On Zarela's Mind: Cooking with Cazuelas

Mole is one of the best-known savory dishes made with chocolate.

Mole is one of the best-known savory dishes made with chocolate.  (Marissa Sanchez)

For many Latinas, a well-seasoned pottery cooking vessel, or cazuela, is as important as a cast-iron pan is to a Southern cook. Great cazuelas are collected and handed down through generations. They are brought out along with the family silver for special occasions, making for a grand buffet de cazuelas of traditional family recipes. El Cardenal restaurant in Mexico City serves their buffet in this style and caterer Victor Nava offers convent-style desserts such as arroz con leche (rice pudding), natilla (a type of flan), dulce de leche, and my favorite, heavenly pine nut pudding.

At my catering company, Zarela Catering, we serve our most popular buffet—a make-your-own-taco menu—in cazuelas. A plus is that cazuelas hold heat well and we can use them with our Mexican anafres (a type of brazier that uses sterno) instead of those horrid chafing dishes.

Artisanal clay pots are all the rage thanks to popular food writer Paula Wolfert and distributors like those from Spain and Colombia. A unique wedding gift could be a starter set of nested cazuelas. I use mine separately or serve various dishes in the different-sized but matching vessels for my frequent entertaining.

If you know my work, you now that my favorite cooking vessel has always been a 5-quart, heavy dutch oven. But my friend Nathalie Herling, a distributor for the black-pottery line Chamba, from Colombia, has converted me. We will soon be introducing the Zarela Cazuela. We know that it will have a five-quart capacity and a tight-fitting lid, but are still working out the design. I hope to have it ready by Christmas.

At the ranch, my mother cooked in cast iron, perhaps because it could be used over an open fire at the chow wagons during round up time, the bittersweet time when all the cattle is rounded up and the male calves are neutered, branded, and separated from their mothers, their ears cut in the ranch’s special mark. ( It was hard to sleep that night, with the cows aching to be milked and the kids crying for their mothers.)

But my mother always had an olla de frijoles. I had an imaginary friend named Alicio and when I suddenly stopped mentioning him, my mother inquired about his whereabouts. I cold-bloodedly told her that he had died. She asked me how the tragic event had happened and I replied that he had drowned in a pot of beans. 

Nathalie tells a sweeter story about her bean pot: The pot is supposed to fit right up on the hip bone so she can cradle it with her arm and hold a baby in the other.

Award-winning restaurateur Zarela Martinez blogs at You can also check out her how-to videos on YouTube.