It was right there in a secluded kitchen cupboard, behind the fondue pot and electric pasta maker, other relics of 1970s-era cooking fads.
What I’d unearthed was a Romertopf, which translates to “Roman pot” in Germany. It was introduced there in 1967 and went into worldwide distribution in the mid-’70s. Mine may have been a wedding present from those days; once well-utilized, judging by the stains on its surface, it had long since slipped from memory.
Based on cooking utensils used by the ancient Etruscans and Romans, the unglazed, porous red clay vessel essentially acts as an oven within an oven. It’s first soaked in water, then placed in a cold oven to slowly heat; too rapid a temperature change could crack the clay. (That also rules out stovetop use.)
As it warms, it releases steam that keeps food moist – meaning you can cook with little or no added fat – then turns into a roaster as it dries.
Cooking in clay has a long history in a variety of cultures, from Moroccan tagines to Spanish cazuelas to Chinese sandpots. Award-winning cookbook author Pauline Wolfert helped reinvigorate the tradition in 2009 with her “Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking” (Wiley, $34.95).
But the Romertopf remains an afterthought compared to the likes of its sexier Latin cousin, La Chamba. Made of Colombian black clay, it not only flaunts an attractive sheen, but can go on the stove as well as in the oven.
Romertopfs are rare at local cookware stores – Spokane’s Kitchen Engine carried them for a while last year, but sales were slow. World Market stocks a private-brand terra cotta chicken roaster that’s basically the same thing. (Online Romertopf prices range from $30 to $60, depending on size.)
And they’re about to become extinct, at least in our part of the world. Reco, which has exclusive rights to manufacture and distribute Romertopfs in the United States and Canada, announced last week that it’s closing at year’s end because of slumping sales.
That’s a shame. What the Romertopf does, it does very well, as I learned while using it almost exclusively for meal preparation over the last couple of weeks.
It’s more versatile than its consignment to the oven might suggest. Soups simmered in it – I tried tomato and squash/apple – take on warm, earthy flavors. Jambalaya turned out quite respectably, with rather fluffy rice and nicely plump, juicy shrimp (added toward the end).
But where the Romertopf really excels, as Wolfert affirms, is with meats and bread.
A Romertopf-roasted chicken, moist and tender, leaves the typical supermarket rotisserie version in the dust. Duck proved a similar success; baked together with the legs, the breast looked overcooked – not a trace of pink to be seen – but was surprisingly succulent.
The steamy environment is particularly forgiving of leaner cuts. A meatloaf made with 90/10 ground beef, which the butcher cautioned would replicate cardboard, practically melted in the mouth. A stew starring boneless pork loin roast – another potential invitation to dry disaster – was equally impressive.
With fall weather practically begging for baked goods, I was especially intrigued by reports about the Romertopf’s success with bread. While that wasn’t one of its initial selling points, its shape, as Wolfert notes – flat bottom, curved walls and domed top – resembles a Mediterranean hearth oven.
It took a bit of experimentation to fine-tune the technique, using my favorite multigrain oat-rye recipe.
Relying on the first directions I discovered online, after letting the dough do its second rise in the soaked, towel-covered Romertopf base (on parchment paper to prevent sticking), I popped on the top and put it in an oven set to 500 degrees. When uncovered after the requisite 40 minutes to let the top crust brown, I found that already had happened – and the bottom was charred.
Through some trial and error, I settled on a setting of 450 degrees, for 40 minutes covered and another 10 or so uncovered. That produced a well-browned crust and tender, even crumb.
The true revelation, though, was using the Romertopf in combination with the no-knead bread recipe popularized by Mark Bittman in the New York Times circa 2006.
Following Wolfert’s suggestion, I baked the bread in an unsoaked Romertopf. The crust was suitably crisp, and the well-pocketed interior was like the most moist, flavorful sponge imaginable. It was all I could to do keep from devouring the entire loaf on the spot.
Desserts were more of a mixed bag. A rhubarb crisp came out less than satisfactory; though the fruit itself was fine, the juices ran to the bottom and the granola topping was crusty and dry. But a denser bread-apple pudding, doused with apple juice before baking, was a hit.
Now that we’ve gotten properly reacquainted, it’s time for the Romertopf to go back in the cupboard – but a more accessible one, and in front. I’ll be pulling it out when it’s time to make some stew, or roast a chicken, or bake some bread.
I’m even thinking about using it for our Thanksgiving turkey breast. Unless I decide to go with turkey fondue, that is.
Butternut Squash Soup
From “The Best of Clay Pot Cooking” by Dana Jacobi (Collins Publishers San Francisco, 1995). This makes a fine, delicately flavored soup even without the chestnuts and orange juice, though they would add a festive touch for the holidays. It also could be simmered on the stovetop using conventional cookware.
1 small butternut squash, peeled, halved, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large apple, peeled, cored and diced
4 cups chicken broth
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 pound chestnuts (optional)
1/3 cup orange juice (optional)
In a soaked 3-quart clay pot, combine the squash, onion, apple and 1 cup of the broth. Cover the pot and place in a cold oven. Set the temperature to 450 degrees and cook for 30 minutes, or until the mixture is soft.
