Sunday, January 23, 2011

Chicken Stock

From one of the all-time greatest films, Apocalypse Now (though only the extended Redux):

WILLARD: How come they call you that? 
CHEF: Call me what, sir? 
WILLARD: Chef -- is that 'cause you like mangoes an' stuff? 
CHEF: No, sir -- I'm a real chef, sir -- I'm a sauciere -- 
WILLARD: A sauciere ? 
CHEF: Yes, sir -- See, I come from New Orleans -- I was raised to be a sauciere.. a great sauciere. We specialize in sauces. Has to be a mango tree here somewhere...I was supposed to go to Paris. Then my physical came up. Hell I joined the Navy. Someone told me Navy had better food. Cook school -- that did it. WILLARD: Oh yeah, how? 
CHEF: They lined us all up in front of a hundred yards of prime rib -magnificent meat, beautifully marbled.. Then they started throwing it in these big cauldrons, all of it -- boiling. I looked in, an' it was turning gray. I couldn't f&%$ing believe that one. 

      In the traditional French brigade culinary system, the sauciere is the most respected of the skilled positions, because it is the arguably most important, and it is also the most difficult. For people who don't know much about professional cooking (though food TV is changing this) the reason food at a good restaurant and food at home are so different, besides the simple things, the proper use of salt, not over-cooking the bleep out of everything, etc. the biggest difference is that at a restaurant, they bother to add sauce to the dish. Think about it. If you are like most people, the only sauce you add to a dish comes in a glass jar labeled "Marinara" or it is gravy at the holidays. Sauces are the element that elevate a dish from the ordinary to the memorable. However, if you are like most people, you are a long way from making anything that even remotely resembles a decent sauce. One of the major reasons for this is that you first need to learn how to make stock.

      Many restaurants use veal stock for many of their dishes, but veal bones are rather hard for the home chef to get his or her hands on, so we will just be discussing poultry stocks. Poultry stocks come in two varieties, blond and brunette. (It is vitally important to remember that food is supposed to be sexy, and if you are not regularly eating sexy food, your life is far less enjoyable. In fact, once you know what you are doing, food is much better than sex, because it so much less likely to disappoint.) But, like real life blonds and brunettes, the differences are relatively minor, though there certainly is a time and a place for both.

How to Make Chicken Stock

3-4 whole chicken carcasses- you can also use, duck, turkey, Cornish hen, whatever (I'll discuss below where to get these.)
3-4 medium/ large onions
3-4 carrots
2-3 stalks of celery
1-2 medium tomatoes
1/2 a head of garlic
2 Tbls Whole Black Peppercorns
Either- A small bunch of Parsley, Chives, Thyme
Or- 1 Tbls each of the above, if dried
2-3 Bay Leaves
Red or White wine, depending on which stock you are making.

(You can also save any other veggie scraps you have lying around, but it has to be the kind of things you'd put in a stew- mushrooms, leeks, fennel, hearty greens like kale, etc. But never peppers, fruit of any kind, broccoli, or anything like that.)

Equipment- Tallish stock pot, colander or wire mesh strainer (preferred), a ladle, a second fairly large pot and freezable pint-sized or similar containers.
     I find the best way to get chicken carcasses, for the home chef, is to switch to buying whole chickens to roast instead of wasting money buying breasts or other parts. It is cheaper, tastier, more useful, and less processed. Roast your chicken for dinner early in the week, and then use the leftovers for pasta, nachos, soup, pizza, chicken salad, whatever, but when the meat is all gone, wrap the already roasted carcass in a plastic bag and toss it (with the neck, which you also roasted) into the freezer. You can also save all the bones from plates, since you are going to boil them again. When you have saved 3-4 birds you are ready to make enough stock that it should last you until you have 3-4 more birds saved up again, even if you use it regularly, like I do.

      So the decision now is whether you prefer blond or brunette. I know, never an easy choice. (No, Tamara, people don't always choose blonds.) Blond is better for soups and pasta sauces, and brunette is better for making steak sauce, gravies and braising. Both can be used for either, so don't worry too much. Brunette is a little harder, but after the first few steps they are essentially the same thing. I will explain how to make brunette, with notes where they differ.

      Put the frozen birds in a stock pot that will allow them to be covered with at least an inch of cold water. (If you somehow have raw carcasses, you should probably roast them to a golden brown ahead of time, like 375 for a couple hours.) Turn that on to high, until it boils, then turn down to a simmer.

     Meanwhile, rough chop the mire poix (this is the fancy term for onions, carrots and celery). (Skip the rest of this step if you are making blond stock.) Put the onions in a heavy saute pan or skillet with a little olive oil (or canola) and turn them up to high, stirring, until they start to brown, then turn them down a little, to med-low, and let them brown while you get everything else ready. It is imperative that they don't burn because that charring will spoil the flavor of the entire stock. If they do start to get a little dark, you can add a splash of water, but once you do this, they will never really brown the same way again. Once they are as brown as you dare to get them, add the tomatoes, and add enough red wine to cover them, and let this cook down until it is at least 2/3 less volume than you started with, and there are tight, small bubbles all over the surface. Again, it is better to err on the side of caution here, since burning this will ruin everything.

      Now, the stock will need to simmer for 3-4 hours, but you only need to add the veggies with an hour to go, but it isn't the end of the world if you don't wait, and just add them when they are ready. At this point, if you are making brunette stock, add the onions from the pan and the remainder of the ingredients. If you making blond, add the onions raw, with 1-2 cups of white wine straight to the stock pot, and all the rest of the ingredients. Let the stock simmer for 3-4 hours total, but never let the water get  significantly below the level of the birds, if it does, add a little more cold water.

      Strain the stock through the colander or mesh strainer (this can take two people if you don't know what you are doing) into the other pot, or a large bowl or something if you don't have another pot (you'll have to scrub the original pot then put the liquid back in.) You can now toss, or compost (the veggies anyway) the guts of the stock, or feed the veggies to the dog (I used to know a dishwasher who ate this stuff, but there is little nutritional value left in it.)

      Put the liquid back on the stove, a little off-center of the burner towards you, and turn it up to high. This is the important part. When the stock starts to boil, you will notice a film of grease and even bubbles, like at a dirty waterfall, collecting on the cooler side of the pot, hopefully near you. With the ladle pointing straight up and down, put the bowl of it near the yuck, and tilting it just slightly in that direction, slowly push the lip of the bowl below the surface. The goal is to fill the ladle with the yuck so you can get rid of it (have a bowl nearby) while taking as little of the stock with you as possible. It takes a little while to get this down, but it makes a big difference in the clarity and flavor of the stock. Frustratingly though, the more you do this, the more seems to appear.

      Reduce the stock to about 1/2 to 1/3 of its original volume (you want to reduce brunette more, since you will need it thicker if you intend to make steak sauce or gravy). Shut it off and let it cool, and then pour into your freezeable containers. You can then keep one in the fridge (it will be good for 4-5 days) or you can do what I do, which is pull it from the freezer when I need it, run the container under hot water, and the put the frozen stock-cube right into whatever I am making, letting the right amount melt off, then putting the rest of the cube back in the freezer.

      That's it. You've made chicken stock. It is really pretty easy. As for what to do with it, well hopefully you have a recipe (kidding- I'll put some up eventually). But what you have here is a far superior product to anything you will buy in the store.

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