Sculpting A Meal
By Lisa Turner
Photos by Rita Maas

Turn out low-fat, flavorful meals with clay-pot cooking

Ever since early Romans first baked crispy, chewy loaves of bread and simmered fragrant stews in them, clay pots have been the worldwide favorites of one-pot cooking. African cultures used clay pots to prepare savory tagines, Asian peoples created spicy combinations of meats and fish, and the French made an art of tender casseroles baked in rectangular clay tians from Provence.

Even so, until recently, terra-cotta (literally, "cooked earth") cooking was little known in the United States. Now, clay pots are making a welcome debut in U.S. kitchens, as health-conscious diners recognize the benefits of low-fat, low-stress, one-pot meals.

Clay pots, made of unglazed red clay, are available in many shapes and sizes, from oval bread bakers with a high, domed top to cazuela—shallow dishes used for braising and casseroles. The most common are large, oval roasters, usually sold under the name Romertopf.

Whatever the size and shape, the cooking action is the same: The pot is thoroughly soaked in water before cooking, filled with meat, fish, vegetables and grains, and placed in a cold oven. As the oven temperature rises, the pores of the pot release moisture, creating a pressure-steaming effect inside the pot. As food cooks, it forms its own juices, and flavor is sealed in. The result: moist, tender, intensely flavored dishes, with little or no oil.

Clay pots can be used to roast vegetables, bake fish and meats, and cook nearly any grain or bean casserole. And even if you've never used a clay pot before, a few simple rules will have you cooking in clay like a seasoned pro.

Shrimp and Green Pea Risotto

Serves 4­6 / Although not a true risotto, this low-fat version of the Italian classic is creamy enough to pass for the real thing. Serve it as the main attraction alongside steamed asparagus or a salad of bitter greens and warm ciabatta bread.

1-1/2 cups uncooked arborio rice
3 cups chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth
1 medium yellow onion, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 cup dry white wine
1 cup grated Asiago cheese or other sharp, hard cheese
1 cup frozen peas, thawed and drained well
Salt and freshly ground white pepper, to taste
1 pound raw shrimp, shelled and deveined
Minced fresh parsley, for garnish

1. Soak top and bottom of a clay cooker in water for 15 minutes. Drain.

2. Combine rice, stock, onion, garlic and wine in cooker, and stir to mix. Place covered pot in cold oven and turn oven to 450°. Cook for 40 minutes, stirring twice, or until rice is tender.

3. Remove cooker from oven and gently stir in cheese and peas. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground white pepper.

4. Arrange shrimp, tails at center, in an even layer over rice. Return cooker to oven and cook, covered, for 10 more minutes. Remove from oven and let stand, covered, for 5 minutes. Garnish with parsley. Serve hot.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 363 calories Fat: 7g % fat calories: 18 Cholesterol: 131mg Carbohydrate: 46g Protein: 26g

Maple-Glazed Acorn Squash

Serves 4 / Sweet, buttery squash laced with maple syrup and vanilla makes a special side dish for almost any meal. Add a pat of butter to each squash half before cooking for an even richer flavor.

2 medium acorn squash, halved and seeded
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1. Soak top and bottom of a clay cooker in water for 15 minutes. Drain.

2. Drizzle cut surfaces of squash with maple syrup and sprinkle with vanilla. Arrange squash in cooker.

3. Place covered pot in cold oven and turn oven to 400 °. Cook for 1 hour, or until squash is soft. Serve hot.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 100 calories Fat: 0g % fat calories: 2 Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 23g Protein: 2g

Lemon, Garlic & Rosemary Chicken

Serves 4 / Heady with garlic and fragrant rosemary, this tender chicken is a simple meal for family nights or special dinners. Serve it with new potatoes and braised Swiss chard.

1 4-pound chicken
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 large lemon, peeled and sliced (reserve rinds)
14 whole garlic cloves, peeled and slightly crushed
8 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth
2 teaspoons arrowroot
Additional rosemary sprigs, for garnish

1. Soak top and bottom of a clay cooker in water for 15 minutes. Drain.

2. Wash chicken inside and out under cold water and pat dry. Rub inside of chicken with salt and pepper. Stuff with lemon slices, garlic and rosemary. Place chicken in clay pot, breast down.

