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Travels With My Cazuela

I do not travel nearly as much as I would like. So, to neutralize my wanderlust, I've turned my kitchen into my own personal travel agency.

This season, the call of the Iberian Peninsula feels particularly urgent, but instead of jetting to Spain, I picked up a terra cotta cazuela that has been in heavy rotation in my kitchen ever since.

While my cazuela hasn't completely quelled the vacation urge, it has lessened the longing by bringing me Spanish cuisine without having to take a month off of work.

Cooking in my cazuela transports me to the Spanish countryside, where I imagine myself sitting down to lunch in the middle of an Andalusian olive grove. I see myself hiding from the summer sun under a colossal oak tree, which, despite its old age, stands tall and proud against the golden hills that surround it.

The landscape is covered with purple and yellow wildflowers filled with honeybees, buzzing in the warm, still air. There are no cell phones, no crowded roads and not a glimmer of urgency in this pastoral setting. Here, time stops when you sit down to eat.

My cazuela takes me there.

A cazuela is a round, shallow clay pot with straight sides that looks like a terra cotta saute pan, minus the handle. A glazed finish on the inside prevents food from soaking into its porous cooking surface, and the clay body does more than conduct heat. Since it's made from earth, it actually absorbs and radiates heat.

Cazuelas come in many sizes, from small ramekin-sized dishes to vessels several feet across. There are several variations on the traditional cazuela, including the olla, a large lidded pot for cooking beans, and the cocote, which looks like a clay Dutch oven. Attractive and efficient, cazuelas easily go from stovetop to tabletop.

Clay cooking goes back to the ancients. The Romans fashioned tall earthenware vessels to hold liquids such as wine and olive oil, while the Inca used large terra cotta bowls for cooking grains, beans, potatoes and soups. The Incan comal is a large, flat griddle used for cooking tortillas and other flat foods over a fire. A variation is used by many cultures today.

The Romertopf, a modern clay pot introduced in the 1960s, is enjoying a resurgence as people become more concerned about healthful cooking methods. Clay seals in nutrients and cuts down on fats, since foods cooked this way don't require basting.

The cazuela was often used in kitchens throughout Spain for cocina pobre, or "poor cooking." This was the common cooking style throughout the 19th and 20th centuries after a series of wars and tumultuous political changes left the nation in economic turmoil.

For centuries, provincial culinary techniques remained largely unchanged for people who were used to living frugally on whatever they had on hand. Their diets generally consisted of bread, olive oil, regional vegetables and local small game.

However, Spanish cooks do amazing things with a small spice arsenal. One spice is distinctly Spanish. Smoked paprika, which is usually labeled pimenton, is made from peppers smoked for several days over an oak fire.

Pimenton comes in three varieties, depending on the kind of peppers used: sweet (dulce), bittersweet (agridulce) and hot (picante). All three can be found in the international spice section of most major grocery stores. Pimenton dulce is the mildest of the three and the most commonly found in the U.S. Its dark red powder gives any savory dish a deep, smoky layer.

If you are new to terra cotta cooking, choose a medium-sized cazuela (28 centimeters, or just over 11 inches). This size is versatile and will easily cook a meal for four. A Dutch oven or a heavy cast-iron skillet can be used as a substitute.

Cazuelas are available at international groceries that have a selection of Spanish or Mexican kitchen equipment, and from online sellers. They are not expensive and are a good investment if you need to get away but can't travel farther than your kitchen.

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Stephanie Stiavetti