Copper and Clay: Cooking for the Soul

Copper and Clay: Cooking for the Soul

It is a thing of almost unutterable beauty.

The elegantly curvaceous copper pot gleams in the light, looking decidedly Old World in both shape and craftsmanship. A gift from my beloved this Christmas, the hand-hammered couscoussier is one of those rare pieces that seamlessly melds form, function and beauty. I keep walking in to the kitchen simply to gaze at it sitting on the counter, admiring the way the burnished metal glimmers like firelight.

Copper couscoussier and hand-painted tagine

Technically, it’s two pots in one: a rounded base pot for cooking broth, meat and vegetables, and a perforated top pot for steaming couscous or vegetables. A couscoussier (pronounced ‘couscous-yay’) is the time honored way of making couscous, the essential Moroccan dish that many people think is a grain but is actually made from semolina, and thus more closely resembles miniature pasta. Couscous can also be made with barley, which was its traditional Berber origin before it was widely supplanted by wheat. Repeated steaming and breaking apart of the couscous (allowing it to cool and rolling it between your hands) is the secret that yields the fluffy, light texture you find in couscous at a good Moroccan restaurant (or anywhere in Morocco), a characteristic very difficult to duplicate at home when using substitute methods like simply hydrating the couscous with boiling salted water or zapping it in a microwave (blasphemy).

The couscoussier is the best sort of gift really. The elegant copper vessel is something that I have admired for years, but given its somewhat specialized use haven’t splurged upon to buy for myself. That said, considering that Moroccan food makes a regular appearance at our dining table, the hammered pot will be in my kitchen for a long, long time, especially in light of its beauty and craftsmanship. Gorgeous and practical.

In fact, on Christmas Eve, having disembarked from my mainland flight just five hours previous, we sat down to a homemade Moroccan tagine of free-range chicken, olives, and preserved lemon, with a saffron-infused rice pilaf served alongside. Decidedly non-traditional for a Christmas time supper, yes, but oh so delicious. It is the sort of food that I generally like best: simple, uncomplicated, comforting and rich in flavor.

And taken a step further, prepared with tools, pans and dishes that offer delight in their use, design and ‘feel’—like a copper couscoussier or a clay tagine—the work of such a meal becomes a delightfully tactile, soul-nourishing process from start to finish.

Nigel Slater, a brilliant food writer in the UK (click to read my post, “Tea with Nigel”) whom I enjoy, when speaking of kitchen supplies and ‘kit’, of what one needs in a kitchen and doesn’t, said, “… I don’t know anyone who has used their Moroccan tagine more than twice.” It’s rare that I’m at odds with Mr. Slater but I love my clay tagine. Handmade and hand-painted, I truly appreciate the little differentiations and imperfections of it (rather like us humans, one could say).

There is something elemental about cooking in clay. Earthy. Timeless. Generous and old fashioned. It’s the antithesis of everything slick, high speed, impersonal and mass produced in our world. Yes, it requires a certain care and mindfulness, and an unhurried approach, but that’s not a bad thing. (Quite the opposite, I would argue.) Even after its initial ‘seasoning’, clay vessels need to be heated slowly so that they don’t crack; clay doesn’t like thermal extremes, so care must be taken not to set the hot pot on a cold counter (or any other similar kind of temperature shock). Yet there is a quality to food that has been slow cooked in clay that I can only describe as nearly magical, or to employ the single most overused adjective in food descriptions today—most of them very far off the mark— ‘authentic’.

Cooking with clay moves us back towards the elemental realm of soul. A few years ago, I had a cazuela from Spain that I truly adored, a round, glazed casserole in which I cooked all manner of good things. Alas, it met a tragic and premature end, and I’ve not yet found a suitable replacement. I loved its feel, earthy hue, and graceful shape, and like the tagine, whatever I cooked in it possessed a beguiling charm, depth of flavor, and visual appeal that other non-clay vessels fail to replicate.

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” said William Morris.

Placed side by side on the counter, or stovetop, my copper couscoussier and the clay tagine are functional works of art. Each does an unparalleled job with what it was designed to do, while offering a tactile, sensory delight and beauty in the process. What more could you ask for, really.

If you read this journal on a regular basis, you know that I’m often prattling on about the simple pleasures of the day—particularly those in the kitchen, or gathering at table—and being fully ensconced in the sensuality of the moment. They are the simple celebrations of being human, I say.

Both in this column and The Bones and Breath, I’ve spent a good deal of time talking about the response in the heart—and body, generally—to what is presented to the senses. How does it feel? What happens in the bodysoul when we touch a thing with our senses, or feel its touch upon us; an expansion and opening, or a tightening and restriction? How does a room, or our house feel? For that matter, how does your life feel?

I cannot say that a copper or clay pot actually warms my heart, not in the way that a living thing like a small bird or a beautiful tree does, but there is a subtle, somatic sense of ‘goodness’—a softening in my belly, a relaxation of the eyes, a caress of jagged edges, a gentle ease—which is always what Soul Artists are seeking.

Soul Artists are keenly attuned to the feeling sense of life. Indeed, feeling is a primary navigational sense, and they value the intuitive guidance of the heart and kinetic knowing of touch as much as logical mentation (sometimes more so). They are highly attuned to their environment and the details that compose it, from plants in the garden, to furnishings in the home, to the tools they use. Having the ‘right’ paintbrush, pen, guitar, hand spade, or pan offers its own joy, each possessing some quality that is entirely subjective yet matters deeply.

Gentle reader, as I have queried before, what is the art you make of your life? My hope is that you possess a few special objects or tools that deliver a simple pleasure when using them—offering something more than mere functionality, and inviting you to savor the moment, however briefly. Whether it’s a gorgeous design statement or a battered old thing, may the items you choose to employ (perhaps wear) somehow stitch you a bit closer to the core sense of yourself, what you value and appreciate.

And in terms of deep nourishment for body and soul, may you have the opportunity to savor something cooked slowly in a clay pot, prepared by generous and kind hands.