Tag Archives: Cooking

Cooking in Clay: Bean Pots

There’s something homey about a bean pot. Its shape has a cozy feel: round with a small opening, two ear-shaped handles and a tight-fitting lid with a pronounced handle. Here’s a classic vessel from  Out of the Fire Studio, located in Edmonton, Alberta. It’s a big 4-quart bean pot. A stoneware pot has a bit of weight, which is what you want because your beans will bake slowly without burning and the flavors will fully permeate. I know beans are not chi chi,  they are very nutritious, tasty and versatile. Side dishes, soups, purees, even loaves: beans are an unsung foodstuff. I like mine tangy with molasses and vinegar, or spicy with lots of garlic, or with herbs and tomato sauce. The navy bean, named after the staple favored by the U.S. Navy, is also called pea bean or haricot and is one of our favorite legumes.

Native Americans living in what was to become the northeast U.S. lived in good part on the Three Sisters crops. The Puritans added these to their diet after they arrived. Later, Bostonians exported rum, of which molasses is a byproduct, and molasses became a key ingredient in their baked beans. Here’s a classic recipe for Boston Baked Beans.  (For an exotic touch, add a cup of good bourbon to your recipe. The alcohol content bakes out, but the flavor will remain.) In pre-Civil War times in the U.S., southerners made fun of Yankees because they ate navy beans, as is illustrated in this exchange in the Bette Davis movie, Jezebel, about the antebellum South:

“You know those little old white beans? Horse-feed beans? You know what they do with them in Boston? They eat them…. ladies and gentlemen eat them, what I hear.”

The design of bean pots is very old and appears to be based on the Roman olla or aula. Interestingly, Spaniards and Southwest Native Americans both call this type of vessel an olla and this fact must be connected to Spanish migration to the New World. If you extend the bean pot upward and make a neck, it would look like an ancient amphora….

These beautiful bean pots are sold through The Cooks Kitchen site in the UK. Made by le Creuset and part of their Poterie stoneware collection, they come in large or small. From here, we move to an exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Shown are bean pots made by the Medalta Pottery in Medicine Hat Alberta, where my husband was born. They were produced at the pottery from just after the turn of the century to the 1950s. Canadians use maple syrup and maple sugar in baked beans and here is a luscious-sounding French Canadian recipe. Whatever you do, use navy beans! I remember a big pot of baked beans I took to a potluck once. I couldn’t figure out why they’d taken so long to bake…but it turned out I’d accidentally used soybeans instead of navy beans!

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Clay & Self-Sufficiency

I  was at a garden centre yesterday, one that I particularly enjoy: Brian Minter‘s Country Garden. You can find ordinary and rare or unusual plants there. I saw saffron crocuses being grown for the first time… He also sells about 15-20 different kinds of seed potatoes. I finally decided on Norland, an early red. I trust his quality and selection and have listened to his shows and read his articles for years. I have his videos and really rely on them. In addition, he has a beautiful botanical garden, Minter Gardens, which rivals Butchart Gardens. Brian Minter is always willing to answer any question you might have and he is very approachable. Yesterday, I noticed that he’s getting ‘up there’ but he still has loads of get up and go. The centre also has beautiful gift items and curiosities. My friend Minoo and I slowly worked our way through the aisles and displays, clucking over this and that. As I was weaving my way around, I was, once again, struck by the fact that there were quite a few things on display that I could make. Knowing this affords me a sense of self-sufficiency. Yet, it’s one thing to know how and another to act on it. If I am truly interested, I’d better jot down some notes and make a few sketches before I forget. The fact remains: clay folk can make just about anything they want. Growing up with brothers and a father who were handy helped me immensely. That atmosphere informed me and I became conversant with electric and hand tools. By my teenage years, I was very comfortable making things on my Dad’s workbench. My mother’s father was also very handy and I spent enough time around him to bolster all these parts of myself. And my mother taught me everything I needed to know about cooking and sewing. It feels good to be able to do these things, but I am not talking about pride. I don’t like the word ‘pride’ or ‘deserve’ and I steer clear of them and what they represent. I don’t mind ‘gratified,’ though. Yesterday, it felt good recognizing that I could make some of the things I saw as we roved around Minter’s garden centre. I am eons away from ceramic mastery, but I’ve reached a point where I’m confident in ability. Technically, I can put something together according to plan. And ideas come to me. I have also worked in clay for so long now that I am so comfortable with the stuff it almost feels like an extension of myself. I identify with it. I’m happy to be where I’m at and happy to be doing what I’m doing. It feels good to become inspired and to know things are within reach if I want to travel a certain path. I’ve lived many places and moved many times, originally as a result of my father’s career and, later, out of habit and because of schooling. During those periods of my life, I was more interested in working with sculpture and abstraction. Now that I’ve ‘settled down,’ I am seeing myself making functional things I’d have never dreamt of making in the past and it’s sort of ironic. I recognize that my values, priorities, and tastes have changed or shifted. Some not all that much, but my needs certainly have. I ordered a greenhouse yesterday, my mother’s Christmas gift to us. As I was ordering it, I thought, gee, I could make some nice ceramic finials to run across the top of it after it’s up. Yes, I’m enjoying a sense of place and an inherited can-do mentality.


