Clay pots were among our first cooking vessels. In various shapes and sizes, they have been used in the kitchen since at least Roman times, and they are still commonly found from China to Morocco to South America. And for good reason. Clay pots offer easy ways to cook an astonishing range of healthful, delicious dishes. Enclosed in clay, foods stay succulent and cook beautifully, often without any added fat, as their flavors mingle, concentrate and enrich one another.
Many people are amazed at how delectable a chicken is when roasted in clay. But that is just the start. Following are also a soup and a crumple dessert.
The most common clay pots -- unglazed red clay cookers that are soaked in water before using, and the glazed, heavy, open casserole-type dish from Spain called a cazuela -- are amazingly versatile. Use the cooker to roast a turkey without basting, and to produce rich soups or perfectly baked desserts.
In all these dishes, flavors emerge fresh and clear. Beans cooked in clay pots come out velvety. Baking in clay also brilliantly preserves the bright, true colors of vegetables.
A dash of orange juice and pieces of chestnut add vibrant contrasts to the sweet flavors and bright, clear color brought out by cooking this soup in clay. This easy method uses no fat.
Butternut squash soup with chestnut "croutons"
Makes 6 servings
1 small butternut squash, halved, peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large Cortland or Rome Beauty apple, peeled, cored and sliced
4 cups chicken broth
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 pound chestnuts
1/3 cup orange juice
Combine squash, onion, apple and 1 cup broth in soaked 3-quart clay pot. Cover pot and place in cold oven. Bake at 450 degrees 30 minutes or until mixture is soft. Add remaining 3 cups broth, thyme, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Cover and cook 30 minutes more.
Meanwhile, with small sharp knife, cut "X" in rounded side of each chestnut, being sure to pierce papery inner covering. Cook chestnuts in large pan of boiling water about 20 minutes or until soft. Cool chestnuts just enough to be able to handle them. Peel and break each into 3 or 4 pieces.
Remove thyme and bay leaf from soup. Puree soup in blender (using food processor won't give as smooth a result). Stir in orange juice and adjust seasonings, if necessary. Serve garnished with chestnuts.
The true flavors of the peaches and berries bubbling under a crisp phyllo crust come through because no thickening is used in this deep-dish dessert. If you wish to cut down on fat, omit the butter in the filling.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
7 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 large peaches, peeled, pitted and sliced
1/2 pint blackberries
1/3 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
juice of 1/2 lemon
8 sheets phyllo dough, at room temperature
Generously grease 12 1/4 -inch cazuela with 1 tablespoon butter.
Melt 1/4 cup butter in small saucepan and set aside.
Place peaches and blackberries in large nonreactive bowl and toss with sugar, cinnamon, mace and lemon juice. Arrange fruit mixture in bottom of cazuela. Cut remaining butter into thin chips and dot over fruit.
Lay phyllo out flat on counter top and cover with damp kitchen towel. Transfer 1 sheet phyllo to work surface and brush generously with melted butter. Gently pick up buttered dough and loosely crumple it into a ball about 4 inches in diameter. Place crumpled phyllo on top of fruit in cazuela. Repeat with remaining phyllo, leaving some space between crumples for juices to bubble up as fruit cooks.
Bake at 400 degrees 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees and bake 20 minutes longer or until edges of phyllo are light brown. Sprinkle generously with powdered sugar. Increase oven temperature to 400 degrees and bake 8 to 10 minutes more or until sugar melts to a glaze.
Crumple can stand up to 1 hour, but serve while still warm. Phyllo will get soggy if crumple stands too long.
If you can, make this dish as Moroccan women have for centuries, in the cone-topped clay cooker that gives it its name. Otherwise a Dutch oven works well. Traditionally, preserved lemons require curing in salt for at least two weeks. But this method, discovered by cookbook author Paula Wolfert, takes only five days. And you can preserve just one or two lemons instead of making a large batch. Try them chopped and mixed with green olives for an hors d'oeuvre, or place one inside chicken before roasting, or, chopped, in the cavity of a fish.
Chicken tagine with green olives and preserved lemons
Makes 4 servings
8 large chicken thighs, skinned
3/4 cup finely chopped onion
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/4 teaspoon saffron, crushed
2 cups water
2 cups Greek green olives, such as Ionian or Nafplion