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Monday, May 27

Gapers Block

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I imagine at least one or two people reading this column made a resolution recently that they would "eat healthier," "cook better" or eat more vegetables. I'm here to make it possible for you to do all three and be frugal while reducing waste.

I keep a large zipper bag in my freezer, and every time I have a carrot that goes a little limp, onion skins, celery scraps, potato peels, etc., I throw them in the bag. Then when the bag is full, I pour its contents into a pot, cover with water, throw in a few peppercorns, a bay leaf and several cloves of garlic and cook it. After it simmers gently for an hour or two, I strain off the solids. What's left is homemade vegetable stock.

It's great to use as a base for soups, or to add to any recipe instead of water. It's also a great way to use up things which would normally have gone to waste. But it's rarely a consistent flavor, and for some dishes I want to know that flavors in the stock aren't going to interfere with what I'm cooking.

And there are a few things which can ruin the flavor or texture of stock. Celery leaves, especially those on the outer couple of stalks, are often bitter and can make you pour out your entire stock experiment. Potatoes seem like they would be a great thing for stocks, but they release their starch and thicken the stock — not to mention they make it cloudy and look very unappetizing, even though it will taste fine. Potato peels, on the other hand, are just fine. Using beets in your stock is OK, but they will turn your stock pink. This might be good if you're trying to make a pink-themed dinner, but pink mushroom risotto? And the seeds in tomatoes also give stock a weirdly bitter flavor.

Most vegetable stocks that you buy from a store are going to be hearty and dark. But cooking your fresh veggies in a pot of cold water is going to create a very light and mild broth. Which is still tasty, but if you're used to hearty and rich store-bought stock it will require an adjustment.

To get that hearty and rich flavor, there are a few steps you can take. Put all of your vegetables into a cake pan or roasting pan in the middle of your oven at 350° F for about an hour. Switch to the broiler and broil them for about 5 minutes, or until the top of the vegetables is brown but not black.

You can also caramelize the onions and the carrots in the stock pot before adding the rest of the vegetables. For two large onions and two large carrots (which have not been peeled but have been scrubbed), you'll need about 4 tablespoons of olive or vegetable oil. If they seem to start sticking feel free to add more, but you want to use the least amount that you can. Put your stock pot over medium heat, add the lightly chopped vegetables and oil, and stir until everything is coated with oil. Stir occasionally for about 15 minutes. The onions and carrots should smell sweet and they should be dark. Either one of these methods will give you a much darker and richer flavored stock. Use both and you'll want to eat it every night.

Here is a basic list of ingredients that will create a generic broth. Feel free to leave anything out, or substitute at your will. And while it would be fine to cook everything with whole vegetables, if you increase the surface area, you're going to be able to extract more flavor from the vegetables. But if you cut everything too small you're going to get a thick mush, which is going to be hard to strain. I suggest cutting the onion in half from root to stem end and then slicing it into 1/8" slices. For the carrots (if you're caramelizing them) cut them into 1/8" coins. For everything else, cut them into large bite-size pieces.

Basic Vegetable Stock
2 large onions
2 large juice carrots or 6 regular-sized carrots (you can use those baby carrots in the bag, but they don't have peels so the flavor will be reduced)
6 ribs of celery
2 large leeks (slice these into 1/4" rings and rinse it very well in a large bowl of water to remove dirt)
1/2 head of cabbage (red will impart a reddish tinge to the broth)
8 ounces of mushrooms
1 head of garlic (rub off the loose outer layer or two of paper-skin and cut it in half to expose all the cloves of garlic)
1 medium turnip (scrubbed but not peeled)
1 apple (remove the core) This will provide just a hint of sweetness.
1 bell pepper
1 small bunch of parsley (rinse and remove brown leaves)
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon of dried peppercorns
6-7 stalks of fresh thyme or 1 tablespoon of dried thyme

Follow the instructions above for roasting the vegetables and caramelizing the onions. Transfer the vegetables from the roasting pan into the stock pot. There is going to be a whole mess of yummy goodness stuck to the bottom of the pan. You're going to want this in your pot as well. Pour half a cup of red wine, white wine or water into the pan and scrape at the stuck bits with a wooden or plastic spoon or sturdy spatula. (This is a lot easier if the pan is warm.) Pour that into the stock pot. Pour cold water into the pot until everything is fully covered with water — cover by an inch or two if you have room. Bring to boil, then reduce the heat on the pan to a simmer (probably as low as you can turn it), cover it with a lid and let it cook for about two hours.

Now all you need to do is get the solid bits out, cool it down, and transfer it to containers for storage. Cooling it down is your top priority. You could let it sit uncovered on your stove for an hour, which will cool it some, but not enough to be safe. Leaving it for longer can encourage nasty bugs to land in your stock, and then in your belly. I suggest putting the plug in your kitchen sink, dumping in a couple of trays of ice (you're going to want them empty anyway), and adding about 4-5 inches of cold water to the sink. Now carefully transfer your pot to the sink, and let it sit for 10 minutes. Stir it occasionally to get the cold stock from the edges of the pan to the middle. Once you can safely stick your clean pinky finger into the stock, you're ready to strain out the solids.

If you have one of those fancy sieves, you can use that. If you think $85 for a stainless steel fine-mesh strainer and a wooden peg is a ridiculous investment, then here is a much cheaper alternative. You probably have a colander or strainer that you use for draining pasta. Take a piece of cheesecloth (costs about $2 at the grocery store and you can throw it in your washer and reuse it many times before it starts to fall apart) and line your strainer with it. Place it into a large bowl or a pan that is larger than the strainer (I used my roasting pan for a long time; it's awkward, but it works). Ladle or carefully pour some of the broth into the strainer, keeping as much of the bits in the pan as possible. Once the liquid is out of the pan, dump the solids into the strainer. You're likely to have a thick sludge of mushy bits. Pick up the sides of the cheesecloth and bring them together in the center. Hold it tightly and carefully twist the ball in one direction. You can skip this step, but you'll gain at least another cup of the most flavorful liquid if you do it. Twist this several times until you no longer have liquid coming from the cloth. Throw away the solids and turn your attention to storage.

You can pour the broth into your old glass pasta sauce jars, leaving a couple of inches of room at the top, and place these in your freezer. If your storage space is more limited, you can ladle the liquid into labeled freezer bags. Or you can pour the broth into your now empty ice cube trays. Once they freeze, you can transfer them to a bag, and then you can pull out small amounts from your freezer as needed instead of thawing out an entire quart of liquid.

Next week I'll give you a few ideas on how to use your tasty stock. In the meantime, feel free to impress your friends.

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