Travels With My Cazuela Cooking in a cazuela transports food writer Stephanie Stiavetti to the Spanish countryside. The inexpensive, versatile clay pot transforms a few smoky spices and simple ingredients into rustic Iberian fare.

Travels With My Cazuela

Cazuelas in many sizes and colors are on display at The Spanish Table in Berkeley, Calif. Stephanie Stiavetti for NPR hide caption

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Stephanie Stiavetti for NPR

Cazuelas in many sizes and colors are on display at The Spanish Table in Berkeley, Calif.

Stephanie Stiavetti for NPR

Cazuela Cooking

After introducing any clay cookware to a new home, there are some things you should know about keeping your pot healthy and happy:

• Before using it for the first time, soak your cazuela overnight in water. While you only need to do this once, it's helpful to soak the pot for a few hours if it's not used very often. Soaking the cazuela helps to maintain the moisture in the clay, which prevents it from cracking. If you live in a dry climate, you may want to do this a few times a year.

• Never change the temperature of your cazuela too quickly, or it may crack. Do not pour cold water into a hot cazuela (or vice versa), and avoid moving it directly from refrigerator to stove.

• It takes a few months to break in a cazuela. During this time, do not expose it to above medium heat on the stovetop or oven temperatures more than 400 degrees. Once your dish has been conditioned over five or six uses, you'll be able to use it to boil water and fry oil.

• Do not use more than a tiny amount of soap when washing your cazuela, as it can infiltrate the pores and leave a funny tasting residue. Instead, use a soft-bristle brush with warm water to avoid marring the unglazed parts. While your cazuela is dishwasher safe, machine washing is not recommended because it's difficult to avoid an overly soapy wash.

• And, of course, don't drop it or bang it against hard surfaces. Terra cotta is quite durable, but it will chip and crack when treated roughly.

I do not travel nearly as much as I would like. So, to neutralize my wanderlust, I've turned my kitchen into my own personal travel agency.

This season, the call of the Iberian Peninsula feels particularly urgent, but instead of jetting to Spain, I picked up a terra cotta cazuela that has been in heavy rotation in my kitchen ever since.

While my cazuela hasn't completely quelled the vacation urge, it has lessened the longing by bringing me Spanish cuisine without having to take a month off of work.

Cooking in my cazuela transports me to the Spanish countryside, where I imagine myself sitting down to lunch in the middle of an Andalusian olive grove. I see myself hiding from the summer sun under a colossal oak tree, which, despite its old age, stands tall and proud against the golden hills that surround it.

The landscape is covered with purple and yellow wildflowers filled with honeybees, buzzing in the warm, still air. There are no cell phones, no crowded roads and not a glimmer of urgency in this pastoral setting. Here, time stops when you sit down to eat.

My cazuela takes me there.

A cazuela is a round, shallow clay pot with straight sides that looks like a terra cotta saute pan, minus the handle. A glazed finish on the inside prevents food from soaking into its porous cooking surface, and the clay body does more than conduct heat. Since it's made from earth, it actually absorbs and radiates heat.

Cazuelas come in many sizes, from small ramekin-sized dishes to vessels several feet across. There are several variations on the traditional cazuela, including the olla, a large lidded pot for cooking beans, and the cocote, which looks like a clay Dutch oven. Attractive and efficient, cazuelas easily go from stovetop to tabletop.

About The Author

Stephanie Stiavetti is a food writer living in the San Francisco Bay area. A self-proclaimed literary gastronaut, she spends most of her time thinking about food, reading about food or writing about food. Stephanie can usually be found perusing the cookbook section of used bookstores and posting on her food blog, Wasabimon. She also discusses her culinary exploits on Twitter under the username "sstiavetti."

Clay cooking goes back to the ancients. The Romans fashioned tall earthenware vessels to hold liquids such as wine and olive oil, while the Inca used large terra cotta bowls for cooking grains, beans, potatoes and soups. The Incan comal is a large, flat griddle used for cooking tortillas and other flat foods over a fire. A variation is used by many cultures today.

The Romertopf, a modern clay pot introduced in the 1960s, is enjoying a resurgence as people become more concerned about healthful cooking methods. Clay seals in nutrients and cuts down on fats, since foods cooked this way don't require basting.

The cazuela was often used in kitchens throughout Spain for cocina pobre, or "poor cooking." This was the common cooking style throughout the 19th and 20th centuries after a series of wars and tumultuous political changes left the nation in economic turmoil.

For centuries, provincial culinary techniques remained largely unchanged for people who were used to living frugally on whatever they had on hand. Their diets generally consisted of bread, olive oil, regional vegetables and local small game.

However, Spanish cooks do amazing things with a small spice arsenal. One spice is distinctly Spanish. Smoked paprika, which is usually labeled pimenton, is made from peppers smoked for several days over an oak fire.

