Stock: The Kind with Chickens

ALEXANDER BENJAMIN

Alex is a data scientist and on the weekends he makes stock.

 

In restaurants the world over, when first light is breaking into the windows and as that first burner ignites on the stove, stock begins.

It could be a succulent tonkatsu in Japan, filled with pork and cabbage and a scalding layer of fat. It could be a French fond blanc de vollaile, with a foundation of mirepoix (a classic combination of coarsely chopped carrots, celery, and onions) and chicken carcasses that will sit boiling at the back of the stove for the rest of the day. 

No matter where you are, the essentials of a stock are basically the same. Water and stuff plus heat over time. The heat is usually low; the time is usually long. As to what that “stuff” is, there really aren’t many restrictions. Chicken, pig, beef, fish, shrimp, and mushrooms all make lovely and classic stock. Each can be accented with a variety of other vegetables and herbs to make an enormous variety of things, all legitimately called ‘stock’. 

These humble, essential elements can make it tempting to label stock as something that is easy or unworthy of deliberate attention. It is so decidedly simple. Indeed, many people take this point of view, purchasing stock in cans that could sit on shelves for decades seemingly unaltered or in little cubes or packets of what once was stock that has been painfully reduced to dust and salt. These, however, are not stock. Not really. It can be necessary at times, and it certainly can be convenient, but it isn’t the same.

This is because stock is a base, a primer on which other flavors will be built to make a meal. As such, stock reverberates, sending little ripples of delight throughout every subsequent dish. If you want to know the reason that risotto tastes so much better in that fancy restaurant than when you try to make it at home, stock can be the reason. If you want to know why the porridge you have in Hong Kong tastes so different than anything you’d get in New York City, again, look to the stock.

Taste a can of Swanson’s chicken broth and you won’t taste much. It’s decidedly bland, blank, flaccid. Maybe a hit of salt comes across, but rarely much more. Some people like that. They think that’s what stock is supposed to be. But taste a fresh pot of stock and you’ll get something else entirely. Maybe a smack of fat still floats on top, an indulgent punch of flavor. What follows is depth and umami and something that seeks a deep part of your soul, some shared cultural memory, and warms it from within. 

Recall that cook in the early morning. They prepare their ingredients diligently, balancing different flavors and notes. They give the stock the time it needs to build flavor, not rushing or taking shortcuts. They skim and stir and smell. It is a process, and that fact is respected rather than resented.

Stock is that assumedly subtle difference that at the end of the day isn’t so subtle.

So how can we reclaim our stock?

We can make stock in the days we have at home. We can make it while doing other things, while pursuing other more modern feats. It doesn’t take much and it freezes and lasts (almost) forever.

So maybe go out and buy a bigger pot. Purchase some bones or carcasses at a butcher — most will happily sell you their scrap at prices far less than that can of Swanson’s. Get some carrots and celery and onions. Or go in another direction, maybe with some lemongrass and pork bones to make something Thai, or dried mushrooms and leek to keep it vegetarian. Brown your bones or don’t. Do what you want and then put it on the back of the stove early in the day and just let it simmer. Taste it for salt, but don’t add too much.

Most of all participate in the process. Let it take its time. Go change the laundry. Then taste it again. Add another ingredient and feel it change.Let it simmer and bubble and fill the room with its aroma. It can take you places or keep you right at home in a way few other things can.  Put it in your freezer and guard it like gold.

 

Thursday, August 31, 2017