Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Take Stock, Chicken That Is

stockI pledge this to be the last of the cheap, chicken, winter recipes I’ll dish out for awhile. Winter grays and bank account blues made January seem like the month to make the most of the ubiquitous bird occasionally served a la King or as Cordon Bleu, but more often enjoyed by the masses out of a red and white striped bucket. Over the past month I stuck to the basics and delivered dishes that aimed to make comfort classy and affordable achievable. I started by roasting two whole chickens, make a pot pie from the leftovers, saved some wings from the Super Bowl, and ended up with a pile of bones, backs, wings, necks, and indeterminables. Though some might discard these remnants as a pile of rubbish, the savvy waste-not-want-not chef types among us know that this “rubbish” is actually the key to unlocking the secret behind the most delicious and crave-worthy soups, pastas, and sauces.

If stock is to a cook what opera is to a singer, then homemade stock is Puccini. The single biggest difference between home and professional cooking may well lie in how you take stock, chicken that is. My stock and its parts live in my freezer, always on call at a moments notice for tons of different dishes. Believe me, those boxes of pre-made stock, no matter how convenient or attractive, that line supermarket shelves (but hopefully not your cupboard), cannot possibly begin to deliver the bang that homemade stock promises. Even the word “stock” suggest something raw, something from which other things are made. Actors portray stock characters, economists ride stock markets, retailers keep products in stock; chefs make magic out of great stock. The flavors achieved in the preparation of stock act as the supporting structure to what dinner dream may come, whether they be of Pumpkin Risotto or Tomato-Lemon Soup. Using homemade stock makes the difference in every recipe, every time. And it couldn’t be easier … or cheaper.

The key to the stock is stocking up (puns-love them!). You don’t want to have to make a fresh batch every time stock’s called for in a recipe, and you don’t want to go out and buy stock ingredients each time you decide to attempt said recipe. Instead, conserve all the parts needed to make stock from your leftovers and store them in your freezer. These ingredients won’t be consumed, so they needn’t be whole, fresh, or evenly chopped. Every time you cook a dish that calls for stock ingredients, like onions, peppers, celery, herbs, cheese rinds, carrots, parsnips, you name it, instead of throwing away the stems, rinds, skins and seeds, save them to make stock. I save all my bits and bops in freezer bags, and I don’t bother to label any of it. When it’s time to throw together a stock, I just dig through my bags and decide what’ll work best. If, for instance, I’m thinking Asian, I’ll dig around for beef bones, butt ends of ginger, stems of chilies, a few spicy seeds, red onion skins, broken cinnamon sticks, and some bundles of frozen cilantro and basil. If I’m feeling under the weather, I’ll pull together chicken bones, carrots, parsley, parsnips, peppers, and be halfway to Chicken Noddle Soup, not to mention recovery. After I’ve made a few quarts of stock, I ladle leftovers into recipe sized Tupperware containers, being sure to label and date them at this point, so as to have portioned batches at the ready the next time I wanna make soup, sauce, or pasta really sing.

Chicken Stock (5 quarts)

  • 4-5 lbs Chicken Parts (backs, wings, necks, gristle, whatever you got)
  • 1 cup worth of Red Onion Skins and Parts
  • 1 cup worth of Parsnips stabbed with half a dozen Whole Cloves
  • 1 bunch of Carrots
  • 1 bunch of Celery Sticks
  • Handfuls of Herbs (chives, parsley, carrot tops, etc.)
  • 2 Bay Leaves
  • 2 TB Kosher Salt
  • 1 TB Peppercorns

Play with this recipe. Think of it less like a formula and more like a guide. Take from your own collection of whatever you have on hand that seems to suit the flavor profile of the dish you’re attempting. Put everything into a large stockpot and add water up to about 2 inches below the rim. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, covered, for 2 hours. Uncover and simmer for at least another hour; the longer you simmer the stock uncovered, the further it will reduce, thicken, darken, and intensify in flavor. Be sure to check the seasoning throughout this process and add more salt or spices if necessary. Strain stock and pour it into portioned containers or use it in a follow-up recipe. If planning to freeze, let sit until cool before freezing, leaving the chicken fat on top to act as a seal. When you’re ready to use the frozen stock it’s easy enough to peel the fat off the top and put it to use (like in Matzo balls, but that’s for another day).

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