Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Taking Stock

It may seem like soup season is over. Spring has sprung pretty much everywhere by now. 
Sunshine and flowers not withstanding, the other day while cleaning the apartment, I found myself making a big pot of vegetable stock. Maybe it was nesting, maybe it was insanity - it was 80 degrees in Los Angeles - but it felt good to have something cooking while I worked.

There's no denying that a good stock can deepen the flavor of even the simplest of dishes. The workhorse of the stock world is your basic Chicken Stock. It cures the common cold, makes frozen peas taste like a delicacy.  Throw in some noodles and you've got everyone's favorite comfort food.

For those of us who cook without meat, finding a good substitute can be daunting. I find most store-bought vegetable stocks to have an odd sweetness or spice to them that often overcomes the flavor of the food it's supposed to enhance. Good stock should be like a killer back-up singer - it makes the main ingredient look like a rockstar but is gracious enough to stand just outside the spotlight.

A few winters back, I set out to make my own. What I arrived at, after a little Google-ing, is a nice, basic stock that does the job of a chicken stock without the chicken. Easy to make and easy on the wallet, this stock is a great way to maximize the flavor of any soup, sauce, or boiled veg. You can make additions or subtractions, as you like. Mushrooms might be good for something more akin to 'beef stock'; tomatoes if you prefer a red stock. I've added the green end of leeks when I've got them on hand. Improvising won't hurt here.

A little tip: I find that salt often brings the stock together, so don't be discouraged if at first taste it doesn't immediately ring your bell, salt it and then see what you think.

Once the stock has cooled, I put some in the fridge in an airtight jar for use during the week. The rest I freeze in quart or sandwich sized baggies for the weeks to come. It's a lifesaver to have on hand and the product you get far outweighs the effort (and $) required!

Don't worry that your stock will go to wase with summer fast approaching. A few baggies of frozen stock in the freezer will come in handy all year long. I thaw it out and use it to thin gazpacho or as a base for other cold soups. Swap stock for water next time you make rice or quinoa, it's a great way to add a little extra flavor and maybe break the monotony!

Veg Stock

6 carrots
1 celery heart (about 7 stalks)
2 onions
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp peppercorns
salt (to taste)
2-3 bay leaves
10 cups water
olive oil

Rough chop carrots, celery, and onions. (or don't! You can actually just throw them in whole if you've got a big pot) Put a little olive oil in the bottom of your stock pot** over medium heat.

Add the onion and a little salt to get a good sweat on. Once you get a little brown color on the edges of your onion, add the celery, carrots and whole garlic cloves, sauté for another minute or two. (I find that sautéing the veggies first gives a little extra bit flavor. If you're short on time, feel free to skip this step and leave out the oil all together. Boiling alone works just fine.)

Next, add 10 cups of water, peppercorns, and bay leaves. Cover and leave over medium heat to slowly bring water to a boil. Let the stock boil, covered, for about 45 minutes, until vegetables become soft and there is a noticeable darkening of the water. Turn off your burner and let the stock stand, leaving vegetables to 'steep' until the liquid is cool.

When you're ready, scoop out the vegetables and discard (all their flavor is now in your stock, so don't feel guilty about sending them straight to the compost pile!). Pour stock through a mesh strainer to catch all the leftover pulp and peppercorns. Freeze or refrigerate as desired.

(If you're in a pinch or prefer to buy veg stock, I recommend
Imagine Brand 'No Chicken Stock'. It absolutely does the trick and runs about $4.00 a quart at most grocery stores. Making your own is cheaper, but do what you gotta do!)

**It should be said here that I did not own a stock pot, or anything resembling a stock pot, for the first year of my efforts to make my own stock. My dear friend Erica was kind enough to loan me hers every other Saturday until I got a pot big enough to fit 10 cups of water. Thank you, Erica!