Taking Stock

Stocks are to cooking what Hank Williams is to country music: a source of 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; sauces and gravies, soups, stews, and as a cooking medium for beans and grains. A good stock is a pillar 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 really 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 and cheapest to make and is good for general use. I use leg quarters, which make a very rich stock, and can be found in five-pound bags at a very low price in most supermarkets. If it’s during the holidays with company coming, you can of course use a whole stewing hen, since you can use the meat for any number of holiday dishes.

Put the chicken in your designated stockpot; whatever you use should be non-reactive, preferably stainless steel. Add enough water to cover by half, a couple of stalks of celery, at least six carrots, two onions with skin, all coarsely chopped, two bay leaves, a clove or so of garlic (smashed) and about a handful of roughly chopped parsley, stems and all. Cover, vent, and simmer this mixture until the liquid is reduced by at least a third, skimming the scruff off the top as it cooks.

In the meantime, have a beer or two, listen to some Jimmie Rodgers, and write Reba a fan letter. I’m sure she’d appreciate it.

After about an hour, remove chicken, cool, and debone. Return bones to pot, and save the meat for dressing or salad. Simmer the stock until it’s a rich color, strain, and cool before refrigerating. 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 save it to make matzos. Then carefully spoon out the gel, being careful to avoid as much as 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 its best just to 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 a troublesome endeavor, 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? (You might hear the voice of experience speaking here.) Me, I store stock in whatever containers I’ve saved from supermarket products like yogurt and sour cream, pliable ones about pint size with a lid that seals well.

Use stock in soups and sauces, or to flavor beans or rice. You’ll notice a big difference.

Oyster Soup

This light soup is good cool on a warm afternoon or warm on a cool evening. Add three cups chopped fresh or two cups well-drained frozen spinach and two small jars quartered artichoke hearts to about a quart of broth seasoned with thyme, parsley, chives, and a minced clove of garlic. Simmer for about half an hour. Add a half quart of drained oysters dusted with pepper. Bring to a boil, and reduce heat immediately. Hold on heat for another half hour. Top with finely chopped shallots.

Pride and Potatoes

One day as a boy, a friend and I dared to enter his father’s tool shed, where among implements such as hammers, saws, screwdrivers, and girly magazines, we found a cabinet stocked with canned potato soup. When I asked why his daddy kept potato soup next to his chop saw, he said, “Momma won’t let him have it in the house.”

I was puzzled at the time, but now I understand. You see, a man’s house may be his castle, but his tool shed is his home, a sanctuary for the masculine spirit and as inviolate to intrusion as a nunnery. A man may keep things there which have no place in the house, even something as seemingly innocuous as potato soup.

Potato soup is neither good nor bad in itself; like Prince Hal, it is poor only in the company it keeps, and as is the case for so many of our foods, its company is often poverty itself. Memories of hard times survived among the men and women of my parents’ generation; after the hard years had ended and victory in the Good War made them members of the most affluent society on earth, they found themselves living in a world that stretched far beyond the dirt roads many grew up on, and they were obliged to learn the difficult lessons a newly-acquired middle-class life required of them.

For many, that meant ridding themselves of aspects of their lives that in this new world were not quite picture-perfect. Potato soup, to my friend’s mother, was not part of her perfect picture; it was Depression food, something people ate when they were poor and down on their luck. Now that they lived in town in a new brick house, had two cars in the garage, and she was secretary of the Twentieth-Century Club, potato soup —so simple, so basic, so very good—had been banished.

Others hearkened back, as my friend’s father did, to those days when a family’s existence was dependent upon making do. They also remembered—even as they trod the carpeted floors of the air-conditioned homes where their difficult children were growing into strangers in their midst—the foods they knew and loved, even if it were biscuits folded over a piece of fried streak-`o-lean they took to school, red-rind cheese and saltines from the store down the road, or chicken and dumplings made to stretch an old hen between ten people.

The foods you love best are often those of your childhood, and my friend’s father found the warmth of potato soup irresistible. I can still conjure up an image of this man sitting out in his shed and opening a can of soup, heating it on a little electric eye, eating it and thinking about his own momma standing at her wood stove in a pair of old slippers, her hair limp with sweat and tied up with a penny piece of ribbon, cooking the only thing she had to cook—potatoes—into a soup for her family. I can also imagine this man reminiscing upon this while his wife teetered around the kitchen in high heels, her hair lacquered into a $5 hair-do she had redone twice a week cooking store-bought stuff on an electric range.

She probably remembered her Momma in much the same way as her husband did his, but for my friend’s mother it was a bitter memory, and her efforts to obliterate that—to her mind painful—image of poverty extended to those around her. Bound and determined to eradicate whatever she felt was coarse or common about her and others, she sacrificed upon the altar of her misguided pride the very foods that she secretly loved and likely learned to make at her mother’s side.