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Drinking chocolate from bowls

The first time I drank chocolate out of a bowl was in Calgary during Spring Break 1989. My friends and I traveled up in a rented car. The population back then was 700,000 and to us it was the Big City, as our university town in Montana was much smaller. I remember the Calgarians saying, “You came here for Spring Break?” Followed by, “Why aren’t you in Florida?” We had a lovely time, though, taking the light rail from the university to downtown, shopping, dining, and taking in the Canadian atmosphere. And it was cold. We didn’t care, though! We’d driven up over the Rocky Mountains, through Banff, and out onto the prairies and we were there to have fun and a well-needed break. It was during one of those frosty, early spring days that we ended up in a bohemian little cafe in the downtown core. We’d been looking, seeing, and enjoying all things downtown, were tired and needed to rest our dogs. We all ordered hot chocolate and, to our surprise, big steaming bowls of chocolate were placed on the table. It was so exotic to me! We cupped our cold hands around the warm ceramic bowls and sipped. It was sheer heaven… We were bathed in the rich aroma as we drank it down. It’s one thing to drink cocoa from a narrow mug and an altogether different experience to feel the steam waft around you and take in the scents from a wide bowl. Some time later, after I moved to Canada, I bought my husband a chocolate bowl for Valentine’s Day. It’s a lovely ceramic bowl…fluted, of white clay…decorated with a mosaic pattern on the outer rim. If it wasn’t for the French Canadian influence, I would probably have yet to have experienced such a lovely tradition. Bowls filled with steaming cocoa… It’s early spring, I just got back from Whistler where my friend took us to a lovely crêperie run by French Canadians, Crêpe Montagne. I had their mixed berry crêpe served with crème anglaise. Delightful! The village was full of students on Spring Break. Snowboarders, skiers…and this year there was plenty of snow, compared to last year during the Olympics. It all reminded me of the sojourn to Calgary many moons ago. So, I’m back home and am thinking of bowls of chocolate…

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White is the New Black: Trendy Clay Kitchenware

Every once in a while, I like to head downtown and check out the styles, to see what’s in fashion for the upcoming season…fabrics, colors. Same goes for new products for kitchens. I guess I take after my grandfather. He loved new gadgets! Shown today are items I thought were fun, wild, or just plain cool. Yanko Design is carrying the Zipper Cup, with “a pull-downed zipper cleverly designed to be the perfect place to hold your tea bags.” I think they are quite sweet and rather clever. Two for $40. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but  Caveman cuisine is the diet du jour. Hence, the Stone Age cookbook…actually, there are many out right now. The diet draws on the wild animals and plants cavemen ate and the modern version “is based on the premise that modern humans are genetically adapted to the diet of their Paleolithic ancestors and that human genetics have scarcely changed since the dawn of agriculture, and therefore that an ideal diet for human health and well-being is one that resembles this ancestral diet,” according to Wikipedia. Nothing refined or processed, no dairy, grain or legumes. Instead, it’s roots, nuts, veggies, fruit, meat and seafood. If this is your thing, you’re going to need something hard and tough to cut with. Your implements don’t have to be blunt, sharp stone. Instead, our modern-day caveman might think the  ‘stone’ of ceramic knife blades is de rigeur. No doubt, these Kyocera knives will appeal to back-to-the-cavers. They do seem to have a certain flair…. And they are on sale right now for $64.19. Oprah approved choice! Really. Next up is a sweet speaker set that can be used with your iPods, iPhones, multi-media. My brother is a speaker geek and I can see him going for these. They are techie heaven clothed in low-key. A nice addition to your kitchen’s audio-visual scene. Ceramic Speakers designed by Joey Roth. Minimal finishes and natural materials are featured: no plastic. They would go well with the clean lines of modern kitchens. “Custom-made drivers, porcelain and cork enclosures, and Tripath amplifier reveal every detail, for a high-res music experience,” says Yanko. I like these myself because they don’t look like speakers; they’re quite sculptural and the combination of clay, wood and cork appeals. For  $495. Now, this next thing is not ceramic, but it is so amazing and cutting edge, I’m placing a link for it here. Nuff said. Last but not least, the trash. Cities have smartened up about landfills and are making us change our habits. In the town in which I live, garbage is only collected every other week and the bin for it is tiny compared to the ones for recycling and garden/yard waste. It’s about time. It also means we use a container for garden waste, same as we would for waste for a composter. We don’t compost, however, because it will attract bears, so we use the city’s bins and the city composts our waste. Since residents can be fined for throwing kitchen waste in the garbage bin, the market for compost pails must have skyrocketed. I’ve seen one that I’ll feature for my last item. It’s quite nice. The Compost Crock. They can be quite expensive, but if you do some comparison shopping, you can find some good prices. Some have carbon filters, but they all have classic lines, which means they won’t go out of style. That’s the thing about fads….


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Recipe: Fish Baked in Clay

When I first saw the name of this recipe, I didn’t think it unusual. After all, many things are baked inside clay cookers. However, as I started reading it, my eyebrows shot upward, for it is a recipe for baking fish in mud, quite literally! While I have yet to try it, I can vouch for the cookbook: The Joy of Cooking, by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker. I can’t think of a better recipe for Jane Street Clayworks….

