TAKING STOCK

Homemade stock and glace de viande are priceless. I was given an unkind reminder of this at Passover. My freezer was bereft of chicken stock and there was no time to make fresh for my annual pot of matzo ball soup. I unwisely decided to "doctor" a box of "organic free-range chicken stock," with what my paternal grandmother called "soup vegetables" and bouquet garni. It was okay, but the broth did not taste like a chicken and it was thin.

My mother made stock. Like other 1950s housewives, she was liberated from making it, for the most part, by Swanson's and bouillon cubes. She did not depend on homemade broth, but for soup she would consider nothing else. For cabbage borscht she saved beef bones, and for chicken soup she always thriftily saved chicken necks and other trimmed pieces in our freezer. These collections were supplemented by the trinity of flavors from celery ribs, with their tops, yellow onions, and carrots, as well as bay leaf, peppercorns, and salt. My father, being the son of a persnickety cook, would always comment on the clarity (or lack thereof) of her soup. Although he never made it himself, he knew the rules: never allow the stock to boil; use chicken feet for "richness;" and, use an egg white to clarify. My mother, of course, never used chicken feet and did not see the need to clarify stock. However, she was careful not to let the stock boil and patiently simmered it all day to fully extract the flavor and gelatin from her scraps.

When I lived on kibbutzim, in Israel, Friday night dinner was traditionally chicken soup with wide egg noodles and baked chicken. We loved the soup and declined the chicken. We youthful volunteers always laughed about the thriftiness of kibbutznik cooks because they first boiled the chickens to make the stock, and then baked them in the oven to brown the skin. This meant that the chicken meat was less than flavorful and rather dry. I now understand they knew more about cooking and life than we did, and that they were giving us their best. They would have never considered killing a hen while it was still productively laying eggs. They had to boil the chickens, otherwise those tough stewing hens would have been inedible.

Homemade stock conveys comfort and healing in ways that other foods do not. I mostly did not make it when I was younger, but there were exceptions. Once was for a dying elder friend. She had come home from the hospital and it was evident that she would not recover. She would not eat solid food. I bought whole chickens and vegetables and made broths for her. We spooned them into her, and those were what sustained her until she died. Recently I cooked a family dinner of braised rabbit. The sauce was made from some morels, red wine, and a few aromatics, but mostly reduced homemade chicken stock. It was commented: "This dinner tastes like there was a lot of love put into it." That, I am convinced, was a nod to the power of homemade stock.

These days making stock is more of an effort because most markets package meat from cryovaced "sub-primal parts." Sadly, my local grocer sells beef bones that are bought separately. They cut them and keep them, packaged, in the freezer section priced like a specialty food item. We are rescued by Asians in our midst whose requests have made chicken feet and soup parts always available at some local markets, and by Asian grocers who butcher meat from whole carcasses and know the value of neck bones, shank meat, and knuckle and marrow bones.

Well made stock is luxury food. Perfectly clear, it used to be part of effete menus as warm and cold jellied consommé. Consommé is appreciated for its simplicity and for the art in browning the bones and selecting the vegetables that produce it. Mature vegetables are best because they are more flavorful. Slow bubbles in the stock will keep its flavor intact as it simmers and help provide its clarity. I do not add salt to stock when I am making it, but instead slowly extract the mineral salts from the bones. Seasoning can be adjusted later. Chicken feet do, indeed, produce an unctuous mouth feel and impart flavor. I used to clarify my stock with an egg white when I was more concerned with those things, but I no longer feel this is necessary. Sometimes I reduce stock to glace de viande and keep an assortment in my freezer; chicken, beef, veal, and duck. Its honey-like texture makes sauces seem fat without butter or cream. Its deep flavor has no substitute.

Whether lusty from aromatics, or daintily refined, homemade stock expresses wholesomeness and love, and I have considered myself especially well cared for when offered a cup of genuine homemade broth.



© Elissa Rubin-Mahon 2003



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