Recipes are a joy, except when they drive you mad. I know. Sometimes I just sit around and rail against them: No one can afford that many truffles. Puréeing and straining is one step too many. The reason I go off like this is because one of the hats I wear is that of the editor in chief of a magazine that puts out new recipes, Real Food.
What I do there is big-picture, mainly. (And very different from the minutia work of line editing recipes, which is done by others who are better at noticing things like a recipe writer glibly saying that a stick and a half of butter is 16 tablespoons, when clearly it is 12.) Big-picture like: Yes to backyard-grilled hamburgers that evoke the Vietnamese grilled pork-meatballs nem nuong; no to Moroccan ras el hanout–rubbed roast chicken.
Why? Partly because it will take me an hour to call grocery stores in Baltimore, Milwaukee and Seattle and figure out that, yes, they carry the lemongrass for the nem nuong, but not the spice blend ras el hanout; partly because I’ve sat on the dark side of a glass wall at a focus group and watched home cooks narrow their eyes in rage at recipes that require them to turn to the Internet and spend all kinds of money on an unusual spice that will then sit in their cupboard, going stale.
The actual recipes are dreamed up, and then tested, by recipe developers, typically freelancers who have published several, if not dozens, of cookbooks and who work out of their home kitchens. Part of my job is to harness these developers’ great creativity and knowledge — what could be done with pomegranate juice in a traditional red velvet cake? And part of my job is to reign in that same creativity: No, no, no ras el hanout cupcakes!
Overall, I think I do a pretty good job, but like anything, you sometimes find yourself in a matrix of unintended consequences.
Take stock, for instance:
Stock, of course, is . . . well, what is stock, exactly? It’s so omnipresent in Western cooking that to say what it really is requires knowing your audience. To a visitor from Mars, I’d probably describe stock as the simplest of all soups, derived from boiling whatever’s handy, such as chicken bones, Parmesan rinds, or onion tops, in water. It’s utterly critical to Western and Asian cooking — nearly as critical as fresh water. It provides the foundation of flavor for soup, pan sauces, stuffing, stews, you name it. To the recipe developers I work with, stock is important, as elemental and necessary as an office worker’s little cache of paper clips in a nearby desk drawer, or a driver’s tank of gas.
Here’s how the pros make stock: You take stuff, put it in water, cook, remove stuff, use.
What Goes in the Pot
I joke a little, but really, once you get past that basic advice, the ways you can make stock are so literally innumerable that listing them all seems silly.
You can use the bones of last night’s rotisserie chicken, the remnants of the Thanksgiving turkey carcass; you can buy a whole raw chicken to use, or chop it up and roast it first, or just use the legs, or just the chicken backs, or just the chicken feet. Then there are ham bones. And ham ends. Oxtails. To say nothing of vegetables! You can use whole onions; you can use just your saved onionskins and tops; you can use leeks, white onions, red, yellow, or green. You can use whole carrots, peeled carrots, carrot trimmings. To say nothing of herbs! Which can be dried or fresh (or both). You can put whole peppercorns in a bit of cheesecloth, or add ground pepper at the end. You can cook stock for four hours, or for 48 hours on-and-off the stovetop, or for 12 hours in a slow cooker, or in the oven. You can use kosher salt, or standard iodized, or sel gris, though sometimes you’ll prefer soy sauce or fish sauce.
And therein lies the challenge. The problem of stock is the absolute problem of recipes: By putting it all in the standard scientific notation of a recipe, you obscure the spirit of the thing, and you make it needlessly intimidating.
Stock has long been the ultimate gesture of both thrift and cooking, one that lives as part of a continuous gesture of life — with the garden, the hearth, and the animals of the garden (chicken, rabbit and pig) all working in interplay, and you, the grand conductor in the middle of it, working in great, seamless, interconnected gestures of your own.
You simmer the bones and the bounty to get every molecule of sustenance out of them, and because you have an abundance of them. What else would you do with the armfuls of herbs from your kitchen garden, and with the carcasses of your no-longer-productive laying hens? Throw them out?
A hundred years ago, throwing things out was work: You’d have to burn your garbage, or bury it, or drive it off in a cart. There weren’t municipal trash services hygienically disappearing poufy big Glad bags. So, yes. For stock, you instead set your soup pot on the hook above the fire, and potter out to the garden bearing your straw basket.
I’m joking again, of course. Today, most Americans work 9-to-5 jobs away from their kitchens. Most of us have neither burgeoning kitchen gardens nor the carcasses of old laying hens within easy reach. And so I always specify in recipes that you can use stock you make yourself, or you can use the store-bought kind from a can or box.
And here we run into trouble once again: Because through a raft of good intentions, I have now set in motion a whole series of unintended consequences. One of two things may happen: (1) You use the boxed stock (and it’s never as good as homemade; it’s thin, or salty or metallic), you make the recipe, and it doesn’t turn out as well as it should. Or, worse, (2) You run the price of the recipe in your mind, make a mental calculation that the ingredients for stock are going to cost at least $4, bringing the whole cost of the dish, which serves four, to $20 or more, and then there’s your time and the mess — so you pick up the phone and order in a pizza. There’s a third possibility, of course. You make homemade stock from stuff you’ve got lying around anyway, and wind up being glad you did.
Be Not Afraid
Sometimes I think that there’s nothing more emblematic than stock to capture the split between who humans used to be (seamless with nature!) and who we are today (ceaselessly in an office). So, for those of us stuck in the here and now, here’s my three-point plan of being.
First: Be not afraid. Stock is not an elite construct of cooking schools meant to intimidate you! It’s peasant stuff. You, for better or worse, are not leading a peasant life. But you can still do this.
Second: Be aware. Stock is really just a natural connection between garden and hearth — and a folk-medicine strategy to get valuable nutrients like collagen and minerals out of animal bones.
Finally: Be skeptical. The people who provide recipes for stock that require you to spend $20 on ingredients are probably trying to be helpful, but this outlay of cash really shouldn’t be necessary. Be skeptical of a world that makes such an elemental part of cooking so complicated and spendy to do.
With that being out of the way, it’s time to start doing. For the quickest stock, take a quart of water, and simmer it with a whole carrot with its root-end cut off (or six “baby” peeled carrots), an onion about the size of half of your fist (leek, red, yellow, whatever), and any chicken or turkey scraps you have, raw or cooked, even some pork-chop bones. Add whatever else you have that’s handy, like a bay leaf, a slice of ginger, a dab of tomato paste, fresh garlic, thyme or parsley, the rind of a hard cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano.
Cook on low heat for half an hour, at least, or, better, for as much time as you like; four or eight hours is a good long time. Let it cool. Use a strainer or slotted spoon to skim out the solids. Refrigerate, or freeze, or freeze in ice-cube trays, or freeze in small sealable containers, or don’t freeze, just leave it on the stove till tomorrow, and then bring it up to a simmer for a while to kill anything that might have started living in it, and then refrigerate, freeze or use.
You know what you have now? One of the most important basic building blocks of cuisine, a little bit of independence from the madness of modernity, and a recipe for a certain flavor of freedom.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a James Beard Award–winning food and wine writer.