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.