Food: Stock pot

Cooking in clay adds a flavour all of its own
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I find unglazed clay cooking vessels touch an atavistic nerve - a Neolithic one I suppose. I am always lured by the three small words "cooked in clay" that promise something more than just the food itself. Quite what is harder to pinpoint. It's an elusive, earthy scent, born of the seasoning trapped in the porous surface.

I have long had my eye on a French diable, the small casserole that comes in two parts, top and bottom identical like a deep frying pan, that's turned halfway through the cooking. This is normally used for baking potatoes and chestnuts, Without any further liquid or butter, they emerge especially flavourful and tender, though the principle can be extended to roasting beetroots, onions and carrots, which I am sure would turn into memorable salads.

In the end, though, my recent trip to buy a diable resulted in the acquisition of a moule a poulet en terre cuite in which to cook a chicken or joint of meat in its own juices. Its use, though, I have discovered, goes well beyond this and in a very short space of time it has asserted its grip as my favourite casserole.

The roasting of chickens is an obvious use - at their simplest, seasoned and cooked without further fat, fuss or basting. Less obvious is the braising of vegetables. And, going by the results I've had, I would say such a casserole is worth its weight in gold for vegetarians. It isn't always easy to produce a mixture of braised vegetables that tastes really good, given their unpredictable quality in this country, and yet I found myself transported to the sun-drenched pots-au-feu I ate in Provence last summer.

It is quite a cumbersome piece of apparatus my moule, and it dominates the entire oven. Since it only ever seems to feed four, it is very much the stuff of family suppers. But I have grown accustomed now to the laws of cooking with unglazed clay that fazed me in the beginning.

The first law is that it must not be scrubbed out with detergent. As a result, its sides quickly become sticky and spattered with black, and its porous surface tainted as the seasoning builds up, which is part and parcel of it. I'm not sure of the wisdom of switching from chicken to fish: at the moment, my moule is dividing its time between braising guinea fowl and little assemblies of vegetables.

The second law is that it must be soaked in cold water before it is heated. After that, it should be placed in a cold oven and brought up to temperature before the ingredients are placed in it.

And the third law is that any liquid going into the pot must be hot, otherwise it will crack, just as it will if you place it on a very cold surface: I find resting it on the grid of my hob is the answer.

It may sound daunting to have to remember all these rules, but doing it once is enough to establish its pattern of use, and it's a very pleasurable way of cooking in the age of stainless steel.

Daube of morels and potatoes, serves 4 as a main course

I've tried this with other dried wild mushrooms but it's not quite the same: morels possess a deep earthiness that infuses the potatoes as they cook, I also like the way they plump up into whole mushrooms. Recently, I have been buying them by mail order from Thomas and Thomas (0171-729 6006), pounds 11 for 40g.

620g/1lb 6oz onions

1 fennel bulb

1 tsp caster sugar

1 tsp salt

50g/2oz unsalted butter

40g/134oz dried morels

1kg/2lb 4oz small, waxy new potatoes

75ml/3fl oz white wine

1 x 200ml pot creme fraiche

34 tsp plain flour

sea salt, black pepper

Peel and halve the onions lengthwise, and finely slice into crescents. Trim the green shoots from the fennel bulb, halve it lengthwise and finely slice. Place the onion and fennel in a heavy-bottomed saucepan with a tightly fitting lid, with the sugar, salt and 15g/12oz of butter. Cover and cook for 20-30 minutes over a low heat until soft - they shouldn't colour, so check occasionally.

Rinse the mushrooms, place in a bowl and cover with 450ml/17fl oz boiling water so they have enough room to plump up. Soak for 20 minutes, then remove them, reserving the liquor.

Soak an unglazed clay casserole in water for 10 minutes, dry it and place in a cold oven. Turn the oven on to 220C(fan oven)/230C (electric oven)/450F/Gas 8 and leave it to heat up. Peel the potatoes. Pour the mushroom liquor into a small saucepan, discarding the last little gritty bit, add the wine and the remaining butter and bring to the boil.

Remove the hot casserole to the top of the hob, but not onto a cold flat surface or it will crack. Arrange the onions and the soaked mushrooms in the base, pour over the hot liquid, then add the potatoes and season. Cover and cook in the oven for 50 minutes.

Blend a little of the braising liquor with the flour, stir this into the casserole and add the creme fraiche. Adjust seasoning, cover and return to the oven for another 10 minutes. Serve straightaway.

Pot-roast guinea fowl and chicory, serves 3-4

Serve this with a pile of mashed potato for absorbing all the juices.

juice of 1 lemon

2 tbsp caster sugar

900g/2lb Belgian chicory sea salt, black pepper

12 tbsp olive oil

1 guinea fowl

15g/12oz unsalted butter

150ml/5fl oz white wine

Bring a large pan of water to the boil, salt it, add the lemon juice and one tablespoon of sugar. Remove the outer leaves of chicory or any that are brown, and trim the base. Boil them for 30 minutes, then drain, lay out on a plate and sprinkle over one tablespoon of sugar and seasoning.

Soak an unglazed clay casserole in water for 10 minutes. Dry it and place in a cold oven. Turn the oven to 220C(fan oven)/230C (electric oven) 450F/ Gas 8 and leave to heat up.

Heat the olive oil in a frying pan, season the guinea fowl and colour it on all sides and then remove it. Add the butter to the pan, squeeze out the water from the chicory and cook in the frying pan until golden on both sides: remove it. Bring the wine to the boil in a small saucepan.

Place the hot casserole on top of the hob but not on a cold surface: lay the chicory on the base, place the guinea fowl on top and pour over the wine. Cover and cook in the oven for 55 minutes. Leave to rest for 10 minutes, you may need to skim the juices before serving