Taking Stock

We made an unusually rich haul at the Clarendon Farmers' Market this morning. Probably the last of the season's asparagus. Two quarts of the most delightful strawberries, and a pint of the first blueberries. A bag of beets, tops on. Another bag of yellow baby patty-pan squash. Garlic scapes (at last)! More of that perfect Greek yogurt, rich and sour, perfect for strawberry-dipping. One enormous fresh mozzarella ball. A bunch of fresh, yellow-stalked chard. Four perfect little purple eggplants for grilling. Some brown free-range eggs. A fresh sprig of Italian parsley.

Perfect until it came time to store our wonderful finds. This little apartment doesn't have a root cellar or an auxiliary beer fridge in the garage, not even a garage. It was time to clean out the also-rans. Time to make stock.

Stock, properly made, makes the stuff sold as stock in grocery store seem like cat piss. Real stock is rich in color and flavor, but also in texture, the way no other liquid I know of can carry texture. The little fat in it shimmers enticingly. The color, ranging from a tawny tan to a rich amber, depends upon what was taken stock of in making it. What do I mean, taking stock of?

Stock is free if you make it yourself, or as nearly free as anything consumable might aspire to be. It sells for four buck a quart or more in the store, and isn't even real at that price. Made at home, it's leverage with no downside; trash utterly transformed.

Daily, I throw every veg peeling and odd stalk, every ugly leftover bit into a plastic bag and into the freezer. On stock day, which invariably arrives when too much great new stuff displaces the increasingly marginal stuff I have just not gotten around to trashing yet, the fridge gets a through cleaning. The crisper drawers get sorted through and anything not yet skanky gets set aside for the stock pot. The freezer, which by this time is filled with odd little plastic bags of asparagus butts, Brussel sprout trimmings, parsnip and carrot peelings, and rejected artichoke leaves, also gets a thorough going over, with ingredients selected as if in their prime to create a once-in-a-lifetime combination.

Today was a lucky day. I had a couple of pounds of veal bones, which I'd spotted a couple of weeks ago while cruising the Eastern Market. In other words, a couple of bucks worth of collagen-rich leftovers, bought for pocket change. The bones, which are worth more than anyone ever charges for them, are the only thing worth paying top-dollar for when making stock. The rest of the brew involves stuff you would have thrown to the worms in the composter or the garbage disposal if you weren't so damned wise.

The process starts with roasting the bones for an hour in a 500 degree F (260 C) oven. For young bones like veal, this will just start to crispen the exterior. After an hour, roughly chop that odd end of parsnip you found in the bottom of the veg crisper, the larger of the two wilting turnips, a carrot or two, and an onion, and take the garlic that's starting to sprout and wilt, no need to even take the paper off those. Throw the whole chopped mess into another pan, like a deep frying pan, that's been preheating in that hot oven for a while. Drizzle a little olive oil over the mess, then return it to the seemingly way-too hot oven. Turn dem bones while you're at it. Go read a novel for a half hour or so while this mess crazes.

At the end of the half hour, plop dem bones in right in on top of the glistening veg, then deglaze the pan they were roasting in. This is simple, just pour a bit of that leftover white wine you bought for someone who never showed at your last soiree, drizzle that into the hot pan the bones left behind, and swirl with a whisk until the stuck bits come loose. Pour the result into your deepest stock pot. Throw in all the odds and ends you selected from your frozen inventory---asparagus butts, etc---, put that pot on moderately high heat and add enough water to cover the mess. Then go back to reading that cliff-hanger, cat on lap optional, but appreciated.

About a half hour later, after two hours of roasting, the bones are ready for a bath. Transfer them into the now serenely bubbling nascent broth on the stove top and revel in the satisfying sizzle each yelps when dropped in. Nothing like a hot bath after a long sauna! Throw the roasted veg in, too. Add more water if you're greedy and want as much stock as possible from this mess, then go back to see what the villains are plotting in that novel.

Ninety minutes might be enough time. Certainly no less time, and the liquid will have reduced a little bit, but not too much, because you left the mess on moderately high heat before you disappeared back into fantasy land. When the time is right, and your nose will tell you that the veg is exhausted and won't give another drizzle to the performance, drain the mess and pour into your wide-mouth jars (perhaps with a little finely chopped leek to dress it up a bit.) Make this transfer when the liquid is HOT! seal the jars immediately, and they'll seal tight as they cool and last forever in the back of the fridge. I ran short of jars (as I knew I would in this little place), and stored the last liter and a half in empty olive oil bottles, sealing the tops with aluminum foil and rubber bands. (Yes, Amy threw out my left-over olive oil bottle lids as apparent garbage.)

There, you're almost done. Separate the bones from the veg, discard the veg, it's exhausted. It's given its all. Transfer the bones back into the stock pot, cover with fresh water, and boil them for another hour or more on high, high, high heat. You're extracting the final collagen to make something that will utterly transform anything it's added to. After an hour or so, when the liquid is almost gone, remove the bones and give them to Amy, who's always trolling for soft cartilage to chew, then boil down the remaining liquid until it's almost nothing. Sticky. Gooey. Chilled to room temperature it will look like shoe leather. A mere sliver added to anything will ennoble that thing. A pinch on an egg, a dollop into a sauce, you'll find yourself carving bits off to just pop into your mouth as you cruise the kitchen. It's knighthood on a knife. I don't have much variety for storage, so I poured this into an unused ashtray. I'll dress the garlic scapes and asparagus with it at dinner.

If you don't stop and take stock, and make stock every few weeks, we have to wonder about you. Do you usually eat out? You know, real stock is the only reason their sauce tastes so much better than yours (or better than the Lean Cuisine you innocently thought would be faster to make). If you make your own stock, though, you might never be satisfied with another restaurant meal again. Your stock will be so much better than even the celebrity chefs', you'll wish you'd just stayed at home.

Cheap but good is great. The best there is in this life. If you don't make your own stock (yet), take stock of your life. It's short and brutish, save for the small differences something like stock makes.

(Store the jars, leftover olive oil bottle, whatever ... of broth in the corner of the fridge that usually freezes stuff. Only fill the jars 7/8ths full, or the expanding frozen contents might (will definitely) break the container, and you'll lose the contents. ... how and when should you use the stock you've taken? Cripes, if you don't know the answer to that question, you're worthless. Move to freaking Virginia and eat ham!)

ps: notice how I didn't instruct you to salt or 'fresh ground pepper' this mess? Good. Don't even think of salting it. The goo will be perfectly seasoned. You can add salt to taste when you actually use this stuff. No one could know how much to add to satisfy taste before actually using...



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