I have an affinity for things that many other cooks find tedious. I happen to love the prep work of cooking. Give me a huge pile of carrots and onions to chop, a whole head of garlic to mince. I will happily fill prep bowls to overflowing, arranging all ingredients in order of use and within easy reach. It makes the cooking itself – the searing and stirring and deglazing – all the more pleasurable. Some may use the term OCD, they’d be partially right, but missing the point, too.
One of the things I really enjoy is making stocks. Many might consider it a drudgery. But I get so much pleasure from taking the dregs of the kitchen: vegetable trimmings, a pile of roasted bones, the shells from shrimp, and transforming them into something that brings a tremendous amount flavor to my cooking without an ounce of extra money spent. Some may use the term chintzy, they’d be partially right, but missing the point, too.
I can set aside time on a Sunday to make a stock: like a serious one from roasted veal bones. Or I can make one on the fly: a vegetable stock after I’ve trimmed a big pile of leeks, carrots, and other vegetables. I am flexible about how refined I want one to be. Maybe I have a leftover carcass from a roasted chicken. I might just throw that in a pot, cover it with water and the peel and ends of an onion, a stalk of celery and a whole carrot (top and all) along with a bay leaf, some peppercorns and whole coriander seeds. Simmer over low heat for an hour, strain it and toss it in the freezer. Did I skim it that time? Nah. Did I make sure all the fat was out? Nope. But do I have something in my freezer that’s a zillion (and I’m not exaggerating here) times better than something from a 32 ounce box of salt water that they want to charge me $2.99 for? You bet your boots it is. And I spent nothing extra because I keep carrots and onions around and I have, over time, built up a spice cabinet.
This is not classically trained cooking. But it is reverential. It is being aware that an animal gave its life to provide my dinner, that a farmer worked hard to harvest the vegetables. It is not wasteful; it is mindful. It is squeezing out every last bit of benefit and nutrition from my grocery purchases. It is totally worth the time.
Here’s what I frequently like to include in my stocks. Feel free to experiment with different combinations.
Vegetables, well scrubbed
Carrots, whole, tops included; onions, papery peel included; celery, leaves included; celeriac, very well scrubbed; dark green leek tops, sliced lengthwise and further rinsed to remove any sand; tomatoes, cores included; squashes, winter and summer varieties, pulps are ok; parsnips; radishes; fennel tops; lettuces on their last legs; unwaxed cucumber ends and peelings. I tend to stay away from starchy vegetables such as potatoes as they can make the stock cloudy and oddly viscous. I also avoid beans, cabbages and broccoli (do I need explain why?). Beets, too, I skip unless I’m looking for a reddish-pink stock. Which is only appropriate occasionally.
Beef and veal bones, roasted; fish heads and bones; shrimp, lobster or crab shells and scraps; whole poultry carcasses from roasting such as chicken, turkey, goose, duck, squab, swan, chopped into several pieces.
Herbs and Spices
Fresh parsley stems; bay leaf; peppercorns; whole coriander seeds; juniper berries; thyme. I tend to stay away from stronger fragranced herbs such as rosemary, sage, fresh cilantro which can overpower the stock. Feel free to use them if you have a specific cuisine in mind for the stock.
Cooking Time Frames
I cook all my stocks over a very low heat, just at or below a simmer. Beef and veal stocks take longest. Two hours at a minimum. Eight hours, much better. Overnight in a low oven? Even better. Poultry stocks can be done generally in two hours, but again, if you have more time, let it go. Fish stocks are generally an hour. Vegetables stocks an hour or less, most times in my kitchen around 30 minutes.
Strain each stock of all solids and decant into containers. One large one if you have a soup in mind, several small ones if you want to use it in smaller quantities over several meals. Freeze or refrigerate. I don’t usually keep my stocks in the fridge longer than five or so days. They’re gone much before then, usually.
When combining ingredients for a stock don’t get hung up on what you don’t have. Have carrots and onion but no celery? Don’t worry. I hear Thomas Keller never uses it. Have peppercorns but no bay leaf? Make it anyway and write down bay on your grocery list for next time. On your way out of town and have a crisper full of produce that won’t make it until you get home? Make a quick vegetable stock and throw it in the freezer.
Resolve to do it this year.
Happy New Year.
Playlist included Do You Love an Apple, by the Secret Sisters.