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Cooking | TOOL DEPARTMENT

Soapstone: cookware that rocks

February 22, 2006|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

In Italy, the capital of stone cookware is the Valchiavenna, a valley north of Lake Como, also well known as a ski area. It has been making soapstone pots at least since the 1400s. As in Brazil, the pots are worked with lathes. The stone pot (laveggio or lavecc), the symbol of the local cuisine, is used for making soups, risottos and long-cooked meat dishes such as potatoes and sausages or pork ribs in wine.

Yemeni stone cookware (not commercially available) is carved by hand, using adzes and files. It's quite thin, about one-quarter inch, while Brazilian and Italian ware is usually at least half an inch thick. Surprisingly, this probably makes the thinner somewhat more durable on the fire. Food science writer Harold McGee points out that heat spreads slowly through stone, so thinner pieces suffer less stress and warping on the fire.

Because it's just a piece of rock, a soapstone pot can't have a built-in handle, the way pottery or a metal utensil can. The Italian laveggi that Kleiman bought at Medagliani l'Alberghiera in Milan 20 years ago don't even make a nod in the direction of a handle -- you have to pick them up with pot holders. Yemeni miglas have flanges on their sides so you can move them with a pair of sticks. But more modern pots and griddles mount a copper band around the utensil and rivet some handles onto that.

The laveggi that Medagliani sells today also have disks of aluminum affixed to their bottoms, presumably for extra sturdiness. Not that they absolutely need it, but it might be a sign -- a sign that stone is coming back.

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An uncommon cookware

Soapstone cookware is available from one local distributor, Wildwood Ovens in Eagle Rock. It has stock on hand, and you can also order from its website. Other distributors offer the cookware for sale online.

All sell Brazilian soapstone, except for Medagliani l'Alberghiera in Milan, which sells Italian.

Because of the awkwardness of ordering from Medagliani's website, it would be best to inquire about prices and shipping costs by clicking @Contattaci at www.medagliani.it.

The usual sizes of the Brazilian griddles and pots range from $70 to $100; 1-liter and smaller pots tend to be around $50. Brazil on My Mind has small pots without handles as low as $30 and a 5-liter pot for $150.

Most soapstone merchants give instructions for curing the cookware by oiling it and baking it until it darkens. This resembles the curing of iron pots, but it's primarily for appearance's sake. While uncured iron pots will give a rusty flavor to food, uncured soapstone will simply not have such an evenly darkened surface.

Wildwood Ovens. 10- and 16-inch pizza stones; 11- and 16-inch griddles; 2- and 3-liter lidded pots; 11-inch lidded lasagna pot. 5050 La Roda Ave., Eagle Rock, CA 90041; (800) 579-2797. www.wildwoodovens.com.

Fante's. 1- and 3-liter stockpots; 9-inch saute pan; 12- and 15-inch griddles. fantes.com/soapstone.htm.

Greenfeet. 10- and 12-inch griddles; 800-milliliter, 1.5- and 3-liter pots, 9-inch lidded saute pan. www.greenfeet.com/soapstone-cookware.html.

Brazil on My Mind. 800-milliliter, 1.5-, 3- and 5-liter pots; 10-, 12- and 15-inch pizza stones; 7 griddles (4 round, 2 rectangular, 1 square); 11-inch roasting pan; 9-inch lidded saute pan; bread baker. P.O. Box 552, Sonora, CA 95370, (209) 536-1887. www.brazilonmymind.com.

Medagliani l'Alberghiera, Milan. 2.5-, 3- and 4-liter casseruola pietra naturale, 4.3- and 5.5-liter casseruola bombata, square and rectangular baking/serving trays (lastra). www.medagliani.it/allegati_rassegna/Cucina.pdf (Soapstone ware is on Page 7).

Charles Perry

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Costine di maiale (pork ribs)

Total time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Servings: 3

Note: From www.vaol.it, a website about Valchiavenna, the soapstone cookware making center of Italy. To avoid cracking the pot, use room temperature wine and add it slowly. The meat should sit out and be at room temperature before cooking. Have the butcher cut the ribs in half lengthwise.

2 pounds pork spare ribs, cut in half

3/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1/4 teaspoon pepper, plus more to taste

5 sprigs fresh thyme

1/4 cup torn fresh basil

1 clove garlic, sliced

2 cups red or white wine (we used Pinot Grigio), at room temperature

1. Season the ribs with salt and pepper. Cut between each rib to get individual riblets.

2. Place a 3-quart soapstone pot on medium-high heat and heat about 10 minutes, until a piece of pork fat will sizzle. Brown the ribs, 4 to 5 minutes per side, in batches, returning all to the pot at the end. Add the thyme, basil and garlic. Add the wine a little at a time. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover and cook until the ribs are done, 1 hour to 1 hour, 15 minutes.

3. Five minutes before serving, taste and season to taste with salt and pepper

Each serving: 674 calories; 41 grams protein; 3 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 43 grams fat; 16 grams saturated fat; 170 mg. cholesterol; 720 mg. sodium.

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