Taking Stock

Kristen Frederickson

Kristen Frederickson › What part of liv­ing bliss­fully in New York and own­ing an art gallery ...

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As much as I love a luxury dish like seared foie gras, roasted scallops with shaved truffles or steamed Maine lobster, as much fun as it is to go all out, whole hog and bust the budget on something fancy and splashy, I must admit that nothing gives me quite so much satisfaction in the kitchen as homemade stock.  I’ve roasted my chicken and my family has had a lovely supper.  I’ve wrapped up the choicest leftover morsels for chicken sandwiches for tomorrow’s lunch.  And now the bones, which could just have been thrown away, are simmering in a pot along with the bottom of a bunch of celery, the tops of carrots, the skins of onions and maybe a parsnip or two.  Which means that tomorrow, there will be soup.

Stock is quite simply the magic of making something delicious and versatile from ingredients a lesser cook – dare I say, a lesser person – might just throw away.  In these hard economic times, both our wallets and our hearts need comfort, and a simmering pot of stock does both.

There is a reason why certain answers to questions are called “stock” answers, or why you get “stock” photos from online sources, and shops have “stock.”  It’s the basics; it’s what’s needed.  It’s what you really can’t do without.  And yet stock is not without its controversies.

First let’s address the difference between “broth” and “stock.”  This is a vexing question because no one seems to agree.  Some cooks, like my friend Orlando, associate the word “broth” with a hearty soup containing barley, and surely in my childhood good old Campbell’s made just such a version generously larded with carrots and celery, called “Scotch Broth,” my father’s favorite.

In a supermarket you will find many, many brands using both terms “stock” and “broth,” and they are all much of a muchness: a slightly cloudy, lightly flavored but often too salty liquid, tasting of vegetables, chicken, beef (and more difficult to find, lamb or veal or fish).  All of them serve the same purpose: as the basis for a more complex soup.  All of them are made in the same basic way, just the way you would at home, by cooking the vegetables and meat (if a meat stock) and seasonings (herbs, wine) long and slow and then straining the solids away.

My mother made stock only twice a year, when she roasted the Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys.  She was thriftiness incarnate, both by nature and by necessity, and while she never normally enjoyed cooking, I could see her satisfaction in using up the bones of those birds, straining it all and adding a hefty portion of Uncle Ben’s rice and maybe a carrot or two.  Heaven.  Nowadays, at Christmastime my brother in law always hands his turkey bones to me, saying, “Nothing says holiday cheer like a poultry carcass.”

When I developed into a cook in my own household, I began to read about other thrifty cooks – the great English cook Elizabeth David, the peerless American cooks M.F.K. Fisher, Laurie Colwin.  These writers assured me that not just turkey but any leftover meat and bones could be transformed into delicious soup.

(On an aside: one of my favorite stock stories appears in Rosamunde Pilcher’s September, in which the famed family cook in a Scottish shooting lodge is praised at the end of the party for the deliciousness of her soups, day after day emerging from an enormous stockpot on the AGA.  When all the guests have gone, and the stockpot is finally emptied and cleaned out, a felted shooting sock is found at the bottom.)

And here we come upon one of the introductory debates about stock.  Should you start with raw ingredients – the whole thing, as it were – or should you begin with cooked leftovers?  Opinions vary.  To my mind, to begin with a raw chicken is what you do in a medicinal emergency.  I believe with all my goyishe heart (strongly influenced by my Jewish chum Alyssa) that chicken soup is just as effective as penicillin, aspirin, Valium and Xanax to clear, calm, and cure what ails you.  For this reason, I nearly always have a stash of the stuff in the freezer which when a stomach bug has run its course, or my daughter has gone away on a school trip and I’m lonely, puts me right in just one warming dose.

However, there have been lapses in my supply, and when that happens, my husband runs straight to the shop and buys a whole chicken which goes into a pot with fresh carrots, celery, onions and a bay leaf, plus a sprinkling of black peppercorns.  These are simmered until the chicken is cooked, whereupon its meat is removed and the carcass put back for more simmering, then strained and fresh vegetables and the cooked chicken added.  This is what he was taught by his mother, and it’s damn good, about three hours later.  It is simple, clear, light and delicate, and you feel uplifted and soothed when you sip it.  When Alyssa makes it for Passover, of course, or any Friday, she adds lots of fresh dill and a good helping of matzoh balls.  I have tried to make this soup just the way she does, but have come to the conclusion that Alyssa’s added ingredient of friendship and love cannot be supplied by anyone but her.

Yet what I prefer, for its dark, complex, luxurious richness, is stock made from already roasted meat and vegetables.  This can simmer for as long as you are comfortable having your stove running, or if you’re lucky enough to have an AGA, you simply put the whole pot in the “slow” oven and leave it overnight, or longer.  At the end of either of these procedures, you have a stock that sings in high and low notes of its glorious ingredients: a chicken or beef roast or ham hock or duck, roasted slowly to perfection with its attendant vegetables.  Carrots and onions and celery of course, but a few heads of garlic and a bundle of mixed herbs – rosemary, thyme, oregano – with olive oil drizzled over them are always welcome.  A good splash of leftover white wine or flat champagne makes a sophisticated addition.

