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Cooking in Clay

by Betty Fussell

In wintertime, I think of clay. Four centuries ago, when English settlers began to set up housekeeping in New England, they were dismayed to learn that they had left the Iron Age for the Stone Age. The British had known iron since 400 BC, but in America they found native aborigines still baking food in wet clay in the ashes of their campfires or in stone-lined pits where the earth itself serves as an oven. Francis Higginson of Salem, Massachusetts, warned fellow settlers in 1630 to bring with them a year's provision and the pots to cook them in. His "Catalogue of Such Needful Things" includeded  "1 iron pot, 1 Kettle, 1 Frying Pan, 1 Gridiron, 2 Skellets, 1 spit.."

    

Yet even in England, West country folk continued to use until last century the small beehive clay ovens of their ancestors. and they exported many of these to America. A 19th-century historian in New Hampshires describes how early settlers there built "Dutch" ovens, as they were called, "of stone and clay, out doors, on the top of a great stump cut evenly for the purpose, and in it the housewife bakes bread, cakes, pies, beef, geese, turkeys, chicken-pies so appetizing, and pork and beans."

    

While the earthenware bean pot continued to get good use, the all-purpose clay oven was replaced by the iron dutch oven, by the cast-iron stove and finally by gas, electric and microwave ovens. Good potteries like Bennington in Vermont developed glazed clay cookers early on, but unglazed cookers were so little known in this country that even today they retain their German name, Schlemmertopf.  Because it is unglazed, this low-fired pot is first soaked in cold water and then placed in a cold oven.  You then turn the  heat high to simulate earlier methods of cooking in wet clay, methods that steam as well as bake the food within the pot. 

    

Clay cooking is unbeatable for long, slow cooking that mingles flavors while sealing in the juices of fowl, meat or fish. Clay cookers developed wherever winters were long and cold and the heat source steady. From the northern Chinese, I've adapted a delicious braised duck flavored with leeks and orange, a combination I picked up from Karen Lee in her Chinese Cooking Secrrts (1983), and her mentor Grace Chu.

    

There are many forms of handsome clay cookers today. The one I use was hand-crafted in Richmond Maine by Montgomery Smith of Swan Island Designs and it's shaped like a swan. Because it's high-fired, you can use it as you would any glazed earthenware, without having to soak it and start in it in a cold overn.

    

But I wanted to get back to the primal stuff, so I decided to bake a fish in raw terra-cotta clay from scratch. I went to my local art store and bought a 25-pound hunk (minimal order), out of which I fashioned a container for the fish and sculpted the top with scales, fins, a bulging eye and open lips. Timing the baking was pretty much guesswork, so when I presented my baked fish sculpture to my guests and broke it open with a hammer, I was as apprehensive as my onlookers. To everyone's relief,  especially mine, the fish inside was herb-scented, moist, tender. But I had a lot of leftover clay, so I asked my younger neighbors in for a mud pie session. We baked lots of fanciful shapes and ate a lot of cookies, but it was one way to keep warm on a cold winter's day.

 

 

BRAISED DUCK WITH LEEKS AND ORANGE

One 4-pound duck (with giblets if possible)

8 thick slices fresh ginger root

 

Stuffing:

duck giblets

1/2 cup cooked rice

1/4 cup minced parsley

1 clove garlic, minced

salt, black and red pepper to taste

 

2 leeks

rind and juice of 1 orange

1/3 cup duck or chicken stock

3 tablespooons soy sauce

1/3 cup dry sherry

1/2 teaspoon Chinese 5-spice powder

1 tablespoon honey

 

Remove excess fat from the duck (inside the cavity and under the skin between breast and thigh). Slip the ginger slices under the breast skin. Prick skin all over with a fork and roast on a rack in a pan at 400 degrees for 40 minutes to cook out the fat.

    

Cook gizzard and heart in a little broth and mince them. Cut up the raw duck liver, add to other giblets and mix with the rice, parsley, garlic and seaonings. Spoon stuffing into the duck cavity.

    

Cut off the roots from the leeks, wash leaves thoroughly and cut the leeks in slivers 3"x1/4". Place leeks in a layer in the claly cooker and place the duck, breast up, on top. Mix orange juice, stock,, soy, sherry and spice powder and pour over the duck. Dribble honey over the breast and sprinkle with grated rind. Cover with the lid and bake at 350 degrees for 1 to 1 1/2 hours or until meat is chopstick tender. Remove duck and carve.

 

Serves 2 to 4

 

 

CLAY-BAKED FISH

 

One 2 to 4 pound firm-fleshed whole fish like bass, pompano, bluefish, trout

 

fresh herbs like tarragon, thyme, mint

salt and pepper to taste

 

8 to 10 pounds terra-cotta clay

4 ot 6 tablespoons butter, softend

1 tablespoon tarragon vinegar

2 to 3 tablespoons fresh tarragon, chopped

 

Gut fish (or have your fishmonger do so), leaving head or tail on. Stuff cavity with herbs, season fish on both sides, and wrapt it entirely in heavy foil.  Cover foil on both sides with dabs of clay, smoothed together to make a layer 1/2-inch thick. Sculpt a fish tail, a head with clay eye and mouth, and fish scales (stick on thin petals of clay, overlapping them from the toward the head.) Bake fish at 400 degrees about 40 minutes for a 2-pound fish (50 minutes for 3 pounds, 60 minutes for 4). Present fish sculpture to your gusts, then break clay open with a hammer and remove the fish within. Carve it into fillets, top and bottom. Cover with a sauce of softened butter whipped with vinegar and tarragon leaves.

 

Serves 2 to 4

 

 

Betty Fussell is a food historian, home cook, author, English professor and freelance writer. Her book, The Story of Corn, was reprinted by University of New Mexico Press. Betty Fussells' latest work is My Kitchen Wars, which was transformed into a one-woman show performed in New York City and Hollywood. Fussell is currently writing a history of American beefsteak.



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