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When Ashrf Aimasri was growing up in Alexandria, Egypt, his mom would chop vegetables for a stew and put it in a bram — a rustic, clay pot used nationwide — so he could drop it off at the community oven on his way to school, then bring it back on his way home.

“When there was meat with a bone in it, I would take it,” said Ashrf, sitting in his clay cookware store in Sonoma. “If you make all that effort, it has to have meat in it.”

His unique shop, also known as Bram, has attracted a who’s who of high-profile chefs as well as local cooking enthusiasts since he and his wife, Shelly, hung up their shingle a decade ago. Mediterranean maven Paula Wolfert of Sonoma was the first customer to walk through the door.

“When I first walked into Bram, I recalled a famous line from ‘Casablanca’: ‘Of all the gin joints in the world, she walks into mine,’ ” Wolfert said, when asked about that encounter. “I had just finished my book on Mediterranean clay pot cooking. And of all the towns in California, these folks opened a clay cooking pot store in my town.”

Wolfert immediately called her editors to make sure Bram was added to the book’s list of sources. Since then, the hand- crafted pots from Bram have been featured in high-end cookbooks by David Tanis and Heidi Swanson as well as cooking magazines such as Saveur and Bon Appétit.

Chef Charles Phan of the Slanted Door in San Francisco recommended Bram’s clay pots in 2011 as part of the magazine’s feature on the Top 100 tools for home cooking. Besides their sheer beauty, the clay pots enable you to cook food in a gentle and even manner ideal for comforting soups, stews, chilis and sauces.

“With clay, the heat transfer is just completely different from what you get with steel or any other meta ,” Phan wrote in Saveur. “Slow, even, delicate.”

While other stores sell a selection of clay cookware, Bram is the only shop in the U.S. that specializes in clay cookware.

At home, Ashrf and Shelly cook almost exclusively in clay pots. The only other cookware they own is a few copper pans they bought in Paris, where they first met on the street back in 2001.

“He picked me up,” Shelly recalled. “He asked me to go have tea. He’s very friendly and fun, and he’s passionate about what we’re doing.”

“You can cook everything in clay, and it tastes 100 percent better,” Ashrf said, exhibiting his enthusiasm. “The pots can be used in the oven or on top of the stove (with a heat diffuser) or on the grill or in a wood-fired oven … those pots are fired in 2,000-degree ovens.”

The shop also carries black, micaceous clay pots from La Chamba of Colombia, Italian bean pots from Vulcania of Siena and cazuelas from Spain. They also sell a curated selection of cookbooks, French market baskets, alabaster platters and wooden bowls, all made exclusively for them.

After Bram was asked to open a satellite store in the San Francisco Ferry Building — since closed — Ashrf drew a following among many of the top chefs in the Bay Area, including Joshua Skenes of Saison, David Kinch of Manresa and Alice Waters of Chez Panisse.

“Daniel Patterson came in last week and bought stuff for Dyafa, his Middle Eastern restaurant in Oakland,” he said. “Dyafa means ‘hospitality’ in Arabic.”

When asked about his childhood in Alexandria, Ashrf recalls that the port city of Egypt occupies a very special corner of the world.

“We are Egyptian by history, Arab because of the language and African as part of North Africa,” he said. “And we share the Mediterranean Sea with Turkey, Italy and Spain. You have the beautiful seafood.”

When the Moors left North Africa for Spain in 711 during the Dark Ages, each of the Moorish cultures brought their own foods with them along with enlightened cooking techniques for frying eggs and fish.

“Iran brought saffron and pomegranate, and the Moroccans brought spices,” he said. “The Egyptians brought eggplant and fava beans and music and architectures … so they taught them how to eat, drink, party and be happy.”

Although every country in the Middle East claims falafel and fava beans as their own, the dish known as ful medames in Egypt — dried, mature fava beans, cooked overnight — is considered Egypt’s national dish. Ful is eaten mostly for breakfast, with a wide range of condiments.

“It’s very similar to Mexican refried beans,” Shelly said.

“You soak them and cook and purée them, then sauté them with olive oil and garlic and a little cumin.”

Although Egypt is not exactly known for its fine cuisine, the people enjoy eating fresh and seasonal food that they’ve purchased mostly at farmers markets piled high with vegetables and fruit, eggs and spices.

“The street markets are amazing,” Shelly said. “You can go buy the freshest fish, and they will cook it right there for you.”

Ashrf and Shelly — who works as a pharmacist at the Sonoma Development Center — decided to open a clay pot cooking store after spending time together in Egypt. She would try to bring home clay pots in her suitcase but most of them never made it.

“We went back and forth to visit my family, and she fell in love with the brams,” he said. “We grabbed some brams from the pottery shop, and half got broken on the way home from the SF airport to the house.”

For a few years before opening their shop, the couple lived in Egypt on and off to work on creating their own line of natural clay cookware, a feat that was more difficult than they had ever imagined. They wanted a customized line that would not only include the rustic brams but more elaborate cazuelas for braising short ribs and tagines for stews.

“We could write a book,” Shelly said. “There’s a reason we’re the only people doing this.”

In Egypt, Ashrf found a potter to make the pots, then he found an artist to glaze them and a third artist to do the designs. He must transport the pots from artist to artist.

“The artists are all based in and around Cairo, and you cannot do more than one thing a day in Cairo,” he said. “People are slow.”

Because each potter only has one kiln, it takes about a year to assemble a container’s worth of pots and another month to pack the containers.

