Clay pot cookery has been practised the world over ever since humans began cooking over open fires and sharing communal meals together. That seminal idea of shared one pot meals is still widely practised over much of the globe, even in our own modern 21st century home kitchens. In Asia particularly, clay pot cookery is still widely used at home as well as in restaurants. Japanese clay pot Shabu shabu and Sukiyaki restaurants are popular the world over, as are Cantonese clay pot chicken restaurants, and Korean Tubaegi Bulgogi shops.
Clay pot cookery in Asia has endured as a traditional way to prepare simple yet warming full bodied one pot meals during the fall and winter months. The donabe is one of Japan’s earliest traditional clay pot cooking vessels that is still used in most Japanese kitchens to this day. Likewise there are traditional clay pots used throughout South and Southeast Asia, China, Taiwan, and Korea. The flexibility of clay pot cookery is its appeal. The clay pot can be used directly over an open flame, on the stove top, in the oven, or set atop a portable gas burner placed on the dinning table which is a great way to involve everyone in cooking at the table during the meal, Asian style.
I acquired my first Japanese donabe nearly 40 years ago and I am still using it today as pictured. If you do not have a clay pot I urge you to go out and find one. Unlike the endless array of quirky unnecessary kitchen gadgets or the latest trending cooking equipment or appliances that you may use a couple of times and then shove to the back of a kitchen cabinet, a clay pot is a kitchen treasure you will use regularly. Clay pots are available in shops in Asian communities and online.
A few tips when purchasing a clay pot. As mentioned I prefer the Japanese donabe above all others. Donabes are heavy, durable, and they retain heat well. They are lightly glazed both inside and out. Some cooks prefer a more rustic unglazed clay pots, claiming they add flavor to what you are cooking. That claim is debatable. Unglazed pots are also porous and requires pre-soaking in water before each use to avoid cracking. Staining and durability is also continuing issue with unglazed clay pots.
If you are unable to find a retailer where you live you might check out this selection of Japanese donabes (click here) They are as beautiful as they are utilitarian.
When cooking with all clay pots, always begin cooking over a low flame at first with a little liquid, or oil if frying, in the bottom of the pot. Once heated you can then raise the heat gradually to the required temperature for cooking and simmering. To avoid cracking, always cool the pot after cooking and before submerging it in water for cleaning. Best to clean with warm water only, or at least avoid using soap in the interior of the pot.
The recipe that follows is one of my easy interpretations of a simple Chinese clay pot meal that includes cabbage, carrots, daikon radish, and lop cheong (Chinese hard sausage.) This is a basic combination of Asian vegetables infused with a beguiling slightly sweet smoky flavor of the sausage. Rice or noodles are often included in clay pot cooked meals as well. Throw caution to the wind and don’t worry too much about authenticity. There are endless possibilities at the discretion of the creative cook in all of us!
Asian Clay Pot Vegetables with Lop Cheong serves 4
- 4 lop chcheong (dry Chinese sausage), casing removed,thinly sliced on the diagonal
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 1 large onion, peeled, quartered, and thinly sliced
- 1 large head Chinese or green cabbage, outer leaves removed, quartered, core removed, and very thinly sliced
- 1 large daikon radish, peeled, quartered, and cut into bite size pieces
- 2 carrots, peeled, thinly sliced and cut into thin batons
- 2 inch knob fresh ginger, peeled, thinly sliced, and finely diced
- hot stock to just cover ingredients
- 1 teaspoon honey
- 3 tablespoons light soy sauce + more to taste
- 1 to 2 teaspoons Szechuan pepper corns, lightly toasted and ground
- ¼ teaspoon five spice powder
- 1 teaspoon pure red chile powder or more to taste
As the lop cheong sausage is quite fatty I like to simmer the sliced sausage in a skillet with water for about 15 minutes to release some of the fat which you can spoon off the surface of the water and discard. Reserve the cooking liquid to add to the simmering pot later.
