Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking: Traditional and Modern Recipes to Savor and Share

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A one-of-a-kind cookbook showcasing modern and authentic clay pot cooking from the premier expert on Mediterranean cuisinesPaula Wolfert is legendary for her expertise on and explorations of Mediterranean cooking. Now, Wolfert shares her inimitable passion for detail and insatiable curiosity about cultural traditions and innovations, with Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking.Here, the self-confessed clay pot "junkie"-having collected in her travels ceramic pots of all sorts: cazuelas, tagines, baking dishes, bean pots, Romertopf baking dishes, French diablos, ordinary casseroles, even Crockpots, which have a ceramic liner-shares recipes as vibrant as the Mediterranean itself along with the delightful stories behind the earthy pots, irresistible dishes, and outstanding cooks she has met along the way.Wolfert demystifies the process of clay pot cooking by which fresh ingredients are transformed slowly, richly, lusciously into magnificent meals. She shares 150 recipes featuring soups, fish and shellfish, poultry, meats, pasta and grains, vegetables and beans, pies and breads, eggs and dairy, and desserts.Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking offersExpert techniques and tips from Paula Wolfert, one of the world's foremost authorities on Mediterranean cuisine and now on clay potsAn introduction to this ancient and modern-and practically foolproof-way of cookingA thorough clay pot primer, familiarizing you with the numerous names for different types of clay pots and tips on "Other Pots You Can Use"A delicious range of dishes, including Pumpkin Soup with Roquefort Cream; Wine-Marinated Chicken Thighs with Almonds and Sweet Tomato Jam; Fideos with Clams, Shrimps and Mussels; Tian of Leeks and Pancetta; Corsican Cheesecake; and Roasted Peach GratinPaula Wolfert in Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking will seduce you with the pleasures and benefits of cooking in clay.


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Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking: Traditional and Modern Recipes to Savor and Share
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It was more than a year and a half ago that I first heard the news: Paula Wolfert was doing a book about clay pot cookery. A little research revealed that the rumors were true. But that's all I could find out. No details were forthcoming.

Even so, I was excited about the idea. There were two reasons for my enthusiasm. First, Wolfert---the aptly nicknamed Queen of Mediterranean Cooking---is one of my favorite food writers. Few others consistently capture the spirit of place that infuses her books, making them more than mere cookbooks. And, secondly, I'm no stranger to clay cooking myself. Friend Wife used to be a potter, so we have numerous examples of both earthenware and stoneware to cook with. But I've also assembled a modest collection of other pieces. The tagines, alone, take up more than their fair share of shelf space, for instance. And I just about need a second pantry to hold the various casseroles and clay baking dishes.

Thus, it was a long 18 months between rumor and fruition. But Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking was worth the wait.

My habit, when a new cookbook arrives, is to dive right in. As I give it a first run-through I keep a packet of post-it flags handy, marking recipes and text of interest. Usually, after the first perusal, there are a handful of such flags. Later on others might be added. Not so with Wolfert's latest. By the time I closed the book for the first time there was a forest of red, and yellow, and blue flags marking recipes I wanted to try. Twenty five of them, in fact.

Despite my collection of clayware, I knew there were some specialty dishes I had to have if I were going to explore this book correctly. So I immediately ordered several different sized cazuelas from The Spanish Table ( Although there are several suppliers of Iberian cookware and foodstuffs, they're my go-to company due to the breadth of their offerings, and the quality of their service.

While waiting for the cazuelas to be delivered, I delved more deeply into the book.

After introducing the concept of clay pot cooking, and detailing her own love affair and experiences with various clay pots of the Mediterranean region, Wolfert starts with a primer on clay pots. Without getting overly technical, she describes exactly what clay is, in particular differentiating between earthenware and stoneware, and how the two differ as cooking media. This is followed by a concise run-down of the more common types of clay pots found in the region, including the aforementioned cazuelas, Romertopf clay bakers, Chinese sandpots, clay casseroles, micaceous cooking pots, and, of course, Moroccan tagines. Later in the book, at appropriate places, she rings in discussions about other specialized pots, such as the Turkish guvic, Lebanese meqleh, and Greek yiouvetsi.

Given the nature of the subject, Wolfert could easily have sounded preachy, as if she were giving a classroom lecture. Instead, my reaction was more on the order of, "wow! I didn't know that." If the section suffers at all it's with the lack of illustrations. I would have preferred seeing examples of each pot described. Within the pages of the book, various clay pots are shown in use, with many of them identified in a key at the back. But that's not as satisfying as having a visual image right next to the description.

Speaking of photos, the book suffers from one of my pet peeves. The few color photos included (there are two widely separated groups of eight) are clumped together. I realize there are economic reasons for publishers to do this. But, as I've said before, I'd rather they were left out than given that treatment. If you're going to include a color pix, put it next to the recipe, so I can immediately see what the dish is supposed to look like.

In addition, each chapter is preceded by a black & white photo, showing a clay pot in use. Other that that there are no photos. However, between the typefaces chosen, and the use of white space, the book still has an overall clean, easy to read, appearance. So much so that the only reason you miss photos at all is the parsimonious use of them. The limited use of pictures just leaves you looking for more; whereas if there were none at all you would not find the book wanting for their lack.

