Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Pratchett Pot

One of my very favorite writers in the whole universe -- this or any other -- is Terry Pratchett, author of the impossibly sublime Disc World series. He is both wise and witty and possessed of the most incredibly fertile imagination it has ever been my pleasure to enjoy. Although what he writes is considered fantasy, methinks he speaks more truth than most -- and makes you laugh out loud while he's at it.

Of course Disc World is overflowing with high magic and all the wild adventures that entails, as well as some interesting effects one cannot be blamed for dismissing as imaginary. For instance, Pratchett often describes spaces that look to be small on the outside but expand to enormous dimensions inside. Perfectly normal on Disc World, the reader well knows, but patently impossible on good old Earth. At least that's what I thought before this evening. Now I find the man was not only telling the truth, I am actually in possession of an example of this strangely dimensionally flexible space. Yes, Coffee Mates. I have a genu-wine, boney-fide Pratchett Pot.

It all started when I read a most intriguiging book -- Glorious One-Pot Meals -- by Elizabeth Yarnell. She has developed a cooking method for which she actually holds Canadian and U.S. patents, wherein she cooks an entire meal in a Dutch Oven and it's NOT a casserole. What's more, she assures you that you can blithely mix both fresh and frozen foods together and they'll all come out perfectly done at the end of the cooking time.

Yeah. Riiiiight. People make remarks like that and I tend to inch discreetly away, looking at them out of the corner of my eye. Still, I kept coming back to her tantalizing claim: load the pot with layers of food that take maybe 15 minutes to prepare, put it in the oven and walk away. Relax. Have a glass of wine. Take a bubble bath. Forty-five minutes later, pull the pot out of the oven, dish up your dinner and enjoy the fact that you only have that one pot to wash up later. (Well, okay, also the dinner plate and the silverware and the ... you know what I mean.)

I was not only dubious about the fresh/frozen concept, I couldn't see how the layers of different kinds of foods could be kept separate while cooking or when dishing up later. And that was before it registered that she was saying all the recipes are for two people and will be packed into a 2-quart Dutch oven. Do you realize how small a 2-quart pot is? Look at your ruler. Put your thumb on the 2 5/8 inch mark. That's how deep it is. Slide your thumb over to the 7 1/2 inch mark. That's how wide it is from rim to rim. And you're going to feed two full-grown, presumably hungry people?

Yarnell says cast iron is best for this method of cooking but allows as how enamel-clad steel is also okay. She feels the results aren't as consistently perfect as with the cast iron but you use what you have, right? And I don't have a cast iron Dutch oven, either plain or gorgeously enameled. After hours of diligent online searching, I also discovered the 2 quart size is woefully hard to find and, hooboy, some of those little rascals are horrendously expensive, don'cha know?

Then I got to thinking about my cookware set -- the one I treated myself to back when I was working for wages. Chantal. Enamel-clad steel. Colbalt blue. (smile) Glass lids. Steel handles and knobs that won't melt in the oven. And one of the sauce pans was the 2-quart size. The only thing that worried me was the glass lid. Certainly it's tempered glass but Yarnell has you baking your meal at a whopping 450 degrees fairyheight and according to the Chantal people, the lids were safe up to 375 degrees. But another Chantal owner told me she has a dish she cooks quite a long time at 425 and has never had a problem with the lids. Hmmmm.

Okay. Chantal is probably going to give the consumer a cutoff temp that is low enough that they won't face a probable lawsuit but the glass will probably manage a bit more with safety. On the other hand, I really didn't want to push it too far. That stuff's way too expensive to be careless with it. I compromised. Instead of 45 minutes at 450 degrees, I did 1 hour at 400. As you can see above, it worked. The meal came out perfectly and it really was as easy to fix as Yarnell claimed it would be. And the layers stayed layered while they cooked. And when I began spooning out each layer for my dinner plate, the different foods still stayed separate. See below.

On the left we have the macaroni and sliced onions that went on the bottom layer. Because the macaroni was uncooked at that point, I poured in 3/4 of a cup of liquid that consisted of the juice from a can of chopped tomatoes with enough chardonnay added to make 1 cup. (basil, oregano and marjoram were added to the liquid) You'll see in the upper right position the chicken breast that was plopped down, frozen solid, for the next layer, sprinkled with coarse kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Then came a sprinkling of chopped garlic and a layer of the drained, chopped tomatoes. Then came a layer of chopped zucchini and crookneck squash (bottom half of the plate), a final sprinkle of salt and pepper and the last 1/4 cup of tomato liquid. At this point, as per instructions, the food was packed in to the absolute brim of the pot. I sprayed the lid with olive oil (also sprayed the pot before laying in the food), set it in place firmly and popped the whole shebang in the oven . . . and crossed my fingers.

It was when I'd finished dishing up my plate that I realized this was a Pratchett Pot. Coffee Mates, I barely made a dent in the contents of that pot. I'm pretty sure there is more food in there now than when I started so the pot HAS to be bigger than it looks. Yeah, I know -- the macaroni takes up more space when it swells -- but there wasn't supposed to be any more space, even if you account for the shrinkage of the veggies. I mean, one sort of evens out the other. Gee, how about that? You really can feed two hungry people this way. Or one hungry people two (or more) times. (That would be me.)

The only problem with this method of cooking is the heat factor. Summer is not the time to be firing up the regular oven for an hour, a fact for which I can stand my glistening self up and testify. However, my countertop Nesco oven goes up to 450 degrees and doesn't put out anywhere near the heat the big oven does. The long-handled Chantal pot won't fit in there but some of my Corning Ware casserole dishes do. I think I have a 2-quart one that might turn out to have Pratchett Pot tendencies. I hope so because Yarnell has a lot more recipes I want to try.

As soon as I've finished working my way through this first magically expanded meal.

Addendum: Oops! I forgot to give you this link so you'll have a better idea of how these One-Pot meals work: Elizabeth Yarnell. Check it out!


John Bailey said...

Oh, Yummity! Food fit for a Wizzard!

The Old Guy said...

Smart cooking, Dee. To make sure it measures up to your standards, I suggest you get one of these. But I suppose you wouldn't use it as a rule.

bonnie said...

Yes indeed no oven on in the summer here. The AC is already working overtime! I hear Portland hit 106 yesterday. I wouldn't expect those temps up there.

Dee said...

I'm grinning to see another Pratchett fan, John. I can tell by the way you spelled wizzard.

Bill, if I weren't laughing so hard, I'd smack you!

Bonnie, I'm pretty sure the people in Portland don't expect triple-digit temps, either. It just doesn't jibe with the Northwest lifestyle, you know?

kate et jim said...

I love Bill's timer!

I only use the oven in the summer, on rainy, cool days. A/C's only been on, here and there, so far this year!

(My package arrived today, Dee!!! :)) Haven't opened it yet - one more day to work, then this weekend I'll give it a whirl! Will let you now about the bowl size!)