Stocks, fast and slow


The biggest stock pot is on the stove today. It’s just barely burbling and the aroma of onions, chicken parts, and herbs is shifting from raw and sharp to sentimentally pleasing. I’ve been talking a lot about “new” stocks and infusions lately; doing interviews, writing articles, teaching classes, and insisting that great sauces do not require cauldrons of simmering bones as a starting point. I’m touting the value of quick “mock stocks” made with vegetable scraps, dried mushrooms, shrimp shells, yeast concentrates and virtually anything that will add complexity and depth to plain water. I’ve been actively urging people to try alternatives like 30 minute vegetable stocks flavored with non-traditional ingredients like eggplant, green beans, and corn cobs. The only savory dark brown stock I have referenced in months has been a vegan recipe from the book that takes two hours.  (And is spectacular!) Today’s stock is nothing like the quick brews I’ve been talking about. It’s the kind of carefully sourced, slow-cooking stock that inspires deep thoughts on life, family, personal priorities, and the role of food and cooking in society.

My recent attempts to shift people’s attention from long-simmering pots is not meant to diminish the importance of really good stock, but to bring it back into clear focus. Today’s cooks are often presented with two options: spend a day sourcing and nursing a pot of stock or popping open a carton. A pot of stock from scratch often seems like an endeavor. You start to think – well, if I’m going to go to the effort, I might as well do it right. Suddenly a quart of stock for Sunday’s soup cost you 50 bucks, two days, and most of your usable counter space. That’s what I’m trying to change. Freshly made stock doesn’t have to be a long term commitment. It doesn’t have to be made by the gallon. A 5 minute flavorful “tea” brewed with sun dried tomatoes, onion and garlic, will add depth and complexity to a dish with every splash. Simmering some vegetables or scraps of chicken in a cup or two of water for 20 minutes takes less time than running to the store for a can, or worse still, choosing not to cook because you don’t have every ingredient on your recipe list. To take some of the formality and time commitment from stock is to better understand both its simplicity and value.

I’ve always said that stock making and fly fishing are alike in that conversations between enthusiasts quickly veer into passionate and microscopic analyses that verge on religious zealotry. I’m guilty of this myself. The stock currently bubbling on my stove is made with wiry stewing hens for flavor and collagen-rich wings and feet for viscosity. I blanched the birds first to remove any surface murk, then chopped the pieces just small enough for maximum flavor extraction but large enough to avoid disintegration and cloudiness. The bay leaves and thyme were picked from decades-old bushes. Water was added so the top vegetables touched the submerged chicken below and peeked above the surface. It will be absolutely perfect, but only because there are no other fanatics nearby suggesting tiny corrections. That’s where the fly fishing comparison comes to play: ie – “You caught three rainbows in those far ripples with an elk hair caddis and what kind of leader? With that rod? Nice! But wait until you see what I get with a 1X tippet and this hand-tied, black bead nymph!” To insist that there is one “right” way to catch fish or make stock is to imply that everything else is “wrong”. What a shame it would be if only the very best fishermen allowed themselves to wade in beautiful rivers or paddle on picturesque lakes? (That said, relying exclusively on commercially made products might be compared to buying farmed or frozen fish – some are decent, others are a travesty.) I don’t get on the river very often, but when I do, everything that follows seems incrementally improved.  The same is true for making stock. Irreverently made stock is as “bad” as a warm, misshapen cookie or a grilled cheese sandwich that was slightly over-browned on one side.

Okay, so I had to stop writing and finish this piece up the next day. I blame the stock. It worked it’s magic and made everything, even my thoughts, deeper and more complex. The wafting aromas and upcoming poultry-themed family gatherings had me pondering the anthropological prevalence, historic medical uses, and modern ethics of cooking chicken in a pot. It was time to step away from the keyboard. Today, the perfume and intensity has lifted. The wind is howling and the rain is torrential. It’s a good day for chicken soup, but my stock is tucked away in the freezer. When the time is right, I won’t hesitate to reach for a tub. But tonight, I think I’ll simmer some lentils with the 30 minute vegetable stock I made a few days ago. I threw some diced kabocha pumpkin, a teaspoon of tomato paste and an apple skin in with the onions and carrots.  It’s completely “wrong” and will be just perfect.