Friday, March 5, 2010

The Simplest Stock

Ok, I know as a devoted cook, I'm not supposed to say this, but I'm going to... making stock from scratch is a pain in the neck. Every cookbook presents it as so easy, chefs talk about the importance of having a great stock and how simple it is to have it just simmering away in the background all day.

And I did try for a few years. I was uncompromising in my belief that soup could only be made with the perfect stock, following the perfect process. Every month or so, I'd lovingly tend a huge pot of chicken scraps and vegetables for 8 hours until the bones fell to pieces (to extract every molecule of gelatin, naturally). I'd pack the freezer with little containers of the resulting magic liquid.

And it was good. Really, so very good....

But easy? No way.

First of all, how do you cool a big pot of boiling liquid quickly enough to not risk bacterial growth? I used to go buy big bags of ice so that I could strain the stock into a pot sitting in a sinkful of ice. Not exactly easy. After you strain the stock, you've got a hot greasy mess of meat and veg to deal with. Also a pain. And I never had enough of the right scraps or enough containers or enough space in the freezer. Even the recipes I have for vegetable stock are a little excessive, calling for tons of ingredients, pre-roasting the vegetables, etc, etc.

So after a few years, I gave up and started (reluctantly) buying boxed stock. It doesn't taste good, is expensive and creates container waste, but seriously, I needed stock frequently and never seemed to have it on hand.

Around this time (last year), I started cooking with spring onions, garlic and shallots from the local farmers market. I had little experience with using these huge, stringy plants. For example, I bought walking onions and elephant garlic that were both about 2-3 feet in length. I'd cook with the white part of the plant, use the middle light green part as a garnish, but could never figure out what to do with the long dark green ends. With the best of intentions, I saved piles of scraps in the fridge that I knew were ultimately destined for the trash.

So these two circumstances came together one fateful night. I was making risotto, which absolutely needs good stock, and I didn't have any, homemade or storebought, and I didn't have time to go buy it. I looked up a recipe for vegetable stock, but I didn't have the time, nor did I have half the ingredients. So... I improvised. I grabbed a ton of the aforementioned scraps out of the fridge, threw them in a pot and boiled them for 45 minutes (the exact time it took me to prepare the ingredients for the risotto and start them cooking). The stock was pretty good, I had expended no extra time, and the resulting risotto tasted great!

Since then, I've been experimenting and have completely changed my attitude to stock. I save every vegetable scrap in bags in the freezer. Leek ends are like gold. To think I used to throw them away. For shame! Those leaves that come on the ends of celery? Precious, throw 'em in a bag.

So now I don't buy stock, and I don't make it ahead of time. If I'm missing some ingredients, that doesn't bother me either because I know I've got enough diverted compost scraps to make something good. I know that it is not as good as lovingly made chicken stock, but that only matters if the chicken stock exists. And it is much better than store-bought.

The Simplest Stock

Some or all of the following ingredients...

  • Handful of green ends of any variety of spring garlic, or 2 cloves of garlic, unpeeled
  • Handful of green ends of any variety of spring onions or shallots, or 1 onion, unpeeled, cut in half
  • Handful of green ends of leeks
  • 2 carrots, broken in half
  • 2 stalks of celery, broken in half
  • a few sprigs of thyme
  • a few sprigs of parsley
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 5 peppercorns
  • a few dried mushrooms, if you're making something that calls for mushrooms or something with a richer, earthy taste (like a winter minestrone soup). For lighter soups, leave these out.

Throw everything in a large saucepan of cold water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 45 minutes.


Oh, and thinking about that green garlic (the picture is from last year, it isn't in season yet), 4 weeks until the farmer's market reopens. Hooray!