Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

The Magical Chicken Stock

Basic cookbooks of the 80s and 90s tend to begin with a recipe for chicken stock, to have on hand as a staple. Then they use chicken stock in a huge percentage of their recipes (always specifying, haughtily, homemade chicken stock). Yeah, right. This was also the era of recipe books that tended to call for things like fresh figs and rosewater (as Martha Stewart still does). Look, if I could find fresh figs there's no way I'd waste them by doing anything with them but eating them plain (maybe with some nice port). And rosewater? For real? Give me a freakin' break.

One of the things I like about Marion Cunningham's revision of Fanny Farmer is that she acknowledges outright that you are not going to have homemade chicken stock at the ready for just a basic everyday meal (take that, O Silver Palate!), and provides a recipe for doctoring canned broth by simmering it with vegetables. Lynne Rosetto Kasper, on her radio show, waves off the need for always making your own chicken stock by pointing out that you can just add a little dry white wine to the boxed stuff. This works fine for me, and adding a teaspoon or two of the jarred instant stuff you can get at Penzey's helps as well.

But these days I actually have a useful freezer compartment, and the occasional free weekend afternoon (something I never had even one of throughout all of the 80s and 90s, to my recollection). So making up a stash of chicken stock is not completely out of the question. Although I still resent the homemade requirement for recipes where the chicken stock is just another flavoring rather than the focus of the dish.

As it happens, I am on a continuous quest to learn to quickly whip up basic good foods that I'd serve for company. I've done a few elaborate meals, and I'm a four-star chef when it comes to feeding children ("Would you like grilled cheese, a quesedilla, or buttered noodles?"), but a simple piece of fish or steak? A nice salad with a vinaigrette dressing made from ingredients on hand? I've got some work to do. I also still need to learn to coordinate the main dish and a side dish being ready at the same time without wild flailing in the kitchen. (I'd like to point out that whenever I mention this quest to my friends -- particularly my Morris team -- they immediately volunteer to come over to help me eat my practice meals.)

The other week I tried a Marion Cunningham recipe for roast chicken, one that looked too simple to be true. I put big chunks of root vegetables in a pan and sprinkled them with salt, pepper, and rosemary. Then I just put a chicken on top of them, which I'd salted and peppered and rubbed with olive oil. (The recipe didn't even call for the olive oil, but I was skeptical of its simplicity.) I used a good organic chicken from the farm market, what my office manager calls a "hippie chicken". I just baked this in the oven until it was done. That was it. I turned the vegetables after about 25 minutes, but even that was optional in the recipe.

And you know, it was pretty good. Not bursting with fun and unusual flavors, but the vegetables were decent and the chicken was moist and it was about 8 times more than I could eat. I'll try this one more time before serving it for company, to get the carving right. (I sort of shredded the chicken a bit).

This left me with a chicken carcass with a lot of meat still on it, plus a raw chicken neck. So I made stock, simmering this with carrots and celery and onion and garlic and a little Penzey's chicken powder and a hard cheese end from a cheese day leftover (this was a hint from Lynne Rosetto Kasper). The next day I put the strained stock in the blender with the leftover roasted vegetables (this was something I saw Ina Garten do on The Barefoot Contessa). I reheated this puree and added in some of the leftover chicken and some fresh-ground pepper and it made a rich wonderful chicken vegetable soup (three days worth, actually) that I ate with good bread and that I liked even more than the chicken and roasted vegetables.

So why bother with the chicken roasting part? Why not start with the leftovers?

The next week I went back to the Farm in the Market store and got a package of chicken backs and a package of chicken necks, which turned out to be way way too much for even a ten-quart pot. I also got some organic carrots and celery (organic does make a taste difference -- an enormous one). With onions and garlic etc. I simmered all this in two huge pots on my stove for three hours. I was awash in a flood of stock. I froze a bunch of it, sorted out the chicken meat, and still had an enormous quantity of stock. Really really good stock. Better stock than I ever remember making before.

I lived on soup for days and days. I made a soup with the salvaged chicken meat and homemade croutons, which I ate in great quantity. I made three batches of cream of asparagus soup, another Fanny Farmer recipe, which is really quick and easy when you already have the chicken stock: cook the asparagus in a little water, boil down the cooking water to a cup, simmer chopped onions and the asparagus in stock with the cooking water, puree in a blender, heat with cream. The amazing stock made this taste like fancy restaurant gourmet quality.

Two weeks after finishing off the stock in my refrigerator I used some of the stock I had frozen to make my vegetable rice pilaf dish I've been working on. Boy, this had flavor. And I still have about six cups of the stock in the freezer.

I'm going to do this again some time.
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