Taking Stock 

Stocks are to cooking what Hank Williams is to country music: basic, soulful satisfaction.

Back when people actually cooked as opposed to simply heating products as they do now, stock played an important role in the kitchen. Stockpots provided a sumptuous basis for an endless variety of dishes; when liquid was needed, stock was used to make sauces and gravies, soups, stews, and other types of potage.

A good stock is the foundation upon which great meals are made. Sad to say, nowadays most people use canned broth or bouillon cubes instead, which is like listening to Reba because you have no Patsy. If you care about the quality of your cooking, you'll want to make your own stock instead of having to resort to miserably bland and over-salted alternatives.

Chicken stock is perhaps the easiest to make and the best for general use. Whenever I cut up a chicken, I take the wingtips, the back, the neck, and the giblets I don't use (I always eat the liver) and store them in the freezer in an airtight container. (If you're one of those people who buy chicken only as boned and skinned strips of breast flesh in a neat little plastic-covered Styrofoam packages or if you're too fastidious to cut up a chicken in the first place, don't even bother.) When I have enough scraps put away, maybe two or three pounds, I'm ready to make chicken stock.

Put such scraps as you've accumulated in your designated stockpot; whatever you use should be nonreactive, preferably stainless-steel. Add enough water to cover, a couple of stalks of celery, one or two carrots, a turnip, two onions (all coarsely chopped), two bay leaves, a clove or so of garlic (smashed), a smidgen of thyme, and about a handful of roughly chopped parsley, stems and all. Simmer this mixture until the liquid is reduced by at least a half, skimming the scruff off the top as you go. This takes awhile; in the meantime, have a beer or two, listen to some Jimmie Rodgers, and write Loretta a fan letter. Then drain off the liquid and return it to the pot. Simmer the stock down until it's a rich amber color. At this point, it's not a good idea to add salt because you're going to season whatever dish you use it in later. When the stock has a good flavor, strain it through a sieve, cool it on the counter for a while, then set it in the refrigerator to chill. If it's still warm when you set it in the refrigerator, set it on a rack or put a spoon under the container so air can circulate underneath to cool it quicker; otherwise, it might spoil.

Once the stock chills, you'll end up with a bottom layer of sediment and a layer of jellied stock covered by a layer of yellowish fat. Scrape off the fat with a spoon and store it separately in the freezer for use later to make matzos or potato pancakes. Then spoon out the gel, being careful to avoid as much of the sediment (which should be discarded) as you can, especially if you plan to clarify the stock for consommé or clear soups.

Stock keeps well in the refrigerator for a week or so, but it's best to just go ahead and freeze it. Use whatever size container you find appropriate for storing your stock. I've heard that some people freeze stock in ice trays and store the cubes in plastic bags, but I suspect people who do this are annoyingly obsessive, since this is troublesome, and besides, what if, in a moment of absent-mindedness, you happen to pop a cube of frozen stock out of the tray and into your scotch and soda? I store stock in whatever containers I've saved from supermarket products like yogurt and sour cream, pliable ones about a cup in size with a lid that seals well.

Chicken stock is great for everyday use, but for holidays, I buy a whole stewing hen and poach it long and slow with the usual vegetables and herbs. Both the meat and the broth go in with day-old cornbread and other ingredients (most notably, rubbed sage) to make dressing.

Take stock in your cooking; it pays off. •<


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