The other day, I invested in more kitchenware.
No, I don’t have the space, and have had to be creative about storage, but it’s going to be money incredibly well spent.
Anyone else out there old (or young) enough to remember clay baking pots? They were fashionable in the 1970s in the UK (and possibly elsewhere, I can only speak of my own knowledge), but these days the main source is eBay, gumtree and other online options. A clay baking pot is essentially a fired, unglazed terracotta casserole with a high domed lid. When new and unused, you plunge it into a bath of water for half an hour to absorb moisture before using it to cook in the oven. After that, you only have to soak the lid for about 15 minutes for each subsequent use. The idea is that the moisture absorbed into the unglazed terracotta is converted into steam, and this helps to cook the food, as well as the radiant heat of the hot pot itself.
My mother had one. I can recall the serious “stand back, it’s incredibly hot” command when she removed it from the oven and placed it on the wooden chopping board, protected by a tea towel. She had an especially thick pair of oven gloves for this big red monster, and the lid was always opened away from herself to ensure the resulting billow of steam wafted out away without burning her. The smell was always indescribably good. There sat a meltingly tender piece of meat or a roast chicken on a bed of vegetables, a stew or a ‘fridge dinner’ (you know, creative use of leftovers…). The meats had produced at least 300ml/10 fl.oz of broth, full of flavour and only such fat as the meat itself contained, since she added none before cooking. If there was no meat in the pot, she’d have added liquid to rice in appropriate amounts, or a little stock to roasted vegetables, for example, to help prevent sticking. Fond memories, awesome meals…
Anyway, I was checking out one of our local op shops (aka charity or thrift shops) for something completely different, and as I walked out, my eye fell on a Schlemmertopf. A brand new one. There are two main brands of clay baking pots: Römertopf, the royalty of the genre, and Schlemmertopf, the aristocracy. All others are pale imitations. This, the 832 size, big enough for, say, a 2.5kg/5½ pound chicken and some vegies, was pristine, never used and rather than the $100+ plus postage you’d be paying if you bought it new online, it was three whole dollars. So of course, I bought it. Like cast iron cookware, a lot of people don’t know how to use or care for them and they end up in charity shops or being used as planters.
We christened it with a leisurely bath in the kitchen sink, and then plonked into it the chook I’d been planning to roast in my small electric oven. A sprinkle of salt, a minimal spritz of olive oil, lid on, and into a cold oven. Yup, you heard right. You put your cool, water-saturated pot into a cold oven, and then turn on the heat. Put a cold pot in a hot oven and it cracks. Put a hot pot on a cold surface and ditto. You also have your oven about 50°C/ 120°F hotter than normal, but cook for about half an hour less. So this chook got 1.5 hours at Mark 7 or 220°C /425°F in my gas oven, mainly because the lid is too tall for my small electric oven. One more bonus: no splatters, no oven cleaning! When I went to investigate, there sat my lightly bronzed chook in a delicate bath of self-generated stock, literally falling off the bone, juicy and tender. We attacked it like wild beasts… Clean up? Fill with warm water only, leave to stand for 20 mins, and then scrub off any residue with a brush. No soap. No dishwasher. No hassle. The more you use it, the better seasoned it becomes and the less things stick.
Two days later, the leftovers are still moist and juicy, and the bones, skin and scraps have made a wonderful stock. (I wonder how long I should decently wait till I roast another one…?) So, on the To Try list for the same treatment I have beef brisket, lamb shoulder, lamb shanks, shin beef, etc. All those cuts where normally you need long, slow cooking to break down the connective tissue and deliver a moist, tender result. In addition to the meat, I’ll roast vegetables, bake apples, and maybe even one of these days try baking bread. I’m told you get a wonderfully moist loaf with a tremendous crispy crust. It may require considerable experimentation, considering I’d be making a gluten free loaf, but still worth a try, wouldn’t you say?
I’ll keep you posted. And if you see anything that looks like the object above, grab it. I don’t think you’ll be sorry.