Pottery by Rosemary O’Hara
Terracotta ‘claypot’ Cooking has a long history across cultures and time. I was inspired originally in the 1980’s by the popular ‘chicken bricks’ being made by NZ potters at the time and by the imported European ‘Rommertopf’ dishes available in dept stores.
I have a few photos of my production process-there is no rushing the making of a press molded lidded cooking dish!
The dishes are quite versatile in the style of cooking the different foods and the speed you want to cook at. Included is one of my favourite recipes : Morrocan Lemon Olive Chicken.
Cooking in terracotta stretches way back to the earliest times of settled human communities. In spite of the development of glazes and metal smelting, almost every culture that has available clay has continued a claypot cooking tradition of one sort or another. That’s because the food cooked in unglazed ceramic holds its moisture, and tastes better. Add to that, clay cookware doesn’t require mining, nor high tech – high energy use to manufacture it, and you don’t have to worry about metals oxidising in your food.
I have been making these baking dishes, aka ‘Chicken Bricks’, or ‘Rommertopf’s on and off since the mid 1980’s. I came across the German ‘Rommertopf’ in Kirkaldies, early on in my potting career, and decided to have try my hand at a more attractive design. After a couple of incarnations I realised they would be best reproduced from a mold. I set about throwing a very large egg for a mold maker to take castings from. The first mold was successful but many people thought it was too small. I threw and even bigger egg and commissioned another mold to be made.
Occasionally I come across someone who has been using one for 30 years or so, and agrees with me that it gets better and better over time. They can be used for cooking anything, it doesn’t have to be chicken and it doesn’t have to be meat.
Making the Chicken Bricks
My terracotta lidded baking dishes are made individually in my 2 press molds. Each base made only fits its own lid; the 2 pieces are carefully fitted together and dried slowly over a week or two. the making process happens over 3 days. The designs are painted on so that you can easily see which way the lid fits. The entire hands-on process takes about 3 hours per dish, from wedging and rolling the slabs of clay to the final sanding and washing after firing.
How to use the dishes
The dishes are versatile in their use. You can use it like a conventional casserole dish and cook your mix of veges/meat in a stock. You can adapt tagine recipes- the terracotta baking dish operates a lot like a tagine in the oven.
You can soak the dish and lid in water for 15 to 30 mins and place your food in with seasonings herbs etc, but no extra liquid. There will be enough moisture retained inside the dish cavity from the steaming from moisture in the walls of the pot, to result in a rich shallow stock inside.
You can finish off cooking with the lid off if you want to reduce liquid and brown the meat more.
You can cook your food very slowly, say 100 degree C for 3 hours, or cooler than that for longer.
You use a hot oven and cook at 180 or 200 C if you’re in a hurry. Any of the ways, the food will be much more moist, more tender and much more tasty than if it had been cooked in a regular oven pan or, heaven forbid, a roasting bag.
Whatever method you use, you will need less liquid than you are used to with conventional cookware. Allow a little longer- add on 20- 25% cooking time because the food is steaming for at least the first part of the cooking. Almost all the steam is retained in the dish, so as juices come out of the food they add to the stock (and the flavour) rather than get evaporated.
Because the walls of the terracotta dish are porous you don’t want to clean it with soap or detergent. It will come clean easily with a soak in hot water. Give it a scrub and dry it thoroughly. Putting it back in the oven for 20 mins or so to dry it completely works well, if you don’t have an airy place warm place in the kitchen to store it. I keep mine on top of our wood burner.
Chicken, Olive and Preserved Lemon tagine.
A favourite chicken dish of mine is adapted from the’ Australian Women’s Weekly Moroccan & North Africa Recipes’ collection:
Quantities here are for 16 pieces, including drumsticks, though you could adapt this for a whole chicken. I find the spice measurements are conservative for this amount of chicken- I usually halve the chilli and double the other spices, especially if they are not so fresh., and you may need to mix a bit more of the flour coating mix. Serve it with rice or baked vegetables.
8 pieces of chicken and 8 drumsticks
1 tin of chickpeas
2Tbsp plain flour
2 tsp hot paprika
2 med red onions sliced thickly
3 cloves of garlic minced
1 tsp cumin seeds ½ tsp turmeric
½ tsp grd coriander
¼ tsp saffron threads
1 tsp dried chilli flakes
1 tsp gr. ginger
Enough chicken or vegetable stock to bring liquid to ½ way up the inside of the base
2 Tbsp preserved lemon finely sliced
½ cup green olives
2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander.
Turn the oven on to 140/160 degree C with the fan on.
Mix the flour and paprika in a re-useable lidded container and shake with the chicken pieces one at a time to coat them. Mix up a bit more if these is not enough to coat the whole lot.
Melt the butter in a pot on the stove top to brown the outside of the chicken pieces. Take them out and cook the onion in the same dish till softened. Add the spices and stir till fragrant.
Place chicken, onions and spices in the dish, then add enough stock to ½ fill the base part dish. Cook in the oven for 30-40 mins.
Add the drained chickpeas and cook for further 30 mins.
Remove tagine from the oven and add lemon, olives and fresh coriander stir through and serve with rice.