Next week, Paula Wolfert's new cookbook, Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking, her 10th, officially hits the bookshelves. Wolfert--who lives, cooks, writes and tweets (@Soumak) in Sonoma, California--has received numerous awards and last year, the James Beard Foundation inducted her work into the Cookbook Hall of Fame. We caught up with her, taking a brief rest between research trips, among her clay pots. There are a lot of them.
Squid Ink: Okay, so you knew I had to ask: Why clay pots?
Paula Wolfert: I had long loved cooking in clay and felt that the time had finally come for me to write a book about it. Before I started I didn't realize what a huge undertaking this would be. But it was so much fun I couldn't stop. And the more I learned about how clay pot cooking is still alive and well in the Mediterranean, the deeper I wanted to delve into it. In truth, I think this project became a kind of obsession. But a wonderful obsession.
SI: How long did it take you to write this book: it seems like an almost archaeological project.
PW: It took more than six years. But I feel it encompasses a lifetime of cooking Mediterranean dishes.
SI: How many countries did you go to to research this one?
PW: I travel frequently around the Mediterranean, and have been to every Mediterranean country numerous times. I found that there isn't a single one in which clay pot cooking is not highly regarded. The old cooks, the women who hold the culinary knowledge in each country, would inevitably point with a smile toward their favorite clay pot, and, inevitably, the ones they pointed to were the oldest and most worn, often inherited form their mothers or grandmothers.
SI: Is there one dish that everyone should cook in a clay pot? As opposed to some other pot?
PW: Yipes, I can't decide. Clay pot cooking offers you another way to cook. Spanish rice dishes, Italian risottos, and Turkish bulgur dishes are all better cooked in clay when cooked stove top. I also encourage everyone to try using their stove-tops to cook stews because this method develops a certain succulence and sealed in taste, I don't get any other way. I am an avid follower of Paul Bertolli who wrote about "bottom up cooking" in his book. He describes a way to build flavor by the slow repeated browning and deglazing of meat and vegetables. In fact, I have to say that in my opinion the ONLY way to properly cook either grains or meat is in a clay pot.
SI: In a perfect world, would we all ditch our pricey Calphalons and All-Clads and use clay instead?
PW: No... I don't say that at all. I use them a lot less than I did before embarking on this book. Metal pots are great for high heat browning and for sautees. But for wonderful slow-cooked dishes, clay is always my medium of choice. I find that vegetables cook more evenly, taste deeper and richer than they do in metal.
SI: You describe yourself as a "clay pot junkie": just how many clay pots do you have?
PW: I've never counted them, but I would guess about a couple hundred. I've been collecting for 50 years. About a half dozen I use a lot. Some I've used only once, but have kept because of their beauty, rarity or an association they have with a particular person or place.
SI: What's your favorite pot, and where did you get it?
PW: A tagine (two-part cooking vessel) I bought in the early 70s in the souks of Marrakech, in which, over the years, I've cooked only lamb tagines. I believe it is imbued with the scents and flavors of the numerous Moroccan spices I use, and that this "patina" imparts a very subtle under-taste to every dish every time I cook in it.
SI: You joined Twitter because of [The New York Times'] Amanda Hesser, if I remember correctly. What do you think of it as a medium for food-related content?
PW: Excellent! It's a very powerful tool; great means of communication and a terrific resource.
When we asked Wolfert for a recipe recommendation, she suggested a pumpkin soup with Roquefort, it's "an easy recipe that uses a $9 Chinese sand pot (from an Asian market)," she emailed, with a reminder that if you're using a new pot, it will need an "overnight soak just once." With Halloween is just around the corner, you'll have plenty of pumpkins to choose from.
Pumpkin Soup with Creamy Roquefort
From: Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking, by Paula Wolfert. Use a 3-quart glazed or unglazed earthenware or flameware casserole; if using an electric or ceramic stovetop, be sure to use a heat diffuser with the clay pot.
Serves: 4-6 (about 2 quarts)
2 1/2 pounds pumpkin or butternut squash
1 tablespoon sugar
2 ounces sliced prosciutto or lean pancetta, shredded
1/4 cup minced shallot
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 cup crème fraîche or heavy cream
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 1/2 ounces Roquefort cheese, crumbled
1 cup diced, crustless dense country bread, toasted in a dry skilled until golden.
1. Pare the pumpkin, cut it into large chunks, and discard the seeds and fibrous centers. Cut enough of the flesh into 1-inch dice to make 5 cups or 1 1/2 pounds cleaned pumpkin or squash. Place the pumpkin cubes and sugar in the earthenware casserole and warm over low heat. Gradually raise the heat to medium-low, cover with a sheet of parchment paper and the lid, and steam for 10 minutes.
2. Add the prosciutto and shallot and cook, covered, for 10 minutes longer, stirring occasionally. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
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3. Add 3 cups hot water to the casserole, bring to a boil and cook at a simmer until everything is tender, 20 minutes. Transfer the soup in batches to a blender, and puree until smooth.
4. Add the cream, the butter, and the cheese to the last batch of soup in the blender and puree until velvety.
5. Reheat the soup, and season with additional salt and pepper to taste. Ladle the soup into warm bowls, and top each portion with the toasted croutons.
Note to the cook: When reheating the soup, if you notice it thickening, thin it with up to 1/2 cup of hot water and readjust the seasoning.