Earlier this year, the BBC aired a TV feature in which Stephen Fry looked at what he considers to be the hundred greatest gadgets ever invented. Not surprisingly, quite a few of them involved the kitchen, including the toaster (patented in 1919), can opener (patented 1855), coffee maker (1840), microwave (first sold in 1947) and corkscrew, the earliest reference to which described it in 1681 as a “steel worm used for the drawing of Corks out of Bottles.” The food processor was invented by a French catering salesman and first marketed in 1960, while we owe the invention of the first self-off-shutting electric kettle to G.E. (1930).
Famed molecular gastronomy chef Heston Blumenthal revealed his love for the SodaStream, with which you can make your own seltzer, and I share his enthusiasm for the device. But were you to force me to offer a favorite, I’d choose the VitaClay Cooker.
As cooler weather sweeps in, the late-harvest vegetables invite the creation of stews. Chicken, that most accommodating of entrées, is a flavorful companion to just about anything, root veggies especially. And how pleasing, on those fall and winter days when I’d be out for several hours, to come home to a crock-pot meal of simmering chicken stew. In fact, the cheaper cuts of any meat—or veggies alone—develop that all-for-one blending of flavors when so prepared.
The drawback, of course, is the pile of mush an all-day crock-pot session can produce. Your stew doesn’t need eight hours, so when I acquired a Romertopf clay baker, which is a two-part unit that works in the oven, I budgeted in the time required for the items to cook. But a late dinner, especially in winter, seems especially late.
Clay pot cooking has inspired many forms (and names) in many cultures. The Indian tandoor is a cylindrical unit with high walls; the Spanish cazuela is shallow and wide. A tagine from Morocco looks like a cazuela with a conical clay hat, and produces a stew also called a tagine. There’s an earthy flavor unique to clay, and preparation can be as simple or complicated, as spicy or bland as you prefer.
I’m a fairly recent convert to the automatic rice cooker. We use a model by Aroma that automatically sets the cooking time for white or brown rice, and provides a steaming shelf that allows you to cook something else on top of your rice. Provided you rinse the living hell out of the rice that goes into it, you get a great result, and you can delay the start of the cooking for several hours by manipulating the digital timer.
The technology of the rice cooker and the flavor of the clay come together in the VitaClay. It’s a large appliance, so clear some space. Its programming is nicely intuitive. It has a capacitor-driven clock, and so will hold the time setting when it’s unplugged and put away.
Thanks to the unglazed two-piece clay pot that lives inside, you needn’t worry about cooking on a Teflon surface, if such is your concern. And its operation is really a matter of deciding what you want to cook—rice or some manner of stew—how long you want it cook for, and at what time you want said cooking to begin.
I’ve schlepped this thing everywhere over the summer. Because I often volunteer to cook when I visit friends, I’ve taken this baby to shorten my kitchen time. It went with the family on a Cape Cod vacation for some culinary variety, and I’d swear that it, too, enjoyed the change of scene. Because it’s easy to anthropomorphize a versatile gadget like this one.
Refined wheat, rice and sugar products are taboo in my house, thanks to my daughter’s admirable determination to remain healthy. Although I’ve yet to give up risotto’s thirsty arborio variety, in all other dishes I find brown rice to be a tastier alternative. But you can’t rinse it too much. You need three or four cycles at least to get the best result, and the VitaClay cooker will do the rest. (Although I have to confess that I’ve spoiled myself. I cook the rice in the Aroma cooker and the rest of dinner in the VitaClay, plugging them in to two different circuits and avoiding use of the toaster.)
At it simplest, a good stew starts with the big three: onions, carrots and celery. Garlic is a given. Add potatoes, rutabaga and/or turnips and right there you have a hearty vegetarian compote. You need some liquid, but not much. If the machine senses too heavy a weight, it’ll quietly shut off. Chicken or other meat will make its own stock with the water you add, but you can jazz it a bit by using beer instead.
Add cumin, coriander, garam masala and hot pepper to go in the curry direction. Tomatoes, olives and capers take it to the Mediterranean. Moroccan stews feature garlicky harissa and preserved lemons (mssiyar) that marinate for at least a month with salt and bay leaves.
Assemble your ingredients in the clay pot. Don’t forget to put on the lid. Choose the slow cooking option, and set the cooking timer in increments of 10 minutes for up to four hours, although I’ve rarely needed more than 90 minutes. Then backtime the start of cooking so it’ll put the food on your table when you’ll be ready to eat.
Recipes abound. People are preparing porridge in their VitaClays, and apple crisp and spinach-cheese dip and even lasagne.
Remember bread machines? I resisted that bandwagon and the fad went away. But I’m putting my money on this one as a keeper. I don’t want to sound too infomercially, but I think this cooker transcends the great crowd of kitchen novelties and should take its place alongside the food processor and stand mixer as something you’ll wonder how you lived without.