There are times when the zoom, whir and flash of our modern kitchen equipment ceases to be entrancing in its efficiency and starts being simply pushy. Flashing lights tell us to Stir! Buzzers tell us to pay attention or else. Whole onions are reduced to liquid in seconds, bread to crumbs, vegetables to pure'e. The machines that were so much fun in October, and will be fun again one day soon, often get tiresome in January, along with other things like short days and leafless trees.
So maybe it's time to turn for a while to equipment that murmurs instead of shouts. The French have a word for this, too: mijoter. Mijoter means both to murmur and to barely simmer. Les petits plats qui mijotent au coin du feu -- the little dishes that simmer quietly on a corner of the stove -- were a way of life in earlier centuries, and still have a place in our cuisine, at least on the weekends.
This means soups and stews, cassoulet and confit, daubes and casseroles, and it often means cooking in earthenware pots of basic designs that are in some cases as old as mankind. Earthenware cooking pots are common to every culture that has access to the clay they are made from, but because French cuisine is the one we know best -- after our own -- many of these pots are known by their French names. Although they are fascinatingly different in shape, they all share a slightly clumpy, friendly, unstreamlined look.
And they share some other characteristics too. They are all relatively roughly finished and rustic looking. They all take the heat slowly but keep it once they've got it, and are ideal for concoctions that require long, slow cooking. They don't like surprises, like being plunked down right from the oven on a cold counter. They all are inexpensive, and they all look wonderful taken to the table.
One of my favorites is the poe lon, a topless pot wider than it is tall, with a hollow handle and a lipped rim. Because it provides a wide surface area for evaporation, this is the pot to use for things like chili or stews that need to reduce and thicken. Although it is too high to act as a true gratin dish, its wide surface area also makes it ideal for dishes like cassoulet that want a crusty brown top. I've also made layered vegetable casseroles in mine, and I use it all the time as a serving dish, whether I've cooked in it or not.
Then there is the marmite, which somehow looks like a charicature of a chunky, happy soup pot, which is exactly what it is. Marmites usually have slightly rounded bottoms but fairly straight sides, two fat handles, and a top. They are taller than they are wide, and usually glazed on the inside and left unglazed outside. In the marmite you could do soups, baked beans, the various versions of pot-au-feu, or confit.
The daubie re is wider at the bottom than it is at the top, and has a hollow handle. The design harks back to days when cooking in earthenware was accomplished by snuggling the whole pot into the bed of ashes, and the top is shaped to hold glowing coals. In most recipes for daube, the stew most often produced in a daubie re and the dish from which it takes its name, ingredients such as beef, bacon and vegetables are layered without browning first. A small amount of liquid is added, the top put on (and sometimes secured with a flour and water paste) and the whole thing left to cook slowly in a low oven.
While these three pots are of French origin and still made in France -- mainly in one village, at that -- there are some wonderful American-made versions on the market too. Brown's Pottery in Arden, N.C., has been making versions of these soup and stew pots since World War II, when French imports became unavailable. Up until then the pottery concentrated on churns and crocks. Brown's Pottery soup and stew pots are darker brown than the French versions. All have tops and all are glazed on the inside, though some are left unglazed outside for better heat absorption. They come from onion-soup size to 14-quart soup pot.
Johanna Brown has some advice on how to use and take care of these pots, and it's advice that applies to the French versions too. Most sources recommended seasoning at least the unglazed surfaces by rubbing them with cut cloves of garlic and then heating. This is supposed to seal them and provide better heat-keeping properties. Brown thinks this overcommits the cook to savory dishes with garlicky overtones. She makes peach cobbler in some of her shallower pots and points out that garlic and peach cobbler are not a marriage made in heaven. So think a while before you go the garlic route.
Brown says she's had her earthenware pots for years and doesn't find them especially fragile, but warns that drastic changes from cold to hot or vice versa may crack them. She puts her earthenware pots directly over heat, even heat hot enough to brown meat, but she always heats the cold pot gradually. Others recommend the use of a Flame Tamer or other diffusing device.
These earthenware pots, because they are made of simple materials in a simple way, are cheap. The American versions are available by mail order directly from Brown's Pottery, P.O. Box 10, Arden, N.C. 28704, or from Williams-Sonoma in less variety at nearly twice the price. Brown's will send a price list and description first. The French pots are available at La Cuisine in Alexandria and at The Coffee Connection in Washington.