FISH BAKED IN CLAY, “The Joy of Cooking,” by Irma Rombauer

Scoop out of the ground a hole about twice as big as the fish you are going to cook. Either wet and tamp the ground or line the area with stones. Prepare a bed of coals in the pit, and lay more flat stones on top of it to heat for 1 to 2 hours. After cleaning the fish and removing the gills, season the cavity with onions or herbs, or wipe with a lemon. Close openings so that mud cannot get inside. Have ready a batch of “mudpie” clay, preferably blue clay, with which to coat the fish. Continue to lay on layers of mud until the covering is 1 1/2 to 2 inches thick. Now clear away the top rocks and the coals from the pit. Place the “clay” fish on the hot lining stones and cover with earth and the rest of the hot stones you have set aside. Rebuild the fire over all and cook 1 to 3 hours, depending on the size of the fish. A 2 1/2- to 3-pound fish will take about 2 hours. When it is done, uncover and crack open the clay mold. Skin and scales, head and tail will come off with the mold, revealing a delicious result. Needless to say, serve at once with corn roasted in the husks.


Once, when I was 14, I ate potatoes roasted over a fire at a beach west of Olympia, Washington. Lifting off the charred outer portion revealed a cream-colored spud with the most heavenly texture and flavor. I can’t remember what else we had for dinner but, 40 years later, I do remember those potatoes. People have been cooking in pit fires for hundreds of thousands of years. And it’s fun! It is also early February and many people are suffering because of weather extremes: severe cold in North America, a Category 3 storm Down Under. It is also hard on the rest of us because, while we may not be enduring such difficulties, we know others are and this knowledge is sobering. Hard times call for lightened hearts and often the unusual or interesting can take one’s mind off one’s travails.

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Cooking in Clay: au Gratin dishes

Rachael Ray's Au Gratin Bubble and Brown Dish

“There are as many ‘authentic’ versions of gratin dauphinois as there are of bouillabaisse.” — Julia Child

I have four au gratin dishes, two different sets and I find them useful because of their size. Shallow and elongated, they allow food to cook and brown evenly. Usually, cheese or bread crumbs and butter are part of traditional recipes and the dish is placed under a broiler in the final stages of cooking. While they all have the same oval shape, au gratin dishes come in different sizes and are made of different clays, some heavier, some lighter. The set of Rachael Ray dishes at the top left have a light, modern look and I can imagine how pretty they’d look with fresh sliced tomatoes peeking through the browned bread crumbs on top. Gratin cookware can be fancy, delicate, or designed for heavy use. It also tends toward cheerful colors and the most gloomy day can be pepped up by using them. Besides, what’s more homey and inviting than the crackle and pop, the mouth-watering aroma, and the rustic appeal of a dish cooked au gratin? The stoneware dishes at the right, 

Barking Spider Pottery's Rust Au Gratin Dishes

made by Barking Spider Pottery in North Carolina, are quite lovely and look like they would hold heat well and be a long-lasting addition to your kitchen. I wouldn’t mind having a set of these myself! Interestingly, heavy restaurant-ware versions of gratin cookware are sold as Welsh Rarebit china. (I’m not sure why there is such a distinction because that classic dish is usually cooked and served on a plate.) Many companies carry mass-produced gratin dishes, including Pfaltzgraff and le Creuset. As far as recipes, here are 19 from Emeril’s site, which are bound to please!

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Cooking in Clay: Tajines

Saffron, apricots, cilantro, almonds, cinnamon, ginger, chicken, cumin, olives, garlic, chick peas, limes, and couscous, toasted… a sampling of ingredients traditionally used in dishes cooked in tajines.  These vessels have been in use for centuries in Morocco and a tajine looks like a casserole dish with a hat. A clever and practical design, the knob on the top of the lid stays cool(er), the dish heats evenly, and the vessel can be used in an oven or stove top. Ingredients are steamed slowly, at a fairly low temperature and the results are stewy concoctions with succulent flavors and heavenly scents. All condensation flows to the  base of the pot as ingredients cook and flavors meld. They may have slightly different shapes and come in different sizes and colors, but all tajines have certain things in common. Thick clay walls. Tall lid, usually conical. Wide, low base with curved sides.

We watched Casablanca last night and it put me in the mood to write this article. Marrakesh, Casablanca, spices, tajines, Morocco…so exotic! In addition, I think my clay work is starting to take a turn. In high school, I didn’t appreciate utilitarian pieces… in college, I made quite a few serviceable pieces, then concentrated on hand-building. To be frank, I was also a bit of a snob, as in “what, me make something useful?” I’m coming down to earth; however, am becoming more grounded, and the idea of making things that are useful is becoming more attractive. Since I love to cook, it makes sense that I would try to combine the two. So, take a look at these tajines from Morocco and when I’ve made one or two I’ll post pics of them and see what you think. I’ll let you know how they worked out and post my recipes. Cheers! (Thank you to Wikimedia Commons for these photos.)

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