STEWS have a vaguely mystical appeal, and it's no wonder. You throw together a lot of unrelated stuff from all over the food kingdom, and somehow, over several hours, it starts to make sense together.
The original idea of moist slow-heat cooking such as braising and stewing was to tenderize and add flavor to tough or over-the-hill meat. In other words, make something out of nothing. Next time you find yourself staring helplessly into the empty refrigerator you might remember a romantic story told by Evan Jones in his book, "American Food." George Washington, the story goes, ordered his chef to produce something wonderful for the starving and tattered troops at Valley Forge. The chef was a bit shaky about this project since all he could find in the larder was some tripe and a few peppercorns. But soon "great kettles sent up their heart-warming, belly-comforting fragrance to the miserable men," and the story had a happy ending. Philadelphia Pepper Pot was born and the chef's neck was saved.
You can make a stew in any receptacle that will withstand heat. But the ideal receptacle holds heat so well that the pot itself becomes a kind of secondary heat source. Our ancestors used clay (mud, at first) and then iron. We use a little of everything.
The modern basic is the cast-iron pot, known to our grandmothers in its unadorned black kettle version, and more often to us as the enameled cast iron dutch oven. Enameled or not, the classic stewpot is usually round and rather squat, and so heavy that it's hard to lift when it's full. You can do everything from browning the meat to serving the finished product in this one pot. The addition of enamel protects the pot from rust and makes it look prettier.
The doufeu is a variation on the main cast-iron theme. Designed in the days when the stewpot sat directly in the fire, the doufeu has a depression in its lid originally meant to hold hot coals. Now we're told to put ice cubes or cold water in the depression to facilitate condensation, which will drip back down into the stew to keep it moist. The idea is to add as little extra liquid as possible in order to concentrate flavors.
The problem with the cold-water theory is that cold water becomes hot water very quickly when it's in the oven or over a burner. When you empty it to add more cold water all that nice condensing steam escapes. My experience is that in the doufeu as well as in other stewpots the top does a very nice job of sending condensing liquid back down into the pot, with or without ice cubes. And if you're really serious about it, you can seal the edges of the pot with a flour and water paste.
Cast iron is easy to take care of if you remember that even in its enameled state it rusts easily around the edges. And cast iron shouldn't be taken directly from fire to cold water or it's apt to crack. The standard enameled cast-iron dutch oven is made by a number of manufacturers, Le Creuset being the most prominent. Both it and the doufeu come in round or oval shapes, the oval being preferable if you intend to use it for braising larger pieces of meat such as roasts or whole chickens. The 22-centimeter round dutch oven, which holds about four quarts when filled to the brim, retails for around $50 but will always be on sale somewhere.
Earthenware in some form has been used for cooking for the last couple of thousand years. Its disadvantage is its fragility. It chips and breaks easily, and, of course, can't be used over direct heat without some protection. But it can't be beat for slow, even oven cooking.
There are lots of variations of the earthenware theme, from handmade pottery to crockpots. One interesting version is the vessel called a daubiere , used to produce the stews the French call daubes. It's a funny-looking thing with a fat belly and a narrowed neck, and sports three handles and a top. The purpose of the daubiere 's thinner neck is the same as that of the lid: to trap condensation and send it back down to benefit the stew. Like the doufeu, the daubiere has a depression in its lid originally meant to hold hot coals.
Every couple of hundred years or so there's an innovation in slow-heat cookery. The latest is the Crock-Pot and its siblings. While it's difficult to imagine a plug-in appliance engendering the same kind of poetic memories as the old iron kettle, the Crock-Pot is good at what it does. You can combine your meat and vegetables before you go to work in the morning, and when you get home you'll have dinner. The extremely slow, radiant heat of the Crock-Pot means that your creation won't burn or dry out. In fact, the opposite is true: meat and vegetables cooked this way tend to produce a lot of liquid, which will have to be reduced or thickened in some way.
Slow-heat cookers come in various permutations. The standard 3-quart size with removable crockery insert costs about $30.