Now to the cooking itself.  To boil or not to boil?  Once again, this is a hotly-debated question in the zesty world of stock.  It is generally accepted wisdom that boiling will arouse more furious releasing of bits of bone and vegetable, and there is little doubt that this action produces a cloudy, rather than clear result.  I say, who cares.  In my extreme cooking youth I developed an obsession for making consommé, a pretentious and annoying fancification of stock where you simmer egg whites on top and they carry away all the impurities.  And then what?  True, you have a completely clear liquid, but why?  I came away from these experiments triumphant, but feeling strongly that it was the greatest waste of egg whites since meringue.

And stirring.  Don’t get me started.  The people who think boiling stock is tantamount to beating a kitten are the same people who think stirring it is a capital crime.  I will go out on a limb and say that while beating a kitten is definitely naughty, stirring or not stirring stock doesn’t matter.  And all the skimming you might hear is necessary, to remove the “scum” that rises to the surface?  To me this comes under the heading of “Things to Do in the Kitchen if You Have Time,” like basting.  Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.  It doesn’t matter.  Never boiling, never stirring, always skimming, matter only, again, if you want perfectly clear stock, which I don’t.  The so-called scum – if any – will sink to the bottom of your stockpot as the stock cools, and you simply leave it behind when you pour the stock into another pot.

Once you’ve simmered the stock to your satisfaction (my chef friend Orlando explains that this is when the meat and vegetables are completely tasteless), you must strain it through a sieve into a clean pot.   Do not make either of the tragic errors I have made during this part of the procedure: once I poured it through the sieve with no receiving pot in place and watch the elixir escape down the drain.  Another time, my brother in law caught me on camera pouring the stock through the sieve into a receiving pot filled with soapy water.

Let your stock cool a bit and then put it in a cold place.  It’s lovely when this is your January doorstep, but a fridge will do.  Leave for as long as you can so the fat rises to the surfaces and solidifies.  Overnight is ideal.  Once there is a layer of fat, scoop it off (and save it for roasting potatoes, or discard, but not down the sink).  You will see that the stock underneath wobbles.  Do not be alarmed.  The bones of the chicken or other meat will have released natural gelatins that will make your stock wobble.  These gelatins will melt once the stock is heated again.  Orlando assures me that a raw chicken will release more gelatin than a roasted one, so if you want to make aspic – per impossibile – start with a raw bird.

And now the fun begins.  What to make with your stock?  Simmer whatever vegetables you like in it, and then puree it all if you want a velvety result, adding cream if you like, or leave the vegetables in chunks and add some of the leftover meat from your carcass.

Stock from a ham hock?  You can’t ask for anything better or richer.  It’s called “United States Senate Bean Soup” for the simple reason that it has featured on the Senate cafeteria menu for over 100 years for reasons lost in the mists of time.  My mother-in-law Rosemary gave me the recipe, and describes her newly-married Sunday-Tuesday cooking ritual.  “We went on a serious rotation – Sunday ham, Monday ham sandwiches, Tuesday US Senate Bean Soup… until I couldn’t do it one more time.”

With your chicken stock, you will be hard-pressed to decide between “Creamy Celeriac” and “Vichyssoise.”  I love celeriac (the root of the celery stalks) for its intensely celery-flavored velvetiness when pureed, and the combination of the humble potato and leek in vichyssoise made it our family’s go-to choice for dozens of huge parties in New York, because it was so easy and affordable.  A word of wisdom on pureed soups: it’s easiest using a hand blender as hot soups can explode in blenders.  I speak from experience.

Now if you’ve been lucky enough to have a Gressingham duck to slow-roast, you will want to make “Portobello Mushroom Soup” as nothing goes so well with the meatiness of mushrooms as the dark elegance of duck stock.  Equally, the bones from a standing beef rib roast will make a beautiful dark stock, perfect for mushrooms as well.

Lots of cooks I admire advise that instead of draining canned vegetables –  chickpeas, tomatoes, green beans, sweetcorn – you save the liquid for vegetable stock.  I cannot do this as I have a smallish English refrigerator that would not accommodate a lot of tins, but if you have plenty of room, go for it and think how virtuous you will feel.  Into this stock can go all manner of peelings from parsnips, carrots, beets and such, as well as the cores of tomatoes, the skins of onions and garlic, the very bottom of the celery stalks once you’ve scrubbed it.  Don’t forget slightly tired spinach or rocket leaves, wilted parsley.  All will find a happy home in vegetable stock.  And then you can make “Creamy Red Pepper Soup With Marsala and Fresh Thyme.”  This soup was my daughter’s choice after scary dental surgery, which gives it a medicinal seal, in my opinion.  If you need an intense blast of Vitamin C and iron, you can’t do better than “Spinach Soup.”

As you can see, the possibilities are endless.  Take a look at the classic Splendid Soups by James Petersen for even more ideas.  Any bones are fair game, any vegetable the perfect choice.  And as you spoon up the savoury delights, you can tell yourself, “I could have thrown all this away.”  It’s the ultimate recycling trick.

What’s your prescribed technique for making stock at home and what’s your favorite soup recipe to make with it?

Photo Credit: Avery Curran