Thursday, May 21, 2009

Confessions of a Stocker

I admit it. I'm a stocker. It all started innocently enough with a simple home-made chicken soup, but quickly escalated to stocking rice pilaffs, wine reductions and seafood chowders. It's become an obsession. I can't shop for certain groceries without envisioning their stocking potential.

Ham – joint-in of course – makes a delicious stock for split-pea soup. A turkey is mentally stripped of its roasted meat, its carcass tossed in a stock pot with Mirepoix (onions, celery and carrots.) A whole fish or in-the-shell shellfish and I fantasize about Bouillabaisse.

But this is more than just another foodie obsession. Stocking is frugal activity. No, really! If you want healthy, flavourful meals on a budget, then stocking is the way to achieve it. Good stock not only enhances the flavour of meals, the natural gelatine has wonderful health benefits. Perhaps the most frugal aspect of stocking is that nothing goes to waste. Any leftover bones with a little meat on them can provide a few cups of stock that could later enhance some ramen noodles with veg. When vegetables age faster than they're eaten, they can be tossed into a stock pot together with some onion, celery and carrot, and brewed into a completely vegetarian stock – a light and flavourful addition to brown rice pilaf.

For beef stock, alone, I buy bone. However, the cost of good soup bones varies radically, so I make my purchase when the quality is highest – good amount of meat on or marrow in the bones – and when prices are lowest. Meaty beef bones need browning in a hot oven before being added to Mirepoix and water, and produce high amounts of gelatine. On the rare occasion I find a bone-in beef roast, the leftovers are sure to hit the stock pot, though usually produce less gelatine than soup bones.

Brown stocks are made from cooked-meat and bones and clear stocks are made with raw-meat and bones, the latter producing greater amounts of gelatine. A whole stewing fowl – excellent flavour for much less cost (and fat skimming) than a fryer – can make several cups of clear stock and be price-competitive with popular store brands. Turkey legs can be a cost-effective choice for making clear turkey stock. Recently, we found whole, fresh turkeys and were able to butcher them at home. The breasts became roasts, the best leg, wing and back meat was run through the grinder to become lean and hearty turkey burger, and the remaining carcass went into a stock pot. That bird yielded two roasts (which, bought separately, would've cost the equivalent price of the whole turkey,) six pounds of burger, and sixteen cups of wiggly-giggly gold: clear turkey stock.

I won't stock in summer, though – that season is steamy enough! But, once stocking becomes obsession, even summer can't stop the yearning. And, not just any stock will do. Nothing – and I mean nothing! – compares to home-made stock. Store brands may do, in a pinch, but their flavours and textures are bland. If you want superior taste and texture, then home-made stocks produce the rich gelatine most store brands lack. Gelatine not only carries flavour molecules on a silky, savoury base, it's rich in valuable nutrients. Without the gelatine, flavours are elusive and the texture watery.

Water, however, is the base of every stock and quality must be considered. If your tap water tastes funky, the stock will too. Filtering water can solve this problem, so plan ahead and have 12-20 cups ready. About a half-hour into the simmer, impurities in the meat and bone will rise to the surface in the form of foam. Gently skim this from the surface. This process can take a long while but, once impurities no longer rise, seasoning can be added according to the base protein or featured vegetable. Bouquet Garni, a collection of complimentary herbs tied together with string, provide aromatic notes and subtler flavours than most spices. Flavours intensify as the stock reduces during its cooking time and, while certain seasonings are important additions, they should be used sparingly or whole. For instance, whole peppercorns add a subtler flavour and less heat than ground pepper will. Salt is essential in drawing out flavours but, as stocks are primarily ingredients in other dishes, limiting salt when making them better enables adjusting that common seasoning in those future dishes.

Stock freezes well, too. Up to three to four months. Remember to label and date the containers and cycle your stock for maximum freshness.

Those containers of gelatinous goodness will come in handy on cooler summer days – that's when my craving for risotto hits hardest. I'm stocking up now, before summer's swelter sets in. I figure several containers each of turkey, chicken, and beef stock, should get me through the season's comfort-food crises.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Bulking Up

No, this post has nothing to do with Hans and Franz from Saturday Night Live. No weight pumping is involved, though that may depend on how literally you apply the following information.

In today's tough economic times, finding bargains is crucial to reduced home-budgets. But, bargain hunting is more than just coupon cutting and daily specials. Next time you're looking for great deals, check out the bulk-sized options at wholesale retailers. Buying in bulk can be one of the most resourceful ways to stay on-budget.

For examples of this, I chose five brand name (popular) items I buy regularly at a wholesale retailer to compare pricing. Here are those price comparisons (in Canadian dollars):


@ Regular Store pricing

@ Bulk pricing

Toilet Bowl cleaner

1/2 cent per ml.

1/4 cent per ml.

OTC* Pain medication

11 cents per caplet

7 cents per caplet

Dishwasher detergent

$3.60 per litre

$2.30 per litre

Aluminum Foil

$1.81 per metre

21 cents per metre

Bar soap (sensitive skin)

$1.75 per bar

$1.38 per bar

*OTC = Over-the-counter

Similar comparisons also apply to food and other household products such as small appliances, stationery, and clothing. Some savings are not as great as others. The aluminum foil, for instance, offers far greater savings than the bar soap. The key to saving through bulk-buying is to buy only the products you use frequently and in significant amounts.

Some people won't buy in bulk for various reasons: 1) the initial cost at the check-out seems too high; 2) the space needed to store bulk purchases can be an issue for some; and 3) worry about spoilage. All these are legitimate concerns.

Speaking to the first issue, I'll just say that price comparison is the key. Not all bulk purchases are created equal. You'll need to do your homework to discover whether or not your bulk choices are truly a bargain. Generally, though, you'll obtain more products for less cost in the long term. Thus, a certain amount of fore-sight is required. However, you won't have to shop for those products as often – a real "plus" for our budget, as we must travel far to do our shopping and include fuel costs as part of the overall equation.

The storage-space problem is one I can easily relate to. I'm often tempted by spectacular savings to over-stock our home to the point of its groaning "Enough!" Impulse control is essential!

It's also just as important the watch "best before" dates, rotating home-stocked items accordingly. And, though it can be hard to resist certain bargains, I've learned to buy only what can readily be stored and used up in good time. That said, you'd be surprised how many nooks and crannies can be found to store things...

If spoilage is a concern, then that particular product may not offer good economy for your family. We have access to flour by the bushel, at well under half the cost of the 20# grocery store bags, but couldn't possibly use it all before it turned rancid. Nor could we hope to store that quantity. If most of the product spoils, little or no saving is actually gained.

So, when buying in bulk, remember these tips:

  1. Check your stored items to ensure you won't buy too much (re: storage & spoilage)
  2. Ensure you will be able use all of the product before its expiry date.
  3. Use caution when buying items that spoil easily like fresh produce, dairy and other refrigerated foods (food spoils faster in an over-full refrigerator.)
  4. Household cleaners and personal hygiene products have incredible shelf-life and, if you have the space to store them, can be excellent budget savers.

Now, I want to know, have I "pumped you up" to buying in bulk?