Cazuela is both a very special type of South American stew and the very special pot in which it is cooked. While both Chileans and Argentineans will swear this dish’s heart first beat at the fires of their ancestral cooks, everyone who tastes a really well-built cazuela will want to make it their own personal national dish. Authentic cazuela, regardless of accent, contains two or three kinds of meat, potatoes or other root vegetables, and some pieces of South American pumpkin called calabaza.
The first cazuela pots were fired thousands of years ago at a very low heat for a very long time. Today, as in the past, once they’ve been seasoned by soaking in water, these clay cooking pots become so sturdy that they could be used not only in the oven but directly over a flame. Cazuelas are beautiful not only in their usefulness but in their appearance; dark red to black, crafted today with curved rims and fanciful animals in the handles, these pots go directly from the stove to the table. Because they hold their heat so well, their contents will remain at a simmer for several minutes while the family gathers.
The South American stew-like soup is most commonly made with a base of beef or pork. Chicken or turkey can also be used. Home cooks frequently add whatever vegetables might be available, such as green beans, tomatoes, or summer squash. To make the soup heartier, rice, noodles, or other grains can be added to thicken it. Most cooks leave the pieces of meat and vegetables whole so that diners can begin by drinking the soup then attacking the large pieces of stewed food.
In Chile, a tiny village a few hours’ drive from Santiago, called Pomaire, is dedicated to the manufacture of cazuela pots of all sizes, as well as other ceramics. Every street of the rustic village is lined with homes connected to family shops where wares are laid out on blankets or piled onto shelves. The most common size is an individual serving dish; these can go right into the oven to cook their ingredients. A popular tourist purchase is a big dish that bears the head of a happy pig at one end of the rim, a curly tail at the other, and pig trotters in place of ordinary pot legs.
Cazuela — both the cooking pots and the dish that is created in them — have become popular in Spain as well. Commercially produced cazuelas populate grocery and department store shelves, but there’s nothing like a beautiful, hand-created bowl. These become family treasures inherited by each succeeding generation.