Honest Onion Soup

Unless you live in some eco-friendly urban area with paradisical market enclaves, you’ll most likely find only four kinds of onions for sale: red, yellow, white, and green. I almost never cook red onions, reserving them for salads and toppings, but you’ll find me using all others liberally in damn near anything I pop in the oven or put on the stove.

A word about yellow onions, however; nowadays they are almost always sweet. Not all of them are as cloyingly sweet as the Vidalia, which has been beatified by zealous regional journalists who equate eating a Vidalia onion sandwich at the office for lunch with that of hunkering down around the `fahr’ with a mason ‘jahr’ of `shahn’ listening to the dawgs tree a coon, an experience just rife with Southern machismo, derring-do and chauvinism, but these onions smother the flavor of an honest onion soup, which should have a mellow savoriness that comes only from time and care.

Mince six medium-size white onions. In a large skillet, melt 1/2 cup of butter. Heat to medium and add two cloves minced garlic to brown.  Add onions, cook down, then add about six cups of beef stock and a cup of dried onions. Reduce heat to simmer and cook uncovered (what a wonderful smell this makes, too) until the onions are soft and clear. Add salt, pepper and thyme to taste; some like rosemary. A slash of sherry at the last minute is a nice touch. Serve piping hot with well-buttered, crusty bread.

Cream Soups

Cream soups add an elegant touch to formal cool-weather occasions. These soups involve many of the same procedures and ingredients as other soups: aromatics, broth, vegetables or seafood, and of course whole milk or cream. A bisque (“twice cooked”) usually refers to a cream soup containing seafood such as shrimp, crawfish, or lobster, though some tomato cream soups are also called bisques. Some people use béchamel as a base for cream soups, but a proper cream soup base is velouté, a white sauce made from a light stock. Velouté also makes the best base for a cheese soup, which, if you think about it, can well be considered the ultimate incarnation of a cream soup.

If you have good stock on hand, then by all means use it. If not, you can use store-bought stock, but before you do, it must be enriched with a mirepoix and a bouquet garni. Add onion, celery, and carrots to the stock, along with thyme, bay, and parsley, and let it sweat on a low heat for about an hour or so. Strain the stock. A light roux with ½ cup butter and ½ cup plain flour will thicken about a quart of stock. This is your soup base, to which add a cup of whole milk or for an exceptionally rich dish, whole cream, and about two cups of your choice of meat or vegetables diced, cooked in butter, and puréed. Let the soup rest on low heat before serving with a swirl of whole cream. This recipe makes about six 12-oz. servings.

Summer Vegetable Stew

The deli at our local grocery serves such a wonderful vegetable soup that many days I’ll get two large servings—at 12 oz. each, a little less than a quart—and make lunch of those with saltines and tea. Such was my intent yesterday when I strolled in, found the soup bin empty and was told that the vegetable soup was discontinued for the summer, since “nobody eats soup when the weather is hot.”

Well, you know what? Yes, they do, and not just those prissy vichyssoises splashed across the pages of food magazines in June. We’ve enjoyed fresh vegetable soups for centuries here, and rightly so, since the American South produces the finest vegetables on the face of the planet. (There; I’ve said it, the gauntlet is flung. The ball’s in your court.)

Here’s my recipe, which starts with two quarts diced canned tomatoes and juice. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a talented, industrious gardener who cans, and you will have in your larder their red gold. If not, Contadina will suffice. Sauté one large diced white onion with three or four diced ribs of celery and two cloves minced garlic in just enough vegetable oil to coat. To this add two cups water or two cups broth, vegetable broth preferably, but a weak chicken will do—in place of veal, you understand—pour this into your lowly-shimmering, beautiful tomatoes along with a cup or so of frozen diced okra, thawed and drained then find something else industrious or enlightening to do for a half-hour or until the onions and okra have surrendered to the mélange.

This is your base for the dozens of beautiful vegetable soups you will make throughout the growing season with fresh vegetables. Starchy-ish fresh peas and beans, even green beans, should be parboiled until tender before adding, and I wouldn’t add fresh corn at all, but that makes me an exception. Always add water because evaporation happens, and water is the preferred replacement. I like to add a little V-8, and I always seem to have a half an onion in the fridge I can use. Fresh squash can be diced and added raw, as it tends to meld as does—it should go without saying—fresh okra. As to herbs, I’m frugal; a pinch of thyme and a smidgen of oregano do just fine. Add salt with care and heat seasoning at the table. And yes, you can serve this warm or chilled.