Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Taking Stock

Many of you may already know this, but stocks are the bearers of food miracles.  However, the stock has become a prime example of a "prolefood."  The beauty of a stock has become synonymous with some kind of colored liquid that has salt as its prime flavor.  Even when buying a stock from a company that has a nice picture of vegetables and possibly animals on the packaging, you are still getting a subpar product.  Perhaps the worst offender is the so-called "bouillon" cube, added to water or perhaps your sauce in toto.  

A stock* can take on so many flavors, and homemade stocks add such hearty depth and chutzpah to your foods.  Perhaps I should leave out the Yiddish, as today's stock is definitely non-kosher.  In any case, build your own stocks.  They are not complicated processes, but they do take some time.  I am going to give you my favorite stock below, with some basic concepts below that.  

Mucilaginous Stock

- 4-5 Pig's feet
- Varied bones**
- The merest gesture of a fat
- A gaggle of roughly chopped vegetables (be creative, but restrained - carrots, celery, onions, and garlic are good starters.  Anything too strongly or distinctly flavored might really take over)***
- 1/3 bottle of wine (Red/Madeira/Dry Marsala work the very best)
- The Herb Factor (Again, creative but restrained - bay leaves, peppercorns, thyme, etc.)
- Cold Water

If you are using the pig's feet, and I suggest in the strongest way possible that you do, you should split them lengthwise.  The easiest way to achieve this is either to buy them like this, or to purchase a hacksaw****.

Start your process with a large pot.  I say go big or go home with stock.  Don't make small quantities, because it will frustrate you when you run out.  In this large pot, put the gesture of fat.  This could be olive oil, butter (made per my previous process), bacon grease, rendered tallow, duck fat, mink oil, anything that has a fatty quality (I like animal fats, as they tend to add a further beauty to the stock not present in plants, excepting olives).  Let it melt over somewhat gentle heat and throw in your vegetable assortment.  Let these sweat and cook for a time.  You'll know when the eternal moment occurs.

After your contemplation of the eternal moment, add your split feet and various bones and give them a heavy stir to get them down to the bottom of the pot.  I like to let them brown and stick to the bottom of the pot a bit (no burning), it adds a comprehensive richness to the end product.  After things have turned a bit brown, pour a glass of wine for yourself, and splash the pot with the other bit.  Scrape and push a bit here to release the delicious bits from the pan base.

Now add your cold water (enough to cover the bones and feet).  It really must be cold.  If you add warm or hot water, your stock won't be very good.  Also toss the Herb Factor into the mix and give everything a vigorous stir.  Lower your heat to something more respectful and gently bring the whole lot to a simmer*****.  Let things simmer and grow accustomed to one another for 3 or 4 hours.   

After this time, decide what you would like out of your stock.  If you prefer a clearish, plain stock - strain every bit out, being sure to push on everything in the strainer to extract all the juices.  I like bits in my stock, and dislike wasting perfectly good pig's feet.  So, I pull out the feet, let them cool, and strip all the skin and bits off the bones.  Then you can strain the rest out, and add these bits back in.

Stock stays fresh for a good bit when fresh, so leave some out for your present cooking.  The rest can be put into proper receptacles and frozen.  Be sure to let it cool adequately prior to freezing, otherwise you get an Everest-like mound in the center (However, it is a fairly interesting formation, so everyone ought to do this once).  You'll get a nice, thick, likely gelatinous stock out of this once cooled.  Do not fear the mucilage, it makes sauces and soups wonderful, and thins out when it is heated.

Other principles:
- You do not have to use pig's feet, you can just use bones.
- You can also make a great Fish or Shrimp stock out of fish carcasses and/or shrimp shells.  BUT do not use oily fish like salmon, tuna, etc. for it.  ALSO do not simmer it for 3 hours.  No more than 40 minutes for fish stock, otherwise things get very bitter.
- You can also make a vegetable stock, but these are usually bland and tasteless.  Same principle as fish stock, no more than 40 min of simmering.  You can add chickpeas that have been soaked overnight for a bit more substance on a vegetable stock.
- Don't add salt to your stock.  You should season your end products, not your stock.  Your stock can be rich and delicious, but it should not be salty.
* Some might object to what I have above being called a 'stock.'  I don't care.  I call everything that follows the basic principles outlined above a stock, as it is much easier and far less pretentious.

** I save every bone that I have laying around (I keep a bag in the freezer that I collect them in until it is time for a stock).  Chicken, pork, beef, turkey, etc.  I ask for bones after a dinner at others' homes, I am truly a bone collector.  The more bones you have, the better flavour your stock will have.  You can also ask your butcher, or look in the meat case, as there will often be cheap bones available.  They can be cooked or fresh.

*** The vegetables can really be in any form.  Onion skins, carrot scrapings, celery bases, any form.  You'll strain them out at the end, so it barely matters.

**** A hacksaw is more useful in the kitchen than one would think.  

***** A simmer really should be barely bubbling.  If there are a lot of bubbles coming up from the bottom, you are boiling your stock, not simmering.  You'll seal all your flavors into the bones and meat this way, instead of expressing them into the stock.  One easy way to avoid this is either to put your stock into a medium slow cooker for this part, or in a 149º C / 300º F oven.

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