In the 90s I frequently used earthenware cooking pots of various sizes (also called clay and terracotta pots) mainly for baking. Some had lids and were perfect for braises. Some were glazed, partially glazed, or unglazed and most of them were Italian. Some were French.
There are various names in Italian for t earthenware pots depending on the shape and function – for example a tegame di terracotta only has one handle and is in the shape of a frypan, a legumieria is for cooking legumi (vegetables and pulses) and therefore has a lid and a wide middle, a teglia is shallow and for baking and comes in oval, round, square or rectangular shapes. The pignatta (or pignata) with a lid is for braises.
I used to use my French pottery for terrines, pâtés, French onion soup, gratin potatoes (or other vegetables), cassoulet, and the like and use my Italian earthenware pots for baked fennel, Italian braises like chicken or capretto (kid) and potatoes, veal shanks, hare.
There was no mixing of cultures in my kitchen – French recipes and Italian recipes were segregated to the correct pot.
But, cooking is also influenced by trends and fashion, and using earthenware became passé. I gave many of my earthenware pots away and over the years the ones I have kept are hidden in various cupboards in my apartment.
Many of them are out of reach and unfortunately, as often happens ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
Recently I found my Römertopf and I have begun using it again and some of the other pots too. Some of you (the more mature people) may remember the Römertopf casseroles. The original casseroles are a German brand first introduced in 1967 and still being made. They are made of natural clay and are a terracotta colour, have a lid, are rectangular and unglazed. I saw some in Paris cook shops not very long ago and are probably making a comeback.
This is my second Römertopf. I ruined my first one by cooking a very strong flavoured, spicy pork dish with lentils and could not get the flavour or smell out – everything I cooked tasted the same. Earthenware, especially the unglazed or partly glazed ones are porous and therefore the clay will absorb the flavours and fats of whatever you cook in them. it is a good idea to use one pot for similar flavored dishes or to have several pots as I indicated at the beginning of this post.
When it comes to washing earthenware I only use hot water and a brush – no soaking or detergents as they too can be absorbed. Clay retains water so I also allow the pots to dry completely before I store them to prevent mold from forming on the surface.
Earthenware will break with sudden changes in temperature; moving a hot pot from the stove or oven and placing it directly onto a cold surface is not a good idea. Nor is putting hot liquid or ingredients into a cold pot or cold into a hot pot.
They can be used in the oven or microwave and some can be used on the stove especially when a heat diffuser / simmer mat is used to help distribute the heat and cook on a slow simmer. My modern tajine is made of clay and obviously has been especially treated so that I can use this in the oven as well as the stove.
I now use my re- discovered Römertopf just for baking chicken. Earthenware helps to ensure that food is cooked evenly and maintains heat for a long time; the pot seals in moisture and the flavors of a dish and nutrients are preserved. My oven remains clean, nothing burns, nothing overflows.
The procedure for using the Römertopf is simple: the room temperature/ cold ingredients are placed into the cold Römertopf that has been soaked in water. It is then placed into a cold oven …no monitoring until the food is cooked.
Many ancient cultures including ancient Romans cooked in earthenware pots with lids by placing them in the glowing ashes of an open fire and the Römertopf is said to have been based on these Roman principles of cooking. Many cultures over the centuries have used this method of cooking in the ashes or over the ashes in fireplaces and chimneys.
There are many types of earthenware pots and each differ by the kind of clay that is used, the way it’s made, the shape, how it’s fired. The pots also come under different names, depending on and country of origin. For example the most common are the Moroccan tajines, the Provençal daubieres, Spanish cazuelas and the Colombian La Chamba pots.
I bought my first La Chamba pots from Oxfam in Adelaide about 30 years ago. They are a deep black colour and have a lustrous appearance. Recently I have seen many La Chamba pots in different shapes and sized in Australia.
Most Asian countries have different techniques of cooking food in clay and some of them require soaking (like the Römertopf) before cooking. I always soak (submerge) all of my earthenware pots in water (from cold water tap) for at least 20 minutes.
CHICKEN COOKED IN THE RÖMERTOPF
Whole chicken – free range, preferably organic. Remove any obvious fat. Sometimes I may place into the cavity one of the following: a whole onion or lemon, 2-3 whole garlic cloves or some herbs.
Herbs – any of the following but not too many as the flavours intensify and will be absorbed into the clay: rosemary, thyme, tarragon, bay, parsley or sage. Preferably, I place the herbs under the skin of the chicken.
Salt and pepper, rub inside and outside of chicken.
Vegetables – sometimes I may place vegetables under the chicken: whole mushrooms, potatoes, carrots, celery.
Do not preheat oven.
Soak whole Römertopf (top and bottom) in cold water for 15-20 minutes or follow soaking directions provided with the clay pot.
Pat dry chicken and sprinkle salt and pepper inside and outside the cavity. Place chicken breast side up and fill cavity of chicken any of the ingredients I have mentioned above. You will notice that I do not use strong flavours.
Place a few vegetables on the bottom of the chicken. There is no need to use vegetables unless you wish, but if you do you will taste the natural flavours of the vegetables – nice.
Cover the Römertopf and place in a cold oven.
Turn oven to 220C and bake 90 minutes. The chicken will be golden but if you wish to brown it further, remove the top during the last 10 minutes.
Remove from oven and place it on a towel or mat – nothing cold to avoid cracking. Food can be served from the pot.
This type of cooking will not taste bland, but I always find a reason to accompany it with a sauce…. the last sauce was one made with the remaining nettles growing on my balcony, and walnuts, but at other times there have been other sauces.
Walnuts and nettles sauce
Softened nettles or use spinach (2 tablespoons), parsley (1 tablespoon), walnuts (2 tablespoons), garlic (1 clove), salt, pepper to taste.
A dash of each of the following: extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and sufficient chicken stock (the juices from the chicken) to make the sauce smooth and creamy.
Blend everything together.