Add the remaining 3 cups of broth, thyme, bay leaf and the salt and pepper. Cover and cook for another 30 minutes. Meanwhile, with a small, sharp knife, cut an X in the rounded side of each chestnut (if using), being sure to pierce the papery inner covering. Cook in a large pot of boiling water for about 20 minutes, until soft. Cool the chestnuts just enough to be able to handle them. Peel and break each one into 3 or 4 pieces.
Remove the pot from the oven and discard the thyme sprigs and bay leaf. Allow the soup to cool slightly, then puree in a blender in small batches (using a food processor won’t give as smooth a result). Stir in the orange juice and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Serve garnished with the chestnuts.
Yield: 6 servings
Clay Pot Honey-Lemon Chicken
Taken from a 2004 episode of Emeril Lagasse’s “The Essence of Emeril,” courtesy of www.foodnetwork.com. The chicken browns nicely thanks to the honey glaze, and the resulting sauce isn’t overly sweet, though it is fatty from the chicken juices; a gravy separator would come in handy.
1 (3 1/2-pound) fryer chicken
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (reserve lemon shell)
1 3/4 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon melted butter, plus 4 tablespoons, softened at room temperature
2/3 cup honey
1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Prepare a clay roaster by soaking in cold water for 15 minutes.
Wash the chicken well inside and out under cool running water. Pat dry with paper towels. Rub chicken all over with 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice and season evenly on all sides with the salt and pepper. Place the reserved lemon shell inside the chicken cavity.
Place the chicken inside the prepared clay roaster and brush with the melted butter. Cover the roaster and transfer to a cold oven. Set the oven temperature to 400 degrees and cook for 45 minutes.
Combine the remaining 1/4 cup lemon juice, honey and soy sauce in a small saucepan and cook over medium heat until heated through. In a small bowl, make a paste from the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter and the flour. Whisk the butter-flour mixture into the melted honey-lemon-butter mixture. Continue to cook until the sauce has thickened slightly.
Remove the clay cooker from the oven and pour the honey-butter mixture all over the chicken, making sure to evenly cover the breast and any exposed areas. Cover the roaster and return the chicken to the oven for 45 minutes, or until it is cooked through and very tender. Transfer the chicken to a platter or carving board, cut into pieces and serve immediately.
Transfer the sauce to a gravy boat for serving, or spoon some of the sauce over each piece of chicken. Serve over orzo or rice, if desired.
Yield: 4 servings
Leftover tip: Make Asian-style rice bowls by stir-frying bits of chicken with vegetables of your choice, and topping with the honey sauce simmered with some grated fresh ginger.
From www.food.com, this combines concepts from a couple of other meatloaf recipes in Romertopf brochures, though it also can be baked in a covered casserole. The potatoes pick up a rich flavor from the meat juices. Being a mustard addict, I added a little spicy brown mustard for some extra zip.
1 1/2-1 3/4 cups soft breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1/2 cup milk
1 large egg, slightly beaten
4 tablespoons ketchup
Mustard to taste (if desired)
1/2- 3/4 cup onion, finely chopped
1 1/3 pounds lean ground beef
3-4 potatoes, thinly sliced
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons vinegar
Place bread crumbs in a large bowl and add salt and pepper. Add milk and toss with a fork until evenly moistened. Beat egg and add along with ketchup, mustard (if using) and onion; mix with fork until distributed evenly. Crumble ground beef over the mixture and combine thoroughly, using the fork.
Put potatoes in a soaked clay pot that has been lightly sprayed with vegetable oil (or oiled casserole) and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Handling lightly, shape the meat mixture into a loaf and place on top of the potatoes, forming a slight indentation to hold the sauce. Combine the brown sugar, 1/4 cup ketchup and vinegar and pour over the loaf.
Cover the pot, place in a cold oven and bake at 450 degrees for 1 hour and 15 minutes (if using a casserole, place in an oven preheated to 350 degrees). Allow the meatloaf to rest 5-10 minutes before removing to platter to slice.
Yield: 6 servings
Leftover tip: Meatloaf sandwiches made with Romertopf-baked bread, of course.
By Joanne Will, from “The Great Cooks’ Guide to Clay Cookery” (Random House, 1977). This is a lighter take on traditional bread pudding recipes that call for eggs; it also could be baked in a covered casserole in a preheated oven at 350 degrees.
1/2 loaf French (or other) bread, cut into 3/4-inch slices
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) plus 1 tablespoon butter, softened
3 tart, juicy apples, peeled, cut into quarters, cored and sliced crosswise into chunks
Grated rind and juice of 1 lemon (about 3 tablespoons)
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/3 cup apple juice or cider
Soak a 2-quart clay cooker in water for 15 minutes
Spread both sides of the bread with 4 tablespoons of the butter and cut into cubes (you should have about 1 quart). Grease the bottom of the clay pot with the remaining 1 tablespoon butter and add half the bread cubes.
Mix the apples with the lemon rind and juice, brown sugar, cinnamon and raisins. Spoon the mixture over the bread in the clay cooker. Top with the remaining bread cubes and drizzle with the apple juice.
Cover the pot and place in a cold oven. Set the temperature to 425 degrees and bake 45 to 50 minutes. Serve warm with half-and-half, whipped cream, ice cream or lemon-flavored yogurt.
Yield: 6 servings