Preheat the oven to 350F/180c (if using the oven)
Place the clay pot on the stove top over low heat. Add the oil and after five minutes raise the heat to medium low and add the onions. Cook the onions until softened. Then add the cabbage and cook while tossing until the cabbage is wilted. Then add the daikon , carrots, and ginger. Cook while tossing the ingredients until slightly wilted. Then fold in the precooked sliced sausage until well combined.
Add the honey, 3 tablespoons light soy sauce, ground Szechuan pepper, five spice powder, and red chile powder. Toss until all the ingredients are well combined.
Add enough hot stock, including the reserved broth from the precooked sausage, to the pot to just reach the top of the ingredients. Cover the pot with the lid and simmer on the stove top, or transfer the pot to the oven, and cook for 30 minutes.
Check the level of the stock iwhich should be just visible when a spoon is inserted into the vegetables. Add a little stock if it is looking dry. Cover and continue to cook on the stove top, or return the pot to the oven, and cook for another 30 minutes
Remove the lid and check the contents. The liquid should be reduced by about two thirds and the vegetables around the edges of the pot may just be beginning to color. If there is still excess liquid cook another 15 to 20 minutes. Taste and season with additional light soy sauce and red chile to taste and cover and set aside until you are ready to serve.
Transfer the clay pot to the table and serve with steamed rice.
Another lop Cheong recipe you might like to try (click here for recipe)
Ajvar is a traditional roasted sweet red bell pepper relish from the Balkan Peninsula with many regional variations. In the south eastern Balkans roasted eggplant is also included in the ajvar. Adding dried ground red chile is customary throughout the region although more as a flavor note than adding a discernible heat. Ajvar is slathered on local flat breads or served with grilled meats, sausages, fish, or just about any other application that strikes your fancy. It is a real favorite of mine and easy to prepare. Well… that is when flame roasting peppers and eggplants has become second nature. The roasting process is really not that difficult and a ritual I quite enjoy while taking in the intoxicating aroma of roasting peppers. That little extra effort turns out beautifully sweet and smoky flavored peppers and eggplants for a multitude of applications. Ajvar is very similar to an Eastern Mediterranean roasted red pepper Muhammara with walnuts and pomegranate which you also might like to try. (See recipe here) It’s always a big hit when served with drinks.
Imported traditional Balkan Ajvar is available at some specialty food shops and online, but why not make your own with locally grown organic peppers. It really does make a difference and you are free to veer from tradition using various other vinegars and chilies. Try using a Jerez sherry vinegar and a smoked paprika paired with grilled Spanish sausages. It’s a flavor bite you will not forget!
Ajvar makes about 3 cups
Ideally, make the Ajvar a day before you plan to use it. This allows the flavors to develop.
- 3 large vine ripe red bell peppers, roasted
- 2 to 3 small long eggplants, roasted
- 3 garlic cloves, finely grated (1 tablespoon)
- 1 ½ teaspoons flaked sea salt + more to taste
- 1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons cider vinegar
- freshly ground black pepper
- 3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 to 2 teaspoons pure ground red chile powder
Blacken the red bell peppers and eggplant on an outdoor grill or over a gas flame on the stove top. For full instructions on flame roasting (click here) .
Once the peppers and eggplants are evenly charred and quite limp transfer them to a bowl and seal the top of the bowl with cling film and set aside.
Once the peppers and eggplants are cool enough to handle remove the charred skin and discard it.
Note: Do not be tempted to peel off the charred skin under running water. It may seem like a good idea, but you will be rinsing away all the flavor you developed during the charring. Better to rinse your hands instead.
It is fine if there are some bits of charred skin left behind here and there. It will add a nice smoked flavor to the ajvar.
Open up the peppers and eggplants and remove the seeds and membranes and discard. This will reduce the volume of the eggplant considerably but you should still end up with about a cup of flesh.
Tear the peppers apart into bits and place them in the food processor or use a mortar and pestle if you want a truly authentic ajvar. Add the eggplant, garlic, and salt and pulse or grind until the mixture is broken down. Add the vinegar, ground pepper, and a couple tablespoons of olive oil and pulse or continue grinding until the mixture is to the texture you prefer, either coarse or quite smooth. Then stir is the ground red chile powder and pulse or mix until combined.
