By Perla Meyers
For as long as I can remember our kitchen in Barcelona where I grew up had a heavy pot simmering away on the stove. In winter, it usually contained a stew. Spring brought with it the aroma of asparagus or sorrel soup. Summer was the time for apricot, cherry or strawberry purees to spread on morning toast. And in the fall the unmistakable aroma of beans stewed with the last of summer’s tomatoes and peppers suffused the air.
My mother and my grandmother made almost everything in old-fashioned heavy enameled cast-iron pots, known as Dutch ovens. These pots, in various flame colors, were lined up against the kitchen walls according to size, ranging from the largest, which resembled a small tub, down to the smallest one, just roomy enough to melt some butter or hard-boil a couple of eggs. The pots were well worn from years of use over a high flame or in the fireplace. But they still worked perfectly—they conducted the heat evenly and they were nearly indestructible. Together with a few cast-iron skillets, a couple of copper saucepans and some earthenware casseroles, they covered all the cooking needs of our family.
Ours was not an unusual kitchen for that time and place. It was in keeping with a tradition of slow cooking that began when hunters put tough cuts of moose, wild boar or hare in makeshift vessels and cooked them for hours over wood fires, breaking down the tough fibers until the meat became tender and flavorful. By the 1600s, heavy cast-iron pots were being manufactured in the Netherlands and braising had become a more sophisticated method of cooking. European cooks were simmering tough cuts of meat and then adding garden vegetables and the spices and herbs of their regional cuisines to achieve distinctive flavors and textures. By the nineteenth century, dishes like the French Daube or Coq au Vin, the Italian Osso Buco, the Spanish Cocido Madrileño and all-American New England Baked Beans were becoming classics.
Today in New York City, my kitchen is tight on space. But I do have Dutch ovens in several sizes that I use all the time. I pull out my 6-quart pot again and again, be it for a batch of soup, some poached fruit or a quick tomato sauce. It’s the perfect size to make a hearty braise for six or eight people and it works flawlessly every time.
When I look at some of the pots that I inherited and lugged overseas from Barcelona, I feel nostalgic. They have been part of my life for such a long time. I wonder if it’s time for a change now that they come in so many gorgeous colors. But why change? My pots, even after decades of use, are still going strong. Like all Dutch ovens, they have tight-fitting lids that retain moisture. Plus they’re coated with enamel, so I can cook with acidic ingredients, such as tomatoes and wine, without affecting the flavor. Best of all, cast iron conducts and retains heat exceptionally well, so foods cook evenly both on top of the stove and in the oven and stay hot on the dining table.
And it’s this ability to conduct heat and retain moisture that makes these pots work so well for braising. I adore braising because it transforms inexpensive tough cuts of meat into deep-flavored tender morsels. In fact, the more chewy or sinewy the meat, the more flavorful the sauce is. And when I make a braise I can prepare dinner ahead of time, with little or no attention once it’s cooking.
This group of recipes includes some of my favorite braises to make in these wonderful pots. Some are informed by tradition, such as Braised Beef & Mushrooms, a classic Austro-Hungarian dish. Others draw from multiple traditions, such as my Thai-flavored take on bouillabaisse. Chicken in Garlic-Vinegar Sauce is a classic that I grew up with. No matter what the origins, all these dishes recall the kitchens of another age.