From time to time, in the cold winter days, we happen to enjoy a good plain soup made with just stock and some fillings such as tortellini or home made pasta. This is also the occasion to get some head start for the next day: I try to cook as much stock as my largest pan can hold, knowing that at a very least we are going to enjoy a great risotto with the leftover broth.
Good stock is the pillar over which proper cooking is done. As many cooking stars write in their books, one of the key differences between amateur and professional cooking is availability of large quantities of different stocks. Every kitchen worth its name will always have no less than three huge pans with simmering broth (meat, chicken and vegetable at a very least, but fish and crustacea are common findings in good places) which is daily made with the leftover of the kitchen stuff such as carcasses, bones, fat, second-choice meat cuts and the like. I read a story once about a Chinese restaurant whose stock pot was still simmering since the very fist opening day, constantly and daily filled up with stuff and fresh water, and constantly gaining in flavour (and bacteria, I guess, but that adds up to the flavour apparently).
Since having a huge pot constantly boiling in our home kitchen is pretty much out of question, whenever I devote myself to stock I try to cook as much as I can, but I was never able to get past the quantity I need for two or three meals. Still, the difference between proper stock and cubes stuff is huge, and I try to stick as much as I can to the real thing.
Making a good stock is simple enough, once you understand that the idea is to squeeze every single molecule of flavour from your ingredients. It took me quite a bit to stabilize on ingredients, quantities and cooking methods, but I think I have settled on something that looks, smells and tastes good. The idea is simple enough: boil some meat and vegetables, add salt and you’re done, but of course the devil is in the details, and I have a simple three-step schedule for your reading pleasure.
First step is ingredients, of course. I start with choosing the right cuts of meat: second or third choice will do, keep the fillet for your next steak as stock seems to enjoy the roughest cut of meat, with large chunks of fat, nerves and bones. I usually buy 1kg of mixed meat, that is roughly 700g of beef and 300g of hen (that’s hen, not chicken: the oldest the better, chicken is way too delicate for proper stock. 300g is roughly half a hen, and you want it with skin and bones). On top of all this, I usually buy a beef bone (kneecap is excellent) for added flavour. Add a large onion, two carrots and some celery and you will end up with 3-4 liters of stock.
The second step involves pre-heating the oven. Boiling the ingredients right away is fine, but lacks a bit of punch and color. Spending some time in a very heat oven is a great way for ingredients to char-up a bit and add a lot of colour and flavour to the finished product. While the oven gets hot, it’s time to cut the meat and vegetables in largish chunks, and accomodate everything in a medium sized oven pan, which is definitely smaller than the one I would use if I were to roast a similar quantity of meat. I want my stuff to be packed full in the pan, as my aim is not to cook it thoroughly (which would incidentally seal the meat and hide the precious juices behind an impenetrable crust): what I want is a bit of char and roasty flavour, and keeping the meat packed tight will allow every chunk to have a cooked side while still being raw on the other ones.
Now, here goes a trick: unless you want to spend (as I did) a painful lot of time in scraping the caramelized meat juices from the bottom of your pan, the best option is layering your vegetables first, then put the meat on top. The juices will flow from from the meat and will be absorbed by the veggies before hitting the pan, which means every nanogram of flavour will still be in your stock, instead than in the dishwasher. Having done so, I whack my stuff in the oven for roughly 30-40 minutes and take some time to clean up the mess (my kitchen is always messy).
Once the baking is done, it’s time for the third step: I pour the meat and vegetables in the largest pan I’ve got and start adding cold water. Temperature of water is key: adding boiling water will seal the meat, which is definitely not what I want. For good measure, and to grab every single bit of flavour, I pour water in the baking pan first, then move it to the cooking pot. Lid on, gas to minimal heat, and wait. When the stock starts simmering, sometimes I get some nasty foamish stuff floating on top: that’s the meat albumin, which needs to be skimmed out since it won’t add to flavour and would make the stock grey in colour. Once the skimming is done, it’s just a matter of leaving the pot to simmer for a couple of hours, then everything is done.
Well, almost. It’s now time to take the meat and vegetables out. Unless you’re a cardboard glutton, you really want to throw that stuff away, as every bit of taste will be in the pan by now. What I need now is a big strainer, covered with some tissue which has been soaked in cold water (to tighten up the clothing threads), which helps me in having some clear, golden, and precious liquid as a reward for my efforts. Once the whole thing has cooled up a bit, it can be bottled and frozen: it will last for weeks.
We never manage to freeze the stock, though, as we don’t have a pan large enough. What we tipically do is taking half of the stock, have him fiercely boil, then throw some home-made pasta which looks like small squares (we call them “quadrucci”), which will cook in two minutes or less. A sprinkle of parmesan cheese adds a finishing touch to the ultimate comfort food for a cold winter night. The day after, typically, is a working day, and we both get home late with little time for cooking. The leftover stock makes a great occasion for a proper risotto, made with good Carnaroli rice, half an onion, some oil and butter, a glass of white wine and a touch of saffron. Looking forward to it!