Taste and make any adjustments needed. Transfer the ajvar to a glass jar and add a little olive oil to just cover the surface. Seal the jar with the lid and refrigerate.
Serve chilled or at room temperature.
With autumn’s arrival thoughts of what to cook naturally veer towards warming heartier fare with richer earthier flavors that lift the spirit and warm the cockles as temperatures wane. Soup, soup, and more soups is what fall cooking is all about. Fortunately locally grown late summer and fall vegetables are available until the first deep frost. So, as the old saying goes, best to make hay while the sun shines. Cook up plenty of beautiful healthy and hearty fall soups to serve as main courses throughout fall and make more to freeze that will surely brightening up meals when the winter months drag on.
Over centuries frugal rural Italian cooks relied entirely on locally grown produce as the main staple in their diets. Cooking methods for making deeply flavored foods out of readily available local ingredients evolved into what contemporary Italians now call cucina povre. Rustic vegetable based soups like minestrone and ribollita, as well as vegetable stews have became Italian classics.
In fact Minestrone dates back to the Romans although the popularized canned variety we are all familiar with worldwide has little semblance to what you will find coming out of rural Italian kitchens even today. Minestrone is a vegetable soup that includes a variety of seasonal vegetables and usually includes pasta or rice and sometimes meats.
Much less well known is Ribollita, a thick, rustic, infinity healthy, and abundantly flavorsome Tuscan vegetable soup that is much more to my liking. Ribolitta begins with a sofritto (battuto) of finely diced onions, celery, carrots, garlic, and chopped parsley that is slowly braised in olive oil until the vegetables are very soft and deeply flavorful. Tomatoes and cooked beans are then added, along with liquid to cover, and cooked for another half hour or so. Then, traditionally, cavolo nero (black kale) is added along with herbs and seasonings and simmered. Finally torn day old bread is added to the soup and cooked until softened. Serving ribollita Tuscan style with a flourish of fruity extra virgin olive oil is pure perfection.
Cavolo nero may be hard to find, but not to worry. A deep green kale or a combination of kale and spinach will do just fine.
Ribollita serves 6 to 8
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cups finely diced onions
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
- 1 ¾ cups finely diced celery
- 1 ½ cups finely diced carrots
- 1 cup loosely packed chopped Italian parsley leaves
- 8 canned whole imported Italian tomatoes , juice drained and reserved for another use
- 1 can/240g imported Italian cannelini or borlotti beans with their liquid
- 2 bay leaves
- ½ teaspoon dried marjoram leaves
- ½ teaspoon dried thyme
- 4 big bunches cavolo nero or kale, center ribs and stems removed, leaves chopped
- spinach leaves, chopped (optional)
- 1 1/2 cup diced zucchini (optional)
- 4 thick slices day old country bread, torn into bits
- sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon of pure ground red chile powder (optional)
- extra virgin olive oil to finish
Equipment: A Dutch oven with a lid or a deep wide pan with lid.
Prepare all your vegetables before you begin cooking.
Place the pan on the stove top over medium low flame. Add the olive oil to the pan and when hot add the onions and stir to coat them with the oil. Cook for several minutes until the onions are translucent. Then stir in the garlic, celery, carrots, and parsley. Stir to evenly coat the ingredients with oil and reduce the heat to low. Partially cover the pan with the lid and braise for 25 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to very low if the ingredients are browning to much. They can be lightly colored but you want to avoid any scorched flavor.
Once the vegetables are softened add the drained tomatoes to the pan, breaking them up with a wooden spoon while stirring them into the vegetable mixture. Then stir in the beans and their liquid. Add enough water to the pan to just cover all the ingredients. Stir in the bay leaves, marjoram, and thyme. Partially cover the pan and cook for 30 minutes, Stirring every 10 minutes.
Remove the lid from the pan and add the chopped cavolo nero leaves, kale leaves, or a combination of kale and spinach leaves, as well as the zucchini if using. Fold into the mixture evenly and then tuck the torn bread down into the broth. Season with salt, pepper, and red chile (it using) to taste. Add enough water to just cover the mixture. Partially cover the pan and cook for another 20 to 25 minutes or until the leaves are very tender.
