Just Published: Paula Wolfert's Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking + A Recipe For Pumpkin Soup
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.
PaulaWolfert.com Clay Pot Cooking
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.