A chicken in every pot…

“Indeed, stock is everything in cooking…without it nothing can be done.” – Escoffier

“In the creation of good food, no preparation comes close to matching the power of fresh stock.”  – Ruhlman, The Elements of Cooking

Here at Kiss My Grits HQ (1 of 4 global offices), a new and delightful tradition has developed on Sunday afternoons.

Let me backtrack here a bit, and explain that historically, Sundays around here are sacred. Sacrosanct, even. The phones are turned off. The computer goes nighty night. I pop on a This American Life, open a bottle of wine, and cook up a hunk of some beast or another. There may or may not be some Billy Joel involved in these afternoons. There is definitely some serious cuddle action with Thing 1 and Thing 2, the four-legged demi-gods of the house.

Lately though, Sundays have become a bit more forward thinking. In the last few months, my perspectives has changed, and my desires have altered along with them. Now, I want to make every effort count. Every cooking action to build, and layer, and add to the next.  And how better to do this than by mastering the most basic of all ingredients, the holy grail of risotto, the elixir you search for with every sniffle. That’s right, I’m talkin’ chicken stock.

This totally isn’t hard kids. Not even a little bit. And best of all, rather than using those condensed cubes of nothingness, or paying $3.50 for a box of the finest organic vacuum-packed blandness, you’ll have a freezer full of liquid gold, ready and able to fight off the next dripping nose or attack of nostalgia.

Face it, if you want chicken and dumplings, you have to have stock. Risotto? Ditto. More flavorful rice? Youguessedit. And here’s how you do it.

Equipment:

  • 1 great big pot
  • 1 great big bowl
  • Sharp knife
  • Strainer
  • Cheesecloth or clean flour sack dishtowel
  • 3-5 quart sized containers, suitable for freezing

Ingredients:

  • 2 lbs. chicken backs (ask your butcher-s/he has them, trust me)
  • 1 lb. mirepoix (see previous entry, or dice up 8 oz. onion, 4 oz. carrot, and 4 oz. celery)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 4 sprigs of thyme
  • 3 tbsp. of peppercorns or 2 tbsp. ground black pepper
  • Salt
  • 8 cups water

Rinse chicken, and place ceremonially into the pot. You can make stock from any raw cut of chicken you desire (wings, backs, legs, etc.), but the point is to start from scratch with uncooked chicken. A cooked chicken has already given all it can, and rather than making stock from a cooked chicken, if you are committed to getting more than one use out of your bird (as I often am) I say flip that plan around, use a 2-3 lb. full chicken, and make a meal from the poached meat you have leftover.

Add the water, and bring to the brink of a boil. Once you have bubbles, turn down the heat so that you have a simmer going. DO NOT BOIL YOUR STOCK. This is like having lipstick on your teeth, or your pantyhose tucked into your undies. Nobody will tell you. But I will. Because I care about you. Boiling your stock destroys it. Yeah, it reduces faster and cooks like the dickens, but also creates underdeveloped flavors and undesirable bitter undertones. Let this roll for 30-45 minutes, peeking in every 15 minutes or so to make sure you have stayed at a simmer, and skim off any gunk that has accumulated on the top.

After the first hour, add peppercorns, salt, thyme, bay leaves, and mirepoix to the pot. This will cool the liquid, so you may need to crank up the heat for a few minutes to get it back up to a simmer, but again, don’t let it boil. If you are using a whole chicken, you may want to pull the bird out at this point to strip for a second use (make sure you put the skin and bones back in once you have stripped the carcass!). If you are using chicken parts, leave them in.

Side note: I know you are thinking about them, but I really encourage you to reconsider garlic and/or mushrooms, making sure you want those elements, as once those flavors are in there, you can’t get them out. It’s like salt. You can always add more, but you can’t get rid of them once they are in. If you like those flavors, fantastic. It’s totally your thing, and there’s no judgment here, I’m just sayin’, unlike everyone in Northern California in the 70s, think about it before you invite them into the hot tub.

Once your stock has reduced down after another hour or two (the longer you let it go, the more gelatin the bones will release and the jigglier your stock will be when cooled-you want this, by the way, as it means you’ve extracted every last little bit of everything from the poultry) your stock is ready to refine. Pull any chicken parts you have in there, and get yourself set up to strain.

Put the towel in the strainer, and rinse it under the tap to set it in place. Put the lined strainer over a large bowl, and pour the contents of the pot through it so that you capture the stock, and leave behind the boiled veggies, herbs, spices, etc.

Now, taste your stock. It will taste a little flat, if you have (wisely) held back on the salt. By keeping the salt content low, you have a better shot at keeping the salt content of your final dish in your control. What you do want to taste is a nice, chickeny flavor, and the vegetables. If it’s not a full enough flavor for you, rinse the stockpot out, and return the clarified stock to the burner to cook down for another 30 minute’s or so, or until you achieve the flavor concentration you are after.

Once your stock is where you want it to be, let it cool, and pour it into containers that make sense for one evening of use. I like to use 1 quart deli containers. It’s about the right amount for whatever dish I’m making, and it’s easy enough to pull out two if I am making  soup for a crowd. Chill in the fridge overnight, and if you are not making matzo ball soup, remove the layer of fat that appears as if by magic (leave it if you plan to use it for matzo ball soup – I label the top of each container “w/schmaltz and w/out schmaltz so that I know to grab the right container and I am not denied those gorgeous little golden bubbles floating between the matzohs).

Freeze, and enjoy at will.

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