Taste and adjust salt and pepper to taste. The soup should be very thick with just enough liquid to engulf the vegetables without drowning them in liquid when serving.
Ribollita may be served at once or ideally cooled and then refrigerated until the next day. This allows the flavors of the soup to fully develop.
Reheat the ribollita slowly along with a little added water if needed. Ladle the soup into individual serving bowls and drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil around the edges of the ribollita and serve!
Making a case for slow cooking vegetables in the age of the de rigueur blanched and cooled crisp vegetables is not going to be an easy sell. That said, some of you may recall a quick and easy “modern” mid last century canned green bean mushroom casserole that home cooks whipped up in America using canned mushroom soup and topped with fried onion rings. Those beans were cooked to death but everyone, including kids, really loved those green beans.
O course, slow cooking fibrous vegetables in Italy has been practiced for centuries and is my favorite method for turning tough fennel bulbs into tender flavorsome silky morsels of unctuousness.
I recently read an article in the New York Times entitled When to Cook your Vegetables Long Past “Done” by Samin Norsrat (click here) which really peaked my interest. Needless to say, slow cooking a whole Dutch oven full of fibrous vegetables together is a perfect way to transform late summer’s produce into a main attraction for a meal with very little fuss. Doused with some olive oil, flavored with a few garlic cloves, and generously seasoned with sea salt transforms these vegetables as they slowly cook over a very low flame for several hours with little attention required. Contrary to what you may think the deeply flavored results will be a revelation…I promise!
The recipe that follows is meant to be a basic slow cooking guide that will work with almost any fibrous vegetables you choose to use, be it two varieties or a whole selection. When using fennel, which infuses the vegetables with a lovely scent and flavor, no other seasoning is required, but feel free to include herbs to compliment the vegetables you choose to cook with.
Slow Cooked Vegetables (Basics) serves 6
- ½ cup olive oil plus more as needed
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
- ¼ cup minced shallots
- flaked sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- 4 young fennel bulbs
- 5 leeks
- 1 pond green beans
- 1 head broccoli
- 1 head green cabbage
- 2 heads radicchio
- 1 pound collard greens (or kale), leaves only
Equipment: a large Dutch oven or roasting pan with tight fitting lid
Prepare and portion all the vegetables as described.
Trim the fennel leaving several inches of stems in tact. Trim the root and peel away the tough outer layer of the bulb. Quarter each bulb lengthwise.
Remove the tough strings and snap off the stems from the green beans.
Separate the broccoli head into florets. Peel the main stem and slice.
Remove the outer leaves of the cabbage. Quarter the head and cut out the core.
Remove any wilted outer leaves of the radicchio if necessary and quarter the heads lengthwise.
Remove the stems from the collard greens and discard unless the collards are young and tender.
Place the Dutch oven over a very low flame on the stove top. Add the olive oil and garlic cloves and stir until the oil is hot. Add the shallots and stir for several minutes. Then add the fennel, leeks, and green beans. Season generously with salt and toss until the vegetables are well coated with olive oil.
Add the broccoli, cabbage, radicchio, and collard greens, nestling them into the other ingredients. Again season generously with salt and add freshly ground pepper to your liking. Using a large spoon or tongs turn all the ingredients until bathed in olive oil and are snugly fitting into the Dutch oven. Cover with the lid and reduce the flame as low as possible and cook for 1 hour undisturbed. Don’t worry about burning as the vegetables will release liquid as the cook.
After an hour, remove the lid and gently turn the ingredients over and add a little more olive oil to evenly coat the vegetables. Taste and season with salt as needed. Return the lid to the pan and continue to cook for another hour undisturbed over very low flame.
After 2 hours of cooking the vegetables should be transformed. The fennel should be very tender. If not cook another 15 minutes or so.
Serve promptly with pan juices spooned over the vegetables. The only additional seasoning I might suggest would be a splash of best quality balsamic vinegar if served along with red meats.