3. Grate lemon rind, making sure to avoid the white pith, and sprinkle over chicken. Season with salt and pepper. Add lemon juice and chicken stock or broth to pot. Place covered pot in cold oven and turn oven to 450°. Cook for 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until juices run clear when thigh is pierced with a small knife.

4. Remove pot from oven and pour liquid into a small saucepan. Degrease chicken, turn over so breast is up, and return pot, uncovered, to oven for 10 minutes longer to brown the top. Meanwhile, bring sauce to a boil and reduce heat.

5. Dissolve arrowroot in 1/4 cup cold water and whisk into sauce. Cook for 1-2 minutes longer, or until sauce is thickened and glossy. Add additional broth, salt and pepper to taste.

6. Remove chicken from oven. Transfer chicken to a serving platter, drizzle with sauce and garnish with fresh rosemary sprigs. Serve hot.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 636 calories Fat: 46g % fat calories: 65 Cholesterol: 156mg Carbohydrate: 7g Protein: 47g

Thyme-Scented Roasted Vegetables

Serves 6 / These intensely flavored vegetables are substantial enough to stand alone as a meal; or serve them hot out of the oven with a tossed green salad and warm, whole-grain bread for a satisfying lunch on a cold winter day.

1/2 pound red potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1-inch chunks
1/2 pound sweet potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1-inch chunks
1/2 pound carrots, scrubbed and cut into 1-inch chunks
1/2 pound parsnips, scrubbed and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 small sweet yellow onions, peeled and cut into eighths
10 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly crushed
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth or vegetable broth
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
Olive oil
Fresh thyme sprigs, for garnish

1. Soak top and bottom of a clay cooker in water for 15 minutes. Drain.

2. Place red potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips, onions and garlic in cooker. Season with salt and pepper, and toss to coat. Add broth. Place covered pot in a cold oven. Set oven to 450° and cook for 1 to 1-1/2 hours, or until vegetables are tender.

3. Remove from oven and stir in thyme. Replace cover and let stand for 10 minutes longer. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper; drizzle with olive oil if desired. Garnish with fresh thyme sprigs and serve hot.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 158 calories Fat: 1g % fat calories: 3 Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 36g Protein: 3g

Triple-Pepper Tempeh Stir-Fry

Serves 6 / This colorful, low-fat take on the traditional stir-fry is a hearty, healthy alternative. Serve it in big ceramic bowls over steamed brown rice, with chopsticks and sake.

1/4 cup light soy sauce
1/2 cup vegetable stock
1 teaspoon honey
1 1-inch segment fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 8-ounce packages soy tempeh, cubed
1 cup sliced button mushrooms
12 shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and thinly sliced
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
1 medium red bell pepper, halved and cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 medium yellow bell pepper, halved and cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 medium green bell pepper, halved and cut into 1/4-inch slices
2 tablespoons arrowroot
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

1. In a medium bowl, combine soy sauce, vegetable stock, honey, ginger and crushed red pepper flakes. Whisk together until smooth. Add tempeh and toss to coat. Cover and marinate, refrigerated, for 1 hour.

2. Soak top and bottom of a clay cooker in water for 15 minutes. Drain.

3. Layer button mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms and onions in clay cooker. Remove tempeh from marinade with a slotted spoon and layer over onions, reserving marinade. Layer peppers over tempeh.

4. Whisk arrowroot into marinade, blending until smooth, then whisk in sesame seeds. Pour marinade over tempeh and vegetables in cooker.

5. Cover cooker and place in a cold oven. Set oven to 400° and bake, stirring once, until vegetables are tender, about 50 minutes. Serve hot over brown rice.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 218 calories Fat: 6g % fat calories: 22 Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 28g Protein: 16g Lisa Turner is a food and nutrition writer and the author of several books, including Mostly Macro (Inner Traditions, 1995) and Meals That Heal (Inner Traditions, 1996).