Cracking the Crock-Pot Code: One-Pot Meals

On a deeper level it [cucina povera] reflects a necessary philosophy that is common in all cultures: making do with what you’ve got to transform humble ingredients into dishes that are more than the sum of their parts.

(Faith Hopler, “The Kitchen“)

K. Santos
Photo credit: K. Santos

No wonder I’ve been dreaming of Le Creuset Dutch Ovens lately.

With the economy tanking, home cooking ought to become quite popular in the next several months, as foodie trend watchers suggest.

What they’re really saying is that one-pot meals will take off like a rocket.

Austerity is suddenly stylish. It’s the new decadence.

And casseroles are BAAACCCKKKK … and so are stews and thick soups, daubes and ragùs, all traditional recipes for one-pot meals found in Italy, France, Middle East, and geographical points beyond.

Having gagged down my share of Tuna-Noodle Casserole in my day, I’m going to ignore the casserole business altogether and go straight to the meat of the matter. The one-pottedness of this burgeoning trend.

one-pot-meals-yarnellCookbook authors and publishers jumped on the bandwagon fast. Next week Random House is due to release One-Pot Meals: A Revolutionary New Quick and Healthy Approach to Dutch-Oven Cooking, by Elizabeth Yarnell. (Yarnell’s book originally appeared in 2005, published by Pomegranate Consulting.) Good timing.

Whoa. Revolutionary? Dutch ovens? One-pot meals?  Nothing new here, although Yarnell claims to have pioneered a high-temperature method of cooking.

Cooks have been cooking this “newest” of cuisines for ages, literally.

According to Sonia Zarrillo, a Ph.D student at the University of Calgary, ” ‘Analyzing starch from charred food residues is a new technique in archaeology and it is exciting because it will stimulate research around the world when people realize they can recover starch from cooking pots and use it to date and identify what people were using as food.’ ” In this case, we’re talking about pots from 5000 to 9000 years ago in Latin America.

Wessex Archaeology
Photo credit: Wessex Archaeology

Roman cooking pots dating back to the fourth century AD illustrate the fact that most cooks dumped everything in the pot and boiled or simmered food. Copper frying pans, or skillets, appeared in Mesopotamia, as well as in ancient Greece and Rome. Early skillets perching on three legs led to the term “spiders,” coined by Americans to describe this type of cooking pot. The “legs” enabled the cook to set the pot over the coals. And kept the food away from too direct heat, preventing charring.

apiciusApicius, long considered the author of the first Western European cookbook, wrote De Re Coquinaria (“The Art of Cooking”) (first century BC/AD). He’s big on lamb stews and includes several recipes for that dish with deep roots in antiquity, as well as veal fricassée:

353 Fricassée of Veal
In vitulinam elixam

Crush pepper, lovage, caraway, celery seed, moisten with honey, vinegar, broth and oil; heat, bind with roux and cover the meat.

354 Another Veal Fricassée
Aliter in vitulina elixa

Pepper, lovage, fennel seed, origany, nuts, fig-dates, honey, vinegar, broth, mustard and oil.

356 Another Lamb Stew
Aliter haedinam sive agninam excaldatam

Put pieces of kid or lamb in the stew pot with chopped onion and coriander. Crush pepper, lovage, cumin, and cook with broth oil and wine. Put in a dish and tie with roux.

357 Another Lamb Stew
Aliter haedinam sive agninam excaldatam

Add to the parboiled meat the raw herbs that have been crushed in the mortar and cook it. Goat meat is cooked likewise.

All these methods required one pot …

Since one-pot cooking requires little more than ingredients on hand, a cookbook seems a bit of a bother.  But the beauty of cookbooks is that they provide structure and guidance, much like a railing to grab while one hovers near a precipice. Grab a handful of your favorite cookbooks — antique and otherwise — and you’ll be sure to find lots of suggestions for one-pot meals.

platinaOr you can go to the source and browse the cookbook written by the fifteenth-century Vatican librarian, Bartolomeo Sacchi, known as  Platina, On Right Pleasure and Good Health. Considering how old the book is (fifteenth-century Italy), it’s amazing how much fun it is to read. One of his recipes for chicken sounds do-able. Sprinkle a little parsley or other greenery on top before serving.

platina-2Book VI, 16. Chicken in Verjus

Cook chicken with salt meat. When it is half-cooked, put in the boiling pot a mash of verjuice grapes with the stones removed from the middle. Put the parsley and mint fine, and grind pepper and saffron to powder. Put all this in the pot where the pullet has been cooked, and fill the platter immediately. Appropriately, B. Poggius [Bracciolinus Poggius Florentinus — another book lover] frequently eats this dish even when I am invited. There is nothing more healthful, for it is quite nourishing, is easily digested, agrees with the stomach, heart, liver and kidneys, and represses bile.

As unsavory as it sounds, Adolph Hitler entered the one-pot meal scene with his insistence on Germans returning to a mystical past use of the Eintopf concept — one-pot meals. A law required Germans of the time to eat Eintopf once a month on a Sunday during the winter months. The idea was to save money and give any such savings to the poor. Naturally, as the war progressed, a one-pot meal became the stuff of dreams.

Next up — how to save money and eat well, too, thanks to James Beard and M. F. K. Fisher and other experts on la cucina povera.

© 2008 C. Bertelsen

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