There comes a time in the life of every cook when the desire for the "perfect" pot, or utensil, or coffee mug, takes hold and won't let go. I'm a collector, or more properly an accumulator, of certain things for the kitchen: 1950s melamine splatterware mixing bowls; close to 200 wooden spoons and wooden utensils; cheap blue-and-white dishes from Asian groceries; and, lately, tagines, the conical cooking pots of Morocco.
I feel so fortunate to live in New England, where wonderful artisans working in clay, stone, wood and metal inhabit the forests near the Ninecooks kitchen. I'm even more fortunate that some of these artisans are friends who share a love of cooking and oh-so-kindly invite me into their studios to collaborate on – and occasionally create – the tools of my dreams.
Three years ago I designed and made my first (and only) wooden spoon, after spending an entire day in the studio of Meb Boden in Woodstock, Connecticut. Meb took me through the whole process, from selecting the block of wood (from a tree that had lived on her road), through carving, shaping, polishing, and sealing. It was the experience of a lifetime, and to this day I've never seen another spoon like mine. The spoon fits my hand, the length suits my height, and the shape and unusual patterning of the wood makes me giggle.
My next adventure in design came courtesy of my gig as a food writer for Rhode Island Monthly magazine. I took a full-day course and made a small wooden salad bowl, just the perfect size for one or two. Shaped like an old English dairy bowl, my little creation has a flat bottom that keeps it stable for mixing.
Then came tagines. For the past....oh....nine months or so, I've been collaborating with my friend Bob Fishman (pictured above, in his studio). A potter for more than 30 years, Bob's been teaching me about the properties of the stoneware clay he uses – how it handles thermal shock, how it cures, how it wears, how it takes glaze, and how it cleans. I'd bought some red clay tagines at a "going out of business" sale last summer, and it was clear that the pots were a bit fragile. I showed the pots to Bob, and we began to talk about how to create a more pleasing shape in a more durable material.
We made three or four in our first round. Here's the one I designed and love, though it's entirely Bob's handiwork. (If I'd made this myself on the potter's wheel, I'd still be trying to get the clay to "center"!) It's unglazed on the outside, and glazed in a rich white on the inside.
Now Bob is working on his own tagine ideas, a bit more refined than mine. He's testing glazes and surface design, and I'm going to write some recipes that he can include with the pots.
The #1 Cooking Group gets a chance to take my tagine collection for a test drive in mid April, when we try a few recipes based more or less loosely on Moroccan cooking. Jessica, one of the original nine cooks, often makes preserved lemons using Paula Wolfert's classic instructions, and she's suggested that we try some of her favorite ways to use them:
- Chicken Provencal with preserved lemons replacing half (or all) of the olives
- Pasta with fresh tomatoes and preserved lemons
- Black/French/green lentils with spicy turkey sausage and preserved lemons
Yum to all that! I'll add a fish recipe to the menu, so we can learn the technique of building a "platform" of celery sticks or sugar cane in the bottom of the pot to keep the fish from sticking.
In my cellar-that-looks-like-a-restaurant-supply-store, I have five tagines: three from Morocco, made of glazed terracotta; one Le Creuset, with a ceramic top and cast iron base I can put directly on my gas stovetop; and the one I designed in Bob's studio, which is stoneware that goes into the oven. When all the #1 folks get together, we cook for 18 people (nine cooks and nine spouses), so we'll do some recipes in our standard pots, too. It will be interesting to compare how the same recipe tastes when cooked in the traditional tagine vs. a Dutch oven.
Jessica's sending along her recipes, but we cook in just three weeks, so the preserved lemons have to get going right away. When we cook together, we can each start a jar of the traditional, thirty-day lemons, but I'll also make a batch of Five-Day Preserved Lemons, from Paula Wolfert's Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, which work well for those of us who haven't quite planned ahead.