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.