Clay Pot Chicken & Rice - cooking method creates full-flavor dishes with a minimum of fuss
Peggy Lampman photos | AnnArbor.com contributor
"You call yourself a food writer and have never cooked in clay?"
JC was teasing me, but I felt heat rising up my neck, and it wasn't from a hot oven. (Which brings me to the holy grail of earthenware cookery: Never put a clay pot in a preheated oven; it may crack.)
"When you're raising kids and working, you've got to find easy ways to do things, and cooking in clay ranks top. Just throw some dry rice, leftover vegetables and a seasoned chicken in the pot and roast," he said. "It's nothing fancy but it sure tastes good."
After his divorce, he was awarded full custody of the clay pot. "It was perfect for a single man as I could eat from the pot for days and there was only one dish to clean. Roasting chickens is my favorite way to use the pot, and my recipe is loosey-goosey, varying according to leftovers."
In the same spirit, I used the leftovers I had on hand, substituting Brussels sprouts, for example, for the cherry tomatoes he used and a rosemary rub for his Cajun blend.
Since JC met my friend Kathy, he's relinquished his single man status and cooks his specialty for her on a regular basis. Last week, I visited them in Colorado so, by default, was included on his guest list.
While the pot soaked, I watched him prepare the chicken and studied the book he provided me: “The Complete Guide to Claypot Cooking" (Bridget Jones, Salamander Books, London).
According to the book, "...Claypot cookery is, in essence, a means of creating full-flavored dishes with the minimum of effort...Using terra cotta pots that have been soaked in water prior to cooking, is one of the oldest traditions and dates back to Roman times...The soaked pots absorb water which generates moisture during cooking creating a unique cooking environment."
This seals in flavor and keeps food from drying out, so there is no need to add extra fat.
I couldn't wait to try the recipe in my own kitchen. JC used an all-clay unglazed Romertopf roaster. According to Saveur.com, the Romertopf was invented by a German and is modeled on an ancient Etruscan design. Today, they are produced in Mexico with the same mixture of clays as the originals.
I couldn't find an unglazed clay pot at local stores but was delighted to find a 4 1/2 quart clay roaster at Downtown Home and Garden, with a glazed bottom and unglazed lid. The moisture absorbed in the large domed lid distributed moist heat producing a tender, evenly-cooked, golden bird.
The aesthetics of cooking in a natural, earthen element are pleasing; a beautiful oven-to-table serving dish.
Delighted with my new toy, I purchased Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean Clay Pot Cookbook. Wolfert — dubbed the Queen of Mediterranean cooking by the Los Angeles Times — describes herself a “clay pot junkie” and her recipes look absurdly good.
"I like cooking with a clay pot much better than a slow cooker," JC said, as we savored his simple feast. "Vegetables don't turn to mush nor do they loose nutrition in liquid, and the rice has this incredible flavor and texture."
I remarked that the rice was, indeed, incredible from the chicken fat it absorbed. "And your problem is...?" he responded.
Clay Pot Chicken & Rice
Yield: 4-6 servings
Active Time: 20 minutes
Roast Time: 90-180 minutes
1 4 & 1/2 quart, clay pot cooker
2 cups long cook rice (a rice that cooks in 30-45 minutes)
Specified amount* of liquid such as wine, stock, water or a combination
1 1/2 cups sliced baby bella mushrooms
1 cup carrots cut into 1/2 inch coins
2 cups Brussels sprouts, left whole
1 4-5 pound, whole roasting chicken
2 tablespoons dry, crushed rosemary
1 teaspoon-1 tablespoon fresh ground pepper
1/2 tablespoon kosher salt
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, sliced into thin pieces
1 medium sized yellow onion,peeled but left whole (optional)
*Whatever rice you use; halve the liquid requirement on packaging. (2 cups of the rice I used called for 4 1/2 cups of liquid, therefore I only used 2 1/4 cups.)
1. Soak unglazed clay according to manufacturers directions, approximately 15 minutes.
2. Combine rice, liquid, mushrooms, carrots, and Brussels sprouts at bottom of pot. Combine rosemary, salt and 1 teaspoon of pepper (adding additional pepper to taste), and rub inside chicken cavity. Lift up chicken skin and rub under skin, then over the exterior skin. Stick pieces of butter under skin over breast. Place chicken over rice mixture.
3. Place bay leaf in back of cavity and stuff with onion, if using; tie chicken legs together with string or kitchen twine.
4. Cover pot with lid and place on middle rack of a cold oven. Turn on heat to 450 degrees and cook 1 1/2- 2 1/2 hours; or until chicken juices run clear when thigh is pierced. (Note for a crisp skin, remove lid in last 10-15 minutes of cooking time, although chicken skin will be golden brown if you omit this step.)
5. Remove onion, chop and stir into rice.(Note onion with still be firm.)Pour residual juices from cavity onto a serving platter. Carve chicken and serve with juices and rice mixture. (Note that the leftovers make a marvelous chicken and rice soup.)
Visit AnnArbor.com contributor Peggy Lampman at dinnerFeed.com for more seasonal recipes and local value. You may follow her at twitter.com/dinnerfeed to get daily mini-recipes.
Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 11:56 p.m.
Thanks for the comment, Sam. My husband asked the same question and I googled the heck out of this before posting the recipe. Everything I read said clay is a natural element and perfectly safe to cook in. I don't think I'd used something purchased at a flea market, however, although Paula Wolfert has no qualms. Peggy
Thu, Jun 7, 2012 : 1:23 a.m.
I haven't had any concern with our clay bakers. We bought ours from www.romertopfclaybakers.com and I know they import or have them made in Mexico. We've loved the meals with these things.
Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 6:52 p.m.
I remember something about people getting lead poisoning from clay? pitchers they bought in Mexico. Any risk with these clay pots?