Tuesday, January 10, 2006

you're not going to throw that out, are you?

I think it drives my mother crazy that I discard the meat and vegetables, etc, from the chicken stock that has been simmering on the stove all day. I'm sure she was horrified to see it all get dumped, but I told her: It has all given up everything it had to the stock, Ma.

Our diet at home was very simple and repetitious, but the food was always fresh, wholesome, real food, not a lot (or any, really) pre-cooked, packaged junk. I learned the basic basics from my mother when I was in junior high and high school. I remained at that proficient but dull level for a number of years until my early 30s, when my whole relationship with food changed: I discovered food as entertainment, and I've never looked back. I started collecting (and reading) cookbooks and trying to reproduce the astounding tastes I was having at the really good restaurants I could finally afford. I discovered I could do it! Wow.

I'm not saying I'm a better cook than my mother. I'm saying I'm a different kind of cook. I don't think my mother ever cooked anything "just for fun," but I could be wrong. She loves to cook and bake for others, when she "knows it will be eaten." That's what food is for, after all. But still -- from my earliest memories of good-smelling kitchens, I remember big pots of soup bubbling on the stove. Surely Mom knew how to make stock? -- No.

Every so often I stumble over something like this that I didn't realize about Mom, and then I have to figure out where it fits in. The no-stock soup makes perfect sense, really: Mom would never use up a passle of vegetables and herbs "just" to make a stock. She would put the meat and the vegetables in water and cook them until they were done, and if the stock was a little thin, she'd punch it up with bouillion. It's part of her essential frugality, that Depression-era "waste not" idea that will always be a part of her, and which lurks, in some way, behind every decision she makes. In retrospect, I should've known, but making stock is an auto-pilot thing for me now, so I didn't even think of it.

At any rate, I made a batch of chicken and rice soup with last week's stock and we both really enjoyed it. She liked it so much that she asked today, as she was cutting up the chicken we ate for dinner, Are you going to make your soup? Yes, another little batch, using the backs and breastbones and all the other bits you wouldn't set on the table. It's just enough for a small batch of soup, or for some gravy, maybe, or as the base for a nice white sauce.

I love that about my mom: even though it's not something she herself would do, she can relax enough about those "wasted" veggies, etc, to still enjoy the soup.

Tiny Batch of Chicken Stock
yield: 3-4 cups flavorful broth

backs and breastbones, plus wingtips and any other bones, skin, or bits of meat, from 2 chickens that you've cut up to use for some other purpose
1/2 onion, cut into quarters
6-8 baby carrots (I don't buy any other kind now)
2 stalks of celery, washed and cut into 2-inch pieces
4 cloves of garlic, peeled
8 peppercorns (more or less)
1 bay leaf
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried rosemary
water to cover

Put all this in a heavy-bottomed pot and cover with about 6 cups or so of water. Bring it to a boil, then lower the heat and let it simmer for at least 4-6 hours, 8 hours is OK, too, stirring occasionally. The longer it simmers, the more "good stuff" is extracted from the bones and cartilage.
Let cool. Put a strainer over a large bowl set in your sink. (This part can be messy). Pour the contents of the pot into the strainer -- don't forget the bowl underneath, because what you want is the stock, not the stuff! Pick up the strainer and let it drip for a while, but don't bother pressing the contents. (Well, I suppose you could, but I never do.)
Decant your lovely stock into a container that is more suited to its volume, cover tightly, and refrigerate until you're ready to use it.

Easy Chicken Soup
serves 2-3
(It's easy because making the stock is the hard part! Really, it's nearly impossible to screw this up)
3-4 cups chicken stock
boneless skinless chicken breasts, 1 per person you want to serve
baby carrots, about 4-6 per person
celery, 2 stalks per person
potatoes/rice/barley/pasta ... what do you like in your soup? Be careful, these expand! Use a small amount if you're not sure how much to put in!

Put the chicken stock in your pot over medium heat. Cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces and add to the stock. Cut carrots, celery, and any other soup-friendly vegetable you like into bite-sized pieces and add them, too. Let it simmer until the vegetables are tender and the chicken is cooked through. Here, two things are important: first, make sure the vegetables are cut into uniform, small-ish pieces. If you want bigger pieces of vegetables, put them in before the chicken, because otherwise the chicken will turn to mush before the vegetables are cooked. Second, do make sure the chicken is cooked through before eating it.

You can add raw rice/pasta/barley to the stock but it will soak up quite a bit of liquid, and you might end up with something more thick than you like. Leftover takeout Chinese food rice works really well; you can just stir in as much as you like. The rice cooked in the stock tastes fantastic, but for a recipe like this where you're working with a small amount of stock, it's best to be cautious.

1 comment:

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