Saturday, September 5, 2009

Homemade Stock: Stretching our food dollars for good health

Today is soup day. My approach to homemade soup is a synthesis of things I learned from my grandmother, from Chef Bruce Naftaly at Le Gourmand/Seattle, and from health and wellness masters along the way.

Gran would make her famous Refrigerator Soup two or three times per month and it consisted of a wondrous array of everything that had been put back into the fridge since the last batch was made: grilled chicken backs and wings, ends of kielbasa, left over Spanish Rice, the remaining half a tomato from someone’s most recent sandwich, spinach or green beans that my brother had attempted to hide in the back of the fridge so he couldn’t be forced to finish them off, the bottom crusts of sandwich bread that I always cut off because I hated how they felt in my mouth.

It may sound like a nightmare, but it was never, ever that. I can’t say what magic she performed while no one was looking, but I know we always sat still for soup dinners, spoon in one hand and large hunks of bread in the other. Soup came to the table in a large, cast iron dutch oven and our family of six (more if the neighbor kids were eating with us) would generally empty the pot in one sitting. Gran was a child of the great depression and she knew how to get the most out of her groceries. It’s a mindset that was ingrained in me from an early age as I stood beside her and “helped” her cook through the years.

Chef Naftaly may be the most under-represented food genius in our very food-centric city of Seattle. He was serving all local and organic foods many long years before it was “trendy” to do so and his growing list of provisioners is truly breath-taking to an amateur food-a-phile like me.

Early in my Seattle residency, I attended some of his cooking classes. These are absolutely “must do” events. For the price of the class, you sit in his warm kitchen on a ladder-back chair with ten or twelve other newfound friends and watch him prepare a meal. You get recipes, dinner with dessert, wines paired to each course, AND you get the benefit of learning his kitchen efficient style and cooking techniques. He is a wonder to behold and his meals are divine. One of many things you can generally count on is that Bruce prepares his own fresh stock daily for use in his wonderful recipes.

My own treasured trinity for the stock pot is based on celery, carrots and French shallots – fresh, organic basics in our kitchen. I prefer baby carrots because they are so much easier to work with. Today, there were no carrots to be found at Chez Croquet but I found some fennel stalks and set to work.

A couple of tablespoons of olive oil and an equal portion of Earth Balance non-hydrogenated shortening went into the stock pot. While these were heating up, I whirled some celery stalks in the food processor, then dropped some chopped organic garlic into the hot pot. Since I was currently also short of fresh shallots, I added some dehydrated shallots to the pot and pulled it off the heat to prevent burning. I keep these on the shelf for just such a moment.

The fennel stalks and some leaves of rainbow chard joined the celery for a whirl about the food processor, then into the pot with all of the greenery. I also added the last of a portion of vegan cilantro pesto made at PCC/Fremont and the better part of an orange tomato that was never going to make it to a salad bowl. Sliding the pot back onto the medium heat, I popped the cover on and sweated the veggies, then added one cup of Orvieto and one half can of Ito En Sencha Shot. I simmered these for about ten minutes, then dropped in the magic basket.

Until now, everything that has gone into the pot will remain in the stock forever. The magic basket is for everything that would otherwise need to be sorted and strained after cooking. If you love to cook, but HATE to clean up afterwards, you want this.

Today’s magic includes the remains of the roast chicken from a previous dinner and half a small spaghetti squash, quartered. I also added two organic bay leaves and two sachets of Bija Cold Stop tea. This is a caffeine-free, immune-boosting blend of herbs that makes a fabulous addition to your stock during cold and flu season. Several stems of fresh lemon thyme, kosher salt, some cumin and some tumeric along with a helping of ground white pepper rounded out the profile. Then for the sake of my grandmother, I added a fatty end from a grass-fed beef steak which I had reserved for this purpose.

With the magic basket fully loaded and a couple of quarts of filtered water added in, it was time to let the simmer go to work. After a good 20 minutes, I added another two quarts of filtered water. (It’s important to let the stock pot boil gently for these long intervals of 20 – 30 minutes at a time to ensure that any micro-organisms are destroyed in the cooking process.)

Once the basket contents have fully rehydrated and the flavors have set, I like to use a stainless potato masher to press things and release these flavors into the stock. At around 50 minutes of cooking time, I will turn off the heat and just allow the ingredients to steep. Our climate is moderate to mild here. Don't try this in Tucson!

At dinnertime, simply lift the basket out of the stock pot and set it into a large bowl to drain. Use a stick blender to liquefy the vegetables that remain in the stock and boil gently for 3-5 minutes prior to serving.

I like to puree the spaghetti squash (minus the skin, of course) into my soup, but my husband loathes it. Instead, I save the squash for my own lunch fare and add a little tapioca starch to thicken the stock just slightly.

Served in large noodle bowls with freshly baked gluten-free bread (mine toasted), we enjoyed a delicious and nurturing meal with no downside.

And just now, it's raining outside as I head back to the kitchen to portion the remaining stock for freezing. It will be there, at the ready, any time we need a healthy flavor boost. Very hyp, indeed.

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