Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Stock Options

The funny thing is, ever since Sue and I moved to this glorious land of organic and free range food, we've actually been eating less of it. I think there are two forces at work here; cost and quality.

Quality first: The meats and vegetables we bought at the Black Mountain Tailgate Market taste so friggin good, I can actually use less and get more, if you know what I mean.

Then there's cost: Local, independent farmers work hard to produce that beautiful, healthy, flavorful food. They do it on a smaller scale than industrial, automated, factory farms and therefore, their profit margins are tighter, even when they charge $3 for a dozen barnyard eggs and $2 for a small head of cabbage.

Let's take the humble chicken to illustrate my point. Used to be, I would put supermarket chicken on our dinner menu at least twice a week. Mr. Perdue makes it cheap and easy to cook, but the hidden costs include poisonous runoff seeping into the Chesapeake Bay, birds living in squalor, immigrant workers (often illegal) laboring in unsafe facilities for unfair wages and growth hormone-jacked meat that, when you really consider it, doesn't taste of anything but the seasoning and sauce you have to smother it with.

During the farmers market season, which ran here from May to the end of October, I had reliable access to local, free range chickens of incomparable flavor. They cost $3.50 a pound. About every other week, you could get fresh, never frozen chickens. These were the birds I targeted, as I quickly developed a preference for whole chickens that I could break down into breast, thigh, leg and wing packs and put in the freezer to stretch the bounty. But, spending $12-13 a bird gives one pause when considering how to cook them. Chicken went from being a stir-fry staple to a featured protein. Chicken for dinner has become cause for celebration in our house. I crave it in a way I never thought possible for what had been a meat so solidly in the mundane.

This past Saturday, the Black Mountain Tailgate Market held its last hurrah; the Holiday Bazaar. It was my last chance to stock up on winter vegetables; lettuces, sun gold tomatoes (the very last pint of the year) radishes, cabbage, potatoes, squash, greens and fennel. When I saw one of my regular producers had fresh chickens, I happily plunked down $23 and bought two.

Back home, I broke the birds down and sent them into the deep freeze for later. Now it was time to get the most for my money and make chicken stock. I'll say right up front that my chicken stock isn't intensely chickeny and it isn't pretty. The experts seem to be in agreement that to make great stock, be it chicken, lamb, beef or pork, you have to use a lot of meat. At the prices I pay for my meat, however, I'm loathe to poach the wings and legs for a better tasting stock. I make my quick and dirty stock with eyes wide open. I know it could be better, but I'm not willing to make the sacrifice.

That said, making stock is still a very satisfying kitchen experience. It happens low and slow and fills the house with rich, comforting aromas. It's a perfect side activity to a lazy football Sunday (or any day that you don't have gainful employment). Here's how I do mine
  • three chicken carcasses w/ necks and wing tips (I usually freeze mine until I have three to make the endeavor worthwhile)
  • water to cover
  • carrots (1 or 2 with the tops on if they're fresh)
  • celery (1 or 2 stalks with leaves on if they have them)
  • 1/2 an onion (skin on or off - it doesn't matter)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • a pinch of salt
Defrost the carcasses and set them on an oven tray lined with foil. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and set the rack in the middle position. Roast the chickens for 1 hour, turning once halfway through the process. Remove the chickens and place in a deep pot. Cover the carcasses with cold water and put the pot on the stovetop burner set to high. Let the water come to a boil, then reduce the heat immediately to achieve a slow simmer. Allow the stock to percolate in this fashion for as few as three hours or as many as you'd care to give it. If the water level reduces below the tallest peak, add more hot water to the pot to cover.

The reward.
The vegetables are only going to be in there for an hour. When you're ready for that to happen, add them, along with the bay leaves. (Now would be a good time to make this stock your own with whatever strikes your fancy; rutabagas, thyme, tomato paste etc.) At the end of the hour, fish out all the solids and strain the stock through a fine-meshed strainer and some cheese cloth. Return the strained stock to the pot and turn the heat up. Add a pinch of salt (not too much) and allow the liquid to reduce to intensify the flavor. Taste it every now and then and halt the process when you're satisfied with the result.

Cool the stock and store it in the fridge overnight. In the morning, the fat will have risen to the top and solidified, allowing you to strain it out for a cleaner tasting product. I store my stock in 4-cup lots in freezer bags. 4 cups seems to be the most useful unit of measure when you consider all the different uses you'll have for chicken stock.

I find that three chicken carcasses and my personal taste preference leaves me with 10 cups of quite serviceable stock, certainly much better than anything you could buy in the supermarket, and 2 or three cups of shredded chicken meat that I pick off the cooked frames.

Hey bub, you gonna eat all that chicken?
Of course, this technique can be used to make virtually any type of stock. I make it with wild duck, venison, wild pork, lamb and even doves. I reckon there might even be a turkey heading in this direction later in the week. I use the stock wherever its called for in recipes, as well as for cooking rice and making pan sauces.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

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