The bulk of the book is arranged in a fairly standard manner, with recipes and other data (such as Wolfert's great commentary on the people, places, and cookware involved) presented as course types: First courses; Soups; Fish and shellfish; Chicken, duck, and other poultry; Meats; Pasta and grains; Vegetables and beans; Savory pies and breads; Egg and dairy dishes; and Desserts. These are followed by several appendices, including one for making various condiments and sauces, a listing of food sources, and a second such list of clay pot sources.

Each chapter is balanced geographically, so that all parts of the Mediterranean region are represented. Each of the well-written recipes (I've yet to find one that was at all ambiguous) is accompanied by a copy box identifying the preferred clay pot for making that dish. Scattered throughout are notes and comments offering general tips and techniques.

One thing about clay pot cookery: it doesn't happen fast. If you're one of those cooks that finds 30-minute meals appealing, these are not the methods for you. As a potter friend she interviewed told Wolfert: "Clay heats up more slowly and then becomes uniformly hot, cooking food more evenly. Also, the heat of the clay is softer, causing the flavors to blend differently, without burning the way food often does in metal."

So it is with the recipes in Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking. To be sure, there are a few that get cooked relatively quickly, such as the Tile Caramelized Mushrooms. But even there, it takes time for the "tile" to heat up properly (as with all clay, the pot itself has to be brought slowly up to heat, because sudden changes in temperature can cause thermal shock and breakage). Sizzling Shrimp With Garlic and Hot Peppers is another relatively fast dish. But this one, I felt, is just a rather complex way of making the classic Spanish dish.

One of the first dishes I made after delivery of my cazuela, Pork Tiella with Wild Mushrooms and Potatoes, is more typical. Excluding prep time the dish takes two hours to cook. A tiella, by the way, is another one of those culinary things in which the dish and the cooking vessel bear the same name. In this case it's Italian.

My notes on that dish are clear and to the point: "Very good as is. Would change nothing!"

Wolfert's Gratin of Leeks and Pancetta really highlights the differences between cooking in clay and using other materials. As an experiment I made this dish using the bottom bowl of a tagine (my large cazuela hadn't arrived yet) side by side with a glass baking dish. There's no question that the version made in the clay bowl had a greater depth of flavor than the one made in glass.

Topping the list of the dishes I've so far made is Cazuela Quail with Red Peppers and Pine Nut Picada. From both a taste and presentation viewpoint, this is as close to a perfect dish as can be made. Seared, spatchcocked quail are each enrobed in half of a peeled red bell pepper, set in a pine nut and garlic infused tomato sauce, and the whole thing baked in a clay pot. 

To be sure, there are a few minor problems with some of the recipes I've tried. For instance, in her Stuffed Baby Squid Lungiana Style, Wolfert assumes you know to seal the squid mouths with a toothpick to keep the filling from squeezing out like toothpaste from a tube. A minor oversight for one of the best stuffed-squid recipes I've every tasted. Here, again, you'll be cooking for an hour and a half, plus prep time. Certainly not something appealing to the Rachael Ray for lunch, bunch.

 Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking is a winner in all respects. So far I've prepared nine dishes from the book. And I've no doubt that by the time you read this I'll have made at least that number more.

Cazuela Quail with Red Peppers and Pine Nut Picada

Preferred Clay Pot:

A 10-12 inch straight-sided flameware skillet

If using an electric or ceramic stovetop, be sure to use a heat diffuser with the clay pot.

6 bone-in quail (about 6 ounces each)
¼ cup plus 2 tbls extra virgin olive oil
1 tbls fresh thyme leaves
1 tbls chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large onion, grated (about 1 cup)
3 plum tomatoes, grated (1 cup)
Pinch of ground cinnamon
3 tbls pine nuts
1 large garlic clove
3 large red bell peppers

1. Cut off the wing tips at the second joint of each quail. With kitchen shears, remove the backbones. Flatten, skin side down, to loosen the breastbone. Cut or pull out the wishbone, tiny rib bones, and breastbone. Leave in place the thigh and leg bones. Place the quail in a medium bowl and toss gently with ¼ cup of the olive oil, the thyme, 2 teaspoons of the parsley, the nutmeg, and 1 ¼ teaspoons each salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for 1 to 3 hours.

2. About 1 hour before serving, preheat the oven to 450F. Shake the marinade from the quail into the flameware skillet set over medium heat. When hot, add the quail, skin side up, and sear for an instant; turn over and sear the skin side. Set aside on a plat. Add the grated onion to the skillet and cook, stirring, over medium heat until soft and golden, 7 to 8 minutes. Add the tomatoes, cinnamon, and 3 tablespoons water. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes.

3. Peel the red bell peppers with a swivel-bladed vegetable peeler, then cut each lengthwise in half; discard the membranes, seeds, and stems. Fold each quail into its natural shape and place breast side up in a pepper half.

4. In a small dry skillet, toast the pine nuts over medium heat until golden and fragrant, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a mortar and let cool slightly. Add the garlic, 1 teaspoon coarse salt, and the remaining 1 teaspoon parsley. Crush to a paste. Stir into the tomato sauce in the skillet. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

5. Arrange the peppers stuffed with quail in a single layer in the tomato sauce. Brush the breasts with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Bake the quail-stuffed peppers in the top third of the oven for 20 minutes, or until they are just cooked through. Garnish with the remaining parsley and serve at once directly from the skillet.

Recipe courtesy "Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking," written by Paula Wolfert, published by John Wiley and Sons, 2009


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