Cooking in clay pots goes way back to the Stone Age. Taste of food cooked in these pots has significantly more flavor than a food cooked in an ordinary pot. Science behind this is in prolonged condensation in naturally crafted clay dish that circulate from a cover/lid to the bottom of a pot. Clay provides slow evaporation of steam from the pores and creates a moist enclosed environment that results in increased flavor, very tender meats and healthier foods. Clay pots require less fat, use less liquid, require little tending. General guide is that unglazed earthenware, such as terracotta, should be soaked in cold water for about 15 minutes before use, and should never be washed in detergent or in a dishwasher. Glazed earthenware such as the cazuela and the tagine should never be placed in or on the heat while empty, and all earthenware should be placed in a cold oven, then brought up to the heat gradually. Different cultures produced slightly different dishes by shapes, material and crafting finesses. From Italy, comes an oval shaped, natural red brick terracotta. From Algeria, Tunis and Morocco, beautifully colorfull, cone shaped tagine. The Spanish use lidless cazuelas. In Provence, the shallow open dish is called a tian and on Balkans there is a sač where meal is often cooked covered in a hot charcoals in a ground.
I sincerely recommend that every cooking enthusiast and food lover have earthware in his kitchen!
Recently, I went trough a great cookbooks "Flavors of Morocco" and "Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking" and got some really great recipes for a tagine.
Couscous stuffed tomatoes
150 g couscous
1/4 tsp salt
150ml warm vegetable stock
4 tbs olive oil + extra for drizzling
1 onion finely chopped
1 carrot chopped
pinch of sugar
2 tsp ras el hanout or mix of these spices (cardamom, clove, cinnamon, ground chili peppers, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, peppercorn, and turmeric)
bunch of fresh coriander chopped
1/2 preserved lemon finely chopped (find in oriental stores)
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 180 C (360 F), gas mark 4. Put the couscous in a bowl, stir in the warm stock and salt, stir until all the stock has been absorbed, set aside for 10 minutes and then mix 1 tbs of olive oil into the couscous.
Slice the top off each tomato and reserve. Using a spoon, scoop out the pulp and seeds and add to a bowl. In a saucepan heat the remaining oil and fry the onions and carrots until golden brown and soft. Stir in the tomato pulp, the ras el hanout and a pinch of sugar, stir well. Cook until it forms a thick sauce. Season to taste. Tip the spicy tomato mixture onto the couscous and mix well. Add the fresh coriander and preserved lemon and mix well. Spoon into the cavity of the tomatoes and pop the reserved lids back on top. Put the filled tomatoes in a tagine and drizzle with a little olive oil and bake in the preheated oven for about 25 minutes, less if they are smaller.
Mussels Tagine with Tomatoes and Moroccan Seasonings
1/4 cup olive oil
1tbs chopped garlic
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup chopped cilantro (I would reduce it to 1/4)
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp sweet paprika
1/4 tsp crushed hot red pepper
juice of 1 large lemon
Wash and clean the mussels. Refrigerate.
Cut tomatoes in half and peal the skin (you can steam it and than peal the skin). Cook in a tagine with olive oil, on a stove top for 15 min. Add garlic, parsley, cilantro and spices. Cook until sauce is thick. Meanwhile, steam the mussels in a covered saucepan until open (about 5 min). Add mussel broth to tagine along with lemon juice and cook for about 10 min longer until thick again. Unshell most of the mussels and add them all to tagine and boil together. Season as needed. Let it stand for 5 min in a closed tagine before serving.
Here is also a great recipe for a corn bread - Serbian style, with nettle. Nettle is well recognized in Balkans for its health benefits, so it is often used in cooking. It's unknown on North America's public markets, but if you're lucky to find it, it's probably organic and definitely worth trying. Tastes something between chard and spinach, but more delicate.
And if you bake your corn bread in a clay pot or sač, eat it as the Serbs do - with a yogurt or kefir, of course. (More about kefir in upcoming posts)
Serbian nettle-corn bread
1 tsp salt
mineral water 1/2 - 1 cup
Blanch nettle in a boiling water for few minutes. Take out, mix with with a rest of ingredients and add mineral water so that flour mixture is soft. put a mixture in a well oiled clay pot, cover wit a lid and bake for about 30 minutes. To get a nice crust on a top, uncover a dish, 5 minutes before an end of baking. It's best eaten warm with great Balkan-style yogurt.
If you are not lucky enough to find a nettle, replace it with a chard or greens you like, it won't be like the original but it's still worth a try.