Pimenton comes in three varieties, depending on the kind of peppers used: sweet (dulce), bittersweet (agridulce) and hot (picante). All three can be found in the international spice section of most major grocery stores. Pimenton dulce is the mildest of the three and the most commonly found in the U.S. Its dark red powder gives any savory dish a deep, smoky layer.

If you are new to terra cotta cooking, choose a medium-sized cazuela (28 centimeters, or just over 11 inches). This size is versatile and will easily cook a meal for four. A Dutch oven or a heavy cast-iron skillet can be used as a substitute.

Cazuelas are available at international groceries that have a selection of Spanish or Mexican kitchen equipment, and from online sellers. They are not expensive and are a good investment if you need to get away but can't travel farther than your kitchen.

Smoky Tuna With White Beans

Stephanie Stiavetti for NPR
Smoky Tuna With White Beans
Stephanie Stiavetti for NPR

This simple meal, seasoned with smoked paprika, or pimenton dulce, combines the earthy flavor of great northern beans with the meaty texture of albacore tuna. An excellent source of protein, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, this dish can be prepared in less than a half-hour if you use canned beans.

Makes 2 servings

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 cloves garlic, sliced

1/2 cup diced onion

1/2 cup mushrooms, quartered

2 Roma tomatoes, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch slices

1 teaspoon coarse sea salt plus more for sprinkling

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon sweet smoked paprika plus more for sprinkling

15-ounce can great northern beans, drained and rinsed

1/2 pound albacore tuna, cut into 1-inch cubes

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a cazuela over medium heat, heat the olive oil until it shimmers. Add garlic and fry until it browns and turns slightly crunchy. Remove garlic to a separate bowl while the oil remains in the pan, then add onions and saute for 3 minutes, or until translucent. Add mushrooms and continue sauteing until they are soft, about 5 minutes.

Stir in tomato slices, sea salt, pepper and smoked paprika, cooking for another 2 minutes. Add beans and gently stir to incorporate, making sure not to smash the beans.

Smooth beans to create an even surface, and set cubed tuna on top, pressing gently so the pieces don't move around. Take reserved garlic slices and press them into the fish so each cube has a few pieces resting on top, then sprinkle throughout with a little more smoked paprika and a few pinches of sea salt.

Cook uncovered for 10 minutes, checking with a fork to make sure fish is done. Enjoy immediately.

Saffron Chicken

For a zesty variation on this recipe, place thinly sliced lemons atop the chicken before placing in the oven. Stephanie Stiavetti for NPR hide caption

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Stephanie Stiavetti for NPR

For a zesty variation on this recipe, place thinly sliced lemons atop the chicken before placing in the oven.

Stephanie Stiavetti for NPR

There is a debate between Morocco and Spain as to who provides the best saffron, but in the end, either will greatly enhance your cooking repertoire. This aromatic chicken dish is best served over a bed of roasted vegetables (such as the zucchini recipe below) and brown rice for an extra healthy twist.

Makes 2 servings

2 cloves of garlic, pushed through a garlic press

1 pinch saffron threads

1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt

1/2 teaspoon sweet smoked paprika

2 whole chicken breasts, bone in and with skin

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a mortar and pestle, grind garlic, saffron, sea salt and paprika to a paste. If you don't have a mortar, use the back of a large spoon to make paste. Mix in a few drops of olive oil, and rub paste all over the chicken breasts, both over and under the skin. Set chicken aside for 30 minutes.

Swirl olive oil around the bottom of cazuela until completely coated, and add chicken to dish, skin side up. Bake uncovered for 25 minutes. Check with a fork to make sure chicken is nearly done and still moist, remove from oven and let rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Roasted Zucchini With Garlic And Pimenton Dulce

Roasted vegetables make an elegant dish and require very little prep time. This dish pairs well with saffron chicken. If you would like to make both but lack a second cazuela, a casserole dish will work just fine. Substitute any summer squash that you prefer, or use a variety for a festive presentation.

Makes 2 servings

3 large cloves of garlic, pushed through a garlic press

1/2 teaspoon sweet smoked paprika

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, pulled from the stem and chopped fine

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 large zucchini, cut in half lengthwise and chopped into 3/4-inch half circles

1 teaspoon coarse sea salt

Freshly ground lemon pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

If you have a mortar and pestle, mash garlic, paprika and thyme into a paste-like consistency. If you don't have the mortar, mash up the ingredients with the back of a large spoon until they are fairly well ground and mixed together. Add olive oil and gently mash a little more until well incorporated. Set aside for 15 minutes.

In cazuela, mix zucchini, salt and olive oil mixture with your hands until squash is completely coated. Sprinkle with freshly ground lemon pepper and place uncovered in oven for 20 minutes, giving the mixture a good stir 10 minutes in. Serve hot.