagine, Morrocco’s traditional
clay pot cookware. With its distinctive conical lid and flat bottom, the
tagine would be set atop a brazier filled with hot coals in his family’s
courtyard. Inside the pot, food was layered, pyramid-like, in
geometric patterns. Quartered potatoes, strips of peppers, and
olives were placed over a fish marinated with lemon, saffron, cumin,
parsley and garlic.

Abderrahim sells the decorative tagines, but not for cooking. For
that, he has terracotta – glazed tagines in several sizes that are lead-free.

Ibouzir loves cooking in tagines. ”You can cook anything – lamb,
fish, vegetables – in 30 to 40 minutes; an entire meal is made in one
pot. The steam surrounds the food and cooks slowly without
stirring. You can walk away and come back just when it is finished,”
he says.

The tagine can be used on top of a stove and brought right to the
table. In Morocco, the tagine is placed in the center of a large flat
basket with Moroccan bread served alongside. Sometimes the
smell of food will linger in the pot, even after cleaning, but soaking it
in water and baking soda helps eliminate the odor.

It is important to remember when using clay that you must heat the
pots gradually. They seem sturdy but are fragile and can develop
cracks if not handled properly. These pots need tempering before
being used. However unlike the domed German clay cookware, it is
only done once.

For the Romertopf (Roman Pot) and Schlemmertopf, you must
pre-soak the tops before each use before placing onto the bottom.
You must also soak the Romertopf’s bottom as it is also unglazed.
The Schlemmertopf’s bottom has a glazed interior and is therefore
not soaked and cleanup is easier.

The folks at the Romertopf company maintain that since both parts
of their pot are soaked, more water is absorbed into their secret
mixture of red clay creating more moisture and better-tasting
results. Both are designed for use in an oven, not a stove top,
though some can go in a microwave.

After soaking and draining, the food goes directly into the pot and
into a cold oven. The oven is then turned on and reaches the
relatively high heat of 425 degrees gradually. Food needs little extra
liquid as the moist environment created in the pot locks in the natural
juices and prevents loss of nutrients. Cooking times are also shorter.

Many are under the misconception that these pots are just for
cooking whole chickens or turkeys. Not true. They are wonderful for
stews, briskets, roasting vegetables, baking bread and desserts
and come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Yes, food browns even with the lid on. For more crisping, the lid is
removed for the last 10 minutes.

Truth to tell, I have all of these pots. I find them irresistible.

Note: Make sure the pots you are using for cooking are lead-free.

The Japanese donabe is available at Yoshinoya and Kotobukiya,
both in Cambridge.

Lamb and vegetable ragout

1 1/2-2 pounds lamb chunks
1 medium butternut squash – cut into 3-inch chunks
3 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
3 tomatoes quartered
1 large onion, sliced
6 cloves garlic, unpeeled
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup red wine (Merlot)
1/2 cup water or broth

1. Soak your clay pot according to manufacturer’s instructions.
2. Drizzle 1 tablespoon oil over the lamb.
3. Mix spices and rub into lamb.
4. Place lamb, garlic cloves, and tomatoes in bottom of pot and
pour on red wine.
5. Cover with sliced onions and add the broth or water.
6. Cover with lid and place in a cold oven. Set the temperature to
425 degrees and cook for 45 minutes.
7. Add the potatoes and squash and drizzle with remaining olive oil.
Cook for an additional 45 minutes or until the meat is tender and the
vegetables are cooked through.
8. Remove lid and let brown for 5-10 minutes.

Adapted from Smart Clay Pot
Cookery by Carol H Munson

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