When you really think about it, STOCK, just the word itself, suggests the most basic of things. The root of things. When you come from good stock, you come from something tried and true and tested and trusted. And so, as I reemerge from a very confusing year of career shifts and life changes and grappling with the fact that I don’t write nearly as much as I want to, I’m going to start here with stock, because there seems to be no better place to begin again.
Making ones own stock, I’m talking chicken or veggie or beef or what have you, has a pretty niche following. There are some high quality stocks out there available for purchase that make the six to eight hour ordeal feel like a waste of a Sunday, or if nothing else, a waste on your energy bill. I’ve made soups giddy with goodness with just a scoop of boullion, for crying out loud. But making stock is not a necessity thing, and it’s not a time saving thing, and sometimes it’s not even a taste thing. It’s about creating something. To create something, there’s a devotion element, an artistry and finesse and patience. That’s what makes the outcome so wonderful — the fact that after you put in the time and the work, you have something entirely new ánd exciting to play with.
It started with my dad, as many cooking things do. My father is an artist. He is careful, patient, detail-oriented. His work life, one filled with numbers and discussions about term life insurance, allows for very little expression of that talent. I still, to this day, don’t know where my father learned to cook, but something tells me he taught himself. When an artist finds their medium, isn’t that what most of them do?
He started cooking after the divorce. I mean REALLY cooking. One of the most comforting things was coming home from school or tennis and hearing him in the kitchen. Nothing had been made yet, he was simply unloading a grocery bag or taking off his suit jacket and laying it over the breakfast room chair, but there was an anticipation in the air. Soon, there would be food. When dad was hungry, there was always food to be made. Not purchased or picked up, but crafted with his own hands.
Soups were made on the weekends. The pot of slow cooking stock, the first step toward a real batch of good soup, was always so inconspicuous, the flame barely burning underneath its cast iron belly. The only clue we had that it was cooking was the smell. Subtle at first, then strong, proliferating the dark wood floors, the antique furniture, the corners of the window panes, the clothes on my back.
Stock–in its true basic form–requires three essential ingredients: carrot, celery, onion. The meat is optional, but essential in my house growing up, and is most often chicken. You buy a whole chicken, a fresh one, quarter it, and submerge it in several quarts of water with its vegetable friends. Black peppercorns and some kind of herb are always welcome; you do not add salt until the end. Once submerged, you simmer it for what seems like forever. It takes all day, as most good things do. Recipe books tell you 8 hours; my dad, when I called him just last week (you know, to confer with a master) told me to cook it until the chicken starts to collapse off the bone; you cook it until, quite simply, it SEEMS ready.
I realize this is not helpful to most cooking artists out there. If you are truly in need of specific instructions and time frames and all that, Food and Wine is a perfect resource to find a stock recipe worth the time and effort. Here’s the thing, though. The improvisational nature of stock– how it’s different every time and how the length of time is nothing specific, just LONG, just all day, just whatever your Sunday permits– is what makes it so unique among most foods. It really allows for artistry.
A good stock, once strained and reheated, should almost glow with bubbles of fat and flavor. The color should be of a rich, golden hue, kind of like browned butter, and when the light hits it, the oils from the chicken roll and tumble like marbles. If the stock comes out thick and concentrated, you can add half-cups of water and dilute it, tasting it with every addition. That taste–one clean and natural and subtle–should linger on your lips after the spoon leaves your mouth. The chicken flavor is the most aggresssive; followed by the onion. The fresh herb you added (I used rosemary simply because it is growing outside my house) should come next, followed by a sweetness from the carrot. The celery is the mediator of it all, balancing out its strong-willed buddies, leaving you with something that could, in fact, make just about anything more delicious than it was before.
I do not have the skills my dad does. I am only detail-oriented for brief spurts of time, I am harried and impatient when it comes to pretty much every task, I let my immediate needs (hunger, mainly) drive me so crazy that aesthetic appeal takes a back seat in the things I cook. But something like stock, something that forces me to slow the eff down and let food magic happen on its own, without my control, is the best damn therapy a crazy frantic cook like me could ask for. And the results? A fatty, savory, just about perfect base for anything and everything, makes me feel, temporarily, like I am one hell of an artist.
N.B. Wondering what to do with the chicken you used? See my recipe page, specifically Dad’s chicken salad.