Friday, January 4, 2008

January 4: Homemade Stocks

Holy frick, is it cold here. I am a cold-weather person, if you want to know--I would much rather be too cold than too hot. It feels good to warm up; cooling down just makes me feel crusty as the sweat dries. It was 19 degrees when I left home this morning, and it's a bit of a hike to the bus stop. The bus was late too. As much of a fan of public transportation as I am--holy frick, is it cold here.

One of my favorite things about winter is the food, especially the soups. I love mushroom soup and chicken noodle soup and beef stew (see yesterday) and butternut squash soup and carrot-ginger soup. Soup is comforting and filling and full of significance to its maker. I am embarassed to admit that I was never a fan of my mother's soups; she always threw one or two too many random ingredients in. My husband, however, still requests Campbell's Tomato Soup and grilled cheese sandwiches on cold days.

Pat Conroy, who is a novelist also well-known for his food writing, has said that, unless you make your own stocks as the base for your soups, you may as well not bother. I wouldn't go that far--I think there's something to be said for the ease of browning a few chopped vegetables, poaching chicken breasts in store-bought low-sodium stock, and throwing in a few handfuls of egg noodles shortly before you're hoping to eat--but I think that knowing how to make your own stock, and better yet, keeping a small store of it in your freezer, is empowering and creates convenience for an everyday home cook. And besides, they taste good, and this isn't complicated work. It's worth doing.
These stocks are a jumping-off point--you can jump off to Italian Wedding soup, minestrone, French Onion gratinee, old-fashioned chicken-noodle, beef-barley. I like them with just some egg noodles simmered with a few tablespoons of chopped fresh parsley, or some rice and a few sauteed mushrooms. What I'm saying is, they're good enough for you to eat them plain--a welcome change from the salty, chemical-tasting boullion cubes or the tinny, artificial canned broths that too many cooks are left depending on.

Let me say a word about the necessity of not letting stocks boil: once more, it's better living through science. When you boil a pot full of chicken wings or backs or drumsticks, it jars loose fat, which gets suspended in the liquid, and makes a cloudy, less-clean tasting stock. You don't want that. Simmer: to cook over low heat, so that a few bubbles rise slowly. If your stove won't allow you to hold your food at a low simmer, get or make a flame tamer--you can use heavy-duty aluminum foil to wrap into a sort of a collar that sits on your burner, between the pot and the burner. It will keep things a little cooler to moderate that simmer.

Makes 2 quarts.

Homemade Chicken Stock
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped
4 pounds whole chicken legs or backs and wingtips, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 quarts water (boiling)
1/2 teaspoon table salt
2 bay leaves

Heat oil in large stockpot over medium-high heat until shimmering; add onion and cook until slightly softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer onion to large bowl. Brown chicken in two batches, cooking on each side until lightly browned, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer cooked chicken to bowl with onion. Return onion and chicken to pot. Reduce heat to low, cover, and sweat until chicken releases its juices, about 20 minutes. Increase heat to high; add boiling water, salt, and bay leaves. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to low; cover and simmer slowly until stock is rich and flavorful, about 20 minutes, skimming foam off surface, if desired.

Strain broth and discard solids. Before using, defat stock. After stock has been refrigerated, the fat hardens on the surface and is very easy to remove with a spoon. To defat hot stock, use a ladle or fat separator.

Hey, how about this: I am unable to find a recipe for a quick beef stock. I know there's one in Pat Conroy's cookbook, but I don't currently have it in hand. Honestly, I don't think there's a way to speed up this process. America's Test Kitchen uses low-sodium chicken broth in very nearly all of their recipes where beef stock would be used, with small amounts of store-bought beef broth of the low-sodium variety in combination with the chicken in places where it really can't be avoided, while still giving appallingly bad reviews to nearly every widely-available brand. If it's so bad, America's Test Kitchen, why don't you give us a recipe for one that is less awful?

Epicurious is equally bad--their recipe calls for beef and veal shanks, specially cut crosswise by a butcher into 1-inch pieces. I do not have a butcher. I could probably find one, but I'm almost always happy with the meat that I find in my local grocery store--with a few outrageously expensive roasts or steaks for special occasions coming from Whole Foods or D.C.'s Eastern Market. I won't bore you.

My suggestion is this: use a low-sodium beef broth, in a 1-to-1 ratio of a combination with chicken stock, as well as well-browned meat and fond and veggies, for whatever your recipe calls for in the department of beef broth or stock. I will continue to seek out a recipe that streamlines the process. If you have one, please let me know.


merseydotes said...

I've never made stock, I am embarassed to say. I always was under the impression that you needed a giant-ass stockpot to make enough to be worth the effort. I will have to give this a try. I usually keep 32-oz boxes of low-sodium, all-natural chicken and beef broths around for cooking. It works for me.

Also, remind me to email you offline. I made a dip recipe tonight you may like to try.

Molly said...

I keep those boxes around too. I only take the time maybe three or four times a year to make my own stock, and once I have them made, I have a tendency to burn through what I've made very quickly, although I usually make a double or triple batch. Just knowing it's in my freezer is inspiration to use it, and the rest of the time, I rely on good-quality store-bought broths.

And: you know me and dip. I'll look forward to seeing it.