“He has to find the boxes, and it takes a week to deliver them, then you have to find another who finds the packing material,” Shelly said. “Then the container can’t fit down the street, so you have to hire a guy to pick up the pots to fill the container.”

Before their shop first opened, Shelly returned to the Bay Area to scout out possible locations, hoping to find a spot in the gourmet ghetto of Berkeley.

“We were looking for areas where there would be a strong food community,” she said. “People who are foodies or are chefs, they really gravitate to cooking in clay.”

After settling into a spot at the southwest corner of the Sonoma Plaza, the couple discovered that some people were coming to the Wine Country town just to make a pilgrimage to their tiny shop. Prices range from $30 for a simple bram to up to $300 for a tagine with a special design.

While the route to get the clay pots to Sonoma is complex, cooking in clay can be very simple and straightforward.

For Egyptian Baked Rice, for instance, you simply smear butter on the bottom of a bram, add rice and milk in a 2 to 1 ratio, then season with salt and pepper, stir, and add butter on top before baking.

“We bring it to the table, and everybody eats it with a stew,” Ashrf said. “We eat rice or bread with every single meal, if we can. Rice is very important in Egypt.”

A native of Oregon who grew up in a gardening family, Shelly learned to cook after realizing as an adult that she wanted to eat really good food.

For a light and lively summer dish, she chose a Thai green curry with chicken and vegetables and cooked it in a shallow La Chamba pot, recommended for beginners because they are tough, versatile and user-friendly.

“La Chamba works really well for dishes with more liquid,” she said. “The green curry is really easy to make.”

As another light summer dinner, she recommended a fish tagine with potatoes, peppers and black olives, which she cooked in an open clay bram because the fish doesn’t require long cooking but needs to be caramelized on top.

When he feels nostalgic for Egypt, Ashrf will cook an aromatic lamb stew with cardamom and vegetables in a bram, just like the one he used to take to the community oven on his way to school. And he loves to entertain, because the spirit of hospitality runs through his veins.

“In Egypt, when you invite someone over, you offer them the best you have,” he said. “That’s what I miss — helping people, without expecting anything from them.”

The following recipes are from Shelly Aimasri, who suggested substituting red curry paste if you want to make this dish with fish. You don’t have to use a diffuser on the cooktop if your pot is well seasoned and you know it can take the heat.

_____

Thai Green Curry with Chicken and Seasonal Vegetables

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 onion

3 tablespoons coconut oil

4 tablespoons green curry paste

2 bell peppers, sliced

2 zucchini, sliced into quarter-inch rounds

1 14 ounce can coconut milk

4 chicken thighs

2 tablespoons fish sauce

1 Thai or serrano chile

— Fresh Thai basil

Heat coconut oil in clay pot over medium heat on a metal diffuser. Add onion and sauté to soften but not brown. When onion is translucent, add curry paste and cook for about 1 minute until fragrant. Add cut vegetables and cook until then begin to soften.

Give the coconut milk a quick whiz in a blender or food processor to emulsify the cream and liquid, then add to the cooked vegetables. Add the fish sauce and chicken. Add a branch or two of Thai basil. Bring everything to a simmer and cook until chicken is done, approximately 20 minutes.

Adjust spice and color to taste by blending a bit of the fresh basil and chopped fresh chile with some of the hot cooking liquid until pureed. Add back into the curry. Serve with rice and a green salad.

For this recipe, the fish needs to be marinated in the charmoula for at least two hours or overnight.

Fish Tagine with Potatoes, Peppers, and Black Olives

Makes 4 to 6 servings

For charmoula:

2 cloves garlic

— Salt

1 bunch cilantro

1 lemon

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoons paprika

1 tablespoon olive oil

For tagine:

4 fillets white fish such as halibut, cod, or snapper

15-20 small fingerling potatoes

— Olive oil

2 garlic cloves, sliced

4 bell peppers, seeded and sliced

2 small tomatoes, chopped

1/2 cup oil-cured black olives

— Salt and pepper

For charmoula: Pound the garlic with the salt in a mortar and pestle until a paste forms. Add the cilantro and pound until crushed. The cilantro leaves should be broken up into small pieces not crushed into a paste. Zest the lemon and stir this into the mixture along with the juice, the vinegar, cumin, paprika, and olive oil.

For tagine: Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Take about half the charmoula and marinate the fish fillets in the sauce for at least two hours or overnight in the refrigerator. Steam the potatoes until soft, then peel them, cut them in half, and arrange on the bottom of a shallow baking dish, bram or tagine bottom. The potatoes should cover the bottom so the ingredients that will be layered on top don’t touch or stick to the bottom of the dish.

In a sauté pan over medium heat sauté the garlic until fragrant, then add the tomatoes. Cook for a few minutes until they start to break down, then add the peppers. Cook just until the peppers start to soften. Stir the remainder of the charmoula sauce into the cooked mixture.

Layer about two-thirds of the pepper and charmoula mixture over the potatoes, then add the fish, then arrange the remainder of the peppers over the fish. The fish should be mostly covered to protect it from direct heat and overcooking. Scatter the olives over the top. Add a bit of water to the dish, about half a cup, just enough to cover the bottom of the baking dish.

Cover dish and place in oven for about 20 minutes. Remove cover and allow tagine to cook for a few more minutes uncovered. Just until the olives and the peppers start to brown a bit. You can also turn off heat and place under broiler for just a minute. Watch carefully. Serve with Moroccan bread.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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