A Micaceous Clay Pot and Some Damn Good Beans

When it comes to souvenirs my many years of travel have taught me that a useful cooking or serving implement beats an article of clothing by a mile. The dozens of kimonos I purchased at flea markets in Japan still sit in a chest in the basement and when I squeeze myself into the gorgeous Thai silk suit I bought in Bangkok, the look is more slightly-chubby-Thai-Airways-flight-attendant than Mata Hari. On the other hand, the oak barrel I dragged home from Montepulciano continues to make wonderful vinegar from the dregs of our wine glasses and the set of dishes I bought in Kappabashi in Tokyo make their appearance nearly nightly on our dinner table.

Last September we took a trip to Santa Fe and I became obsessed with buying a micaceous clay pot. I had read an article about them in New Mexico magazine and was intrigued by the accounts of their unusual heat conductivity and the "sweet" flavour they were said to impart to food, particularly beans. It wasn't my first encounter with micaceous clay; we had bought a small Lacota mask at Taos Pueblo on our honeymoon but hadn't realized that this metal-flecked clay was traditionally used to produce beautiful and highly functional cooking vessels.

The clay, from Northern New Mexico, is a blend of mica and red clay and has been used by the indigenous peoples of New Mexico for hundreds of years. The pots are built using the coil method and were traditionally fired in a large open fire. Modern potters have since discovered that firing the pots first in a kiln and finishing them in a wood fire leads to a more durable product. The black patterns that are a characteristic of these pots are called "fire clouds" and are formed when the burning wood touches the vessel during the firing process.

Finding an affordable pot, however, proved to be a challenge. Micaceous clay objects are not cheap and well-crafted pots usually start at around $100 per quart. I finally found a three-quart pot while browsing around the galleries and artist studios in Madrid, New Mexico, for about $150.

When I got the pot home I could hardly wait to try it. I gently washed it before use and was horrified to find that the clay inside seemed to be rubbing off, forming a pool of muddy water in the bottom. I remembered that someone had told me that you could season (and thus seal the pores) of a ceramic Japanese hot pot or nabe by cooking rice in it before use. I tried this clever trick and it worked perfectly.

The first recipe I chose to try was "Clay Pot Frijoles" from New Mexico magazine. I used small white beans instead of the pinto or bolita beans that the recipe called for and since epazote is not one of the herbs I grow in my garden I simply eliminated it. I did have a big bag of Chimayo chile that I bought from a couple of farmers outside of the Santuario di Chimayo about 25 miles north of Santa Fe. I also had some homemade maple cured bacon in the freezer that added just the right touch of smokiness to the beans.

I mixed all the ingredients together and brought everything to a boil on top of the stove and then left the beans to cook for a few hours in the wood-fired oven after the coals had been removed and the temperature had dropped to about 3oo degrees Farenheit.

The resulting beans were terrific. Smoky, brick red and slightly fiery, they just seemed to get better and better as you ate them. It's hard to say whether or not they actually tasted "sweeter" than beans cooked in a metal or glazed pot but they certainly had an indescribable and not at all unpleasant earthiness about them.

I use the pot almost weekly in the winter, in either the outdoor wood-fired oven or in the top half of our Tukikivi masonry heater. It's developing a beautiful patina on the outside the clay seems to be absorbing all the luscious flavours of the food cooked within.