Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Stocking up

As the weather begins to turn, so do my thoughts–to making stocks as bases for all the soups, braises, and sauces that will warm the kitchen as we descend into winter. I’ve started squirreling away containers of them, as many as the freezer can hold, and I look forward to those rainy days when another fragrant pot of stock simmers to life on the back burner.

This stock-making penchant comes from my Dad, who used to become uncharacteristically quiet when, on weekends, he gathered the kitchen scraps that would transform into demi-glaces or game sauces. As soon as a string of crisp days came along, he lugged down his tallest stockpot, which took its place on the rear right quadrant of the stove, beside the small wooden barrel where he poured leftover wine to make his own vinegar. The first day, the pot sat tranquilly as delicate currents circulated around the jumble of bones, vegetables, and bundled herbs inside. Once the liquid went to gold and had drunk all the essence from the solids, he strained the whole mess through a fine, cone-shaped strainer into a smaller pot, where the clear stock concentrated further, overnight and into the next day, darkening from wheat-colored to ochre, and finally to a rich umber emulsion through which bubbles rose thickly. You could chart the progress of the stock’s reduction by the strata of skin around the inside of the pot, ruffling in the rising steam.

Somewhere during those years, ‘tween self-consciousness kicked in and I bristled at all the elaborate goings-on in our kitchen. I worried ours would be that weird house with the heavy, soupy smell that made visitors want to leave as soon as they walked in the door. And there were other things, far more unsettling things, like the moldy hams curing in his hand-built wine cellar, the shotgun safe, and the sacks of limp birds he toted home from hunting expeditions. All of this felt way too conspicuous in our 80’s Lipton suburbia. Later, Dad took up fly-fishing and practiced his roll cast in the front yard, in full view of the neighbors, and decked in full regalia, to boot: hat, hiking socks pulled up his shins, and a vest adorned with net and scissors and lures (mercifully, he stopped shy of the waders). It was simply too much for a sullen teenage vegetarian to take. I retreated upstairs to the safety of the TV room, where I could see the fishing line whipping back and forth in front of the window as I tried to concentrate on Real World marathons.

Eventually I regained my senses, and I couldn’t deny for long that cooking (and omnivorism) was in my bones. My prescient mother bought me a giant stockpot as a gift for my first apartment in NYC, a tiny studio on the Upper West Side. The kitchen itself wasn’t much bigger than the vessel, which ended up getting used as storage for cookie cutters and pie weights and other things that saw the light of day once a year. I still have that pot, bought at a kitchen outlet somewhere, and from which many stocks have sprung. It’s a good one, even though the glass lid is cracked and it’s a bitch to clean. I also use it to steam lobsters and seal jam jars and, as always, store pie weights.

Making stocks is more than just my chance to wallow in nostalgia–it’s the essence of kitchen thrift, since many scraps discarded as garbage are, in fact, the makings of some of the finest soup bases. Leek tops, wobbly carrots, mushrooms gone slightly soft–and of course bones–are all fair game. If you are an enthusiastic cook but have not yet crafted your own stock, make this your year! What I've learned is that precision is overrated; in cooking school we were handed recipes and expected to follow them to the letter, told to hover scrupulously over the stock pot, ready to skim should any globule of fat or foam rise. Years of casual stock-making at home have taught me that this is unnecessary, unless you strive to create the clearest of consommés. The classic French method dictates that you fashion a neat little bouquet garni–a bundle of herbs–and neatly tie it together. I've found that 1. it's not the end of the world if you don't have every single herb dictated, and 2. it's a waste of time to tie everything neatly together when, after all, you're straining the whole thing at the end, anyway. Amounts don't have to be precise, either–just don't add too much water, or the stock will be diluted.

Below, I’ve included some tips to make stock-making easier and more fulfilling. I’ve also included a recipe for chicken stock. If you can get your hands on them, chicken feet make some of the richest stock possible–I buy mine from Grazin’ Angus Acres at the Carroll St. market on Sundays. In another
family tangent, my Mom loves telling the story of how she and her friend once sneaked a bag of raw chicken feet into someone’s fancy cocktail party, painted the toenails harlot red, and arranged them neatly on doilies, to be passed among the other canapés. Crazy Mom, these are for you.
Stock tips
  • You may have all the makings of a vegetable stock in your fridge: anything a little past its prime yet not moldy works well. At a minimum, you'll want onions and carrots, but try to include celery, as well. You can also throw in garlic, mushrooms, and a little bit of tomato, among other things. Just avoid starchy root vegetables, as they will cloud the stock. 
  • Be a vegetable completist: if you are making corn chowder, use the cobs to make a stock. For winter squash soups, use the skins, seeds, and pulp (along with other aromatics) for a flavorful base (strain this liquid before pureeing with roasted squash).
  • When ordering chicken parts from the butcher, ask them to save the backs, necks and wing tips–stash them in the freezer until you reach critical mass and have a good day for stock-making.
  • For the richest chicken stock, use not only backs but collagen-rich parts such as wings, necks, and feet
  • After roasting a chicken and picking it over, simmer the carcass and leavings in a pot with some vegetables, herbs, and water. 
  • If you make stock regularly, invest in a “chinois,” or fine-mesh conical strainer. Its deep basket holds a lot of gunk and fits nicely over pots.
  • To save space, reduce stock way down to concentrate it. Freeze it in ice cube trays, transfer frozen cubes of stock to freezer bags, and use as needed; you can always add more water to dilute later on.
  • I like this recipe for homemade vegetable bouillon, from 101 cookbooks
  • Doctor the stock–The old man himself recently confessed to buying store-bought stock ("the ready-made kinds have gotten so good," he insisted). His tip: in a pinch, you can elevate it by simmering with aromatic herbs.
Chicken Stock   
  • 3-4 lbs. chicken bones with fat and excess skin removed; include a mix of backs, necks, and feet if possible
  • 2 medium onions, chopped (skins on)
  • 4 large carrots, roughly chopped (skins on)
  • 1 large rib celery, chopped
  • 1 dried bay leaf
  • a few fresh sprigs thyme
  • 6-8 whole peppercorns 
  • a few parsley sprigs
Rinse chicken bones and put into a large, heavy-bottomed pot or saucepan–choose a pot that holds the bones snugly, allowing for headway and room for vegetables and water. Cover bones with cold water and bring just to a boil. Lower to the gentlest simmer and allow to continue like this, undisturbed and uncovered. Do not boil. Periodically skim off any foam that rises to the top. After about an hour, add vegetables and herbs. Simmer them together for another few hours (2-3), then take off the heat. Pour through a fine-mesh strainer into a clean container. If you like, reduce stock further by simmering vigorously in a clean pot. Refrigerate and, once chilled, skim off any fat that has solidified on top. It is normal and wonderful for chicken stock to congeal when cold. Freeze your stock in freezer-safe containers. You can also freeze it in ice trays and use the cubes as needed for sauces, soups, and risottos.