Take Stock

Photo by Mary Bakija
Photo by Mary Bakija

You’re not making stock, and if I know you, I’ve probably given you a hard time about it.

“Look, it’s easy!” I’ve said. “It’s trash, then it’s gold! You are going to thank me so hard.”

Generally you don’t agree with me.

Photo by Mary Bakija
Photo by Mary Bakija

This past Thanksgiving, I forced my brother to lug the turkey carcass home with him from the host’s house. I shoved it in a pot with whatever he had in the fridge that worked with it, covered it with water, and turned his kitchen into a sauna while we had more wine and watched Master of None. Long after the time I’d strained and bagged it, it was still pretty hot, but also really late. I shoved it all in the freezer and went to bed. The next morning, there were gallons of slushy turkey stock in his freezer, and my brother groaned. By now they’ve frozen, but he’s a little worried about having food around too long, so I’m guessing he’s thrown them all away. That’s too bad, because we smoked that turkey, and even though I was tipsy and stuffed and high on road tripping and friends, when I tasted it, that stock was something special.

Or maybe it was just bony vegetable water.

Photo by Mary Bakija
Photo by Mary Bakija

It’s unclear if it’s accurate to refer to vegetable stock as “stock,” since, when using meat, stock is the one you make with bones and broth is the one you make with the liquid the meat was cooked in. I call it stock because, like meat stock, it’s using up the bits nobody else thinks there’s use for.

The key ingredient in the whole process is the freezer.

When I cook bone-in meat, I either turn the bones into stock immediately, like at Thanksgiving, or with the Christmas Eve duck that Paul, my boyfriend, made (at least I know I will use it out of his freezer, if he, like my brother, doesn’t), or put the bones tightly wrapped in the freezer for later. And I always have another container in my freezer, usually a ziplock bag so I can press the air out of it each time I open it to deposit something else: parsley stems, onion skins, carrot and tomato peelings, leek tops, celery ends, the woody parts of garlic scapes, those sorts of things. It’s all scraps that most people toss. Once the bag is full, I turn that trash into something that transforms the apartment into home — the rich, savory smells of holidays and conviviality and warmth.

Photo by Mary Bakija
Photo by Mary Bakija

Sometimes, though, I’ll use fresh stuff, or fresh-ish. Like today, on my monthly laundry-dinner exchange day, when a friend is generous enough to lend me her washing machine and dryer, and for their use, I make dinner. I still have kale in the freezer from last summer’s CSA, so I decided to make a Tuscan bean soup. As my sheets tumbled dry in the basement, I put together a quick stock — some wilting parsley from my fridge, a carrot from hers, and so on. There are always bay leaves, thyme, peppercorns, and white wine or vermouth. But the rest is just what there is — maybe a tomato that’s just past the point of being good, or that one floppy parsnip that’s been at the bottom of the crisper forever.

Photo by Mary Bakija
Photo by Mary Bakija

In poking around her fridge to see what might be better off dropped in a stock pot, I found a jar of homemade vegetable stock. She’s one of the people I’d pestered, her own boyfriend a master of food economy, if not to this end (how he eats mango peels I’ll never understand, but will always respect). I had finally gotten through to someone, and they were going to see how easy it all was, how satisfying and delicious.

“Did you taste it?” she asked when she got home. I hadn’t. “You should, so you can tell me why it’s so awful!”

Photo by Mary Bakija
Photo by Mary Bakija

Paul has jokingly called me “the approximate gourmet,” because he’ll ask me about the recipe for something I’m making, and I say, “Eh, you add some of this, like about that much of that, cook it a while, and oh my god it’s so good.” I understand that’s not ideal for baking, for the most part, but I figured for stock it was a given.

I didn’t always take that for granted. I have a bunch of cookbooks that I used to refer to constantly and strictly when I was first out of college and learning how to feed myself. Despite growing up with a father who worked as a chef, I’d never paid much attention to what he did, and just ate a lot of pizza instead. And when I was old enough to know better, I’d ask him how to make things, and he’d say: “You add some of this, and about that much of that, and then you cook it a while.” The vagueness was terrifying, so I turned to books.

One of them is just about soup. In the back, there’s a section on stock, and there are clear recipes. When I started making stock many years ago, I know I followed them, but now they, along with almost all recipes, are just guidelines and ideas. I learned something then (white wine!), and I learn things from recipes now (salt eggs for scrambling for 15 minutes before adding to the pan!), but for the most part, I’m just throwing shit into a pot.

For all the friends I’ve harangued with vague and terrifying instructions, here’s a recipe for vegetable stock:

2 large onions, cut into large pieces
4 carrots, scrubbed and cut into large pieces
5 celery stalks, including the leaves, cut into large pieces
3 tomatoes, cut into large pieces
1 leek, cut into large pieces
1 head of garlic, cut in half through the cloves
a good handful of parsley, stems and all
1/2 cup white wine or vermouth
4 quarts of cold water
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon whole peppercorns
2 sprigs of fresh thyme (note: fresh thyme can be kept in freezer!)
3 bay leaves

1. Put all of the above ingredients into a large stock pot

2. Bring to a boil.

3. Reduce heat and simmer for at least one hour, but taste at that point to see if you’d like it to reduce a little more to bring out more flavor.

4. Strain and discard the solid bits.

5. Let cool, then divide into containers — ziplock bags can be filled and placed on sheet trays and frozen flat, then stored upright or layered; or freeze some in ice cube trays, and then use those when you just need small portions.

Veggies that are good for stock to collect in your freezer to help add up to the above amounts:

Vegetables good for stock every time:
Onion and shallot pieces and their skins
Leek ends
Scallion ends
Chive ends
Garlic ends and skins
Woody bits of garlic scapes
Celery ends
Carrot peels (that have first been scrubbed clean) and ends
Carrot tops
Parsnip peels (that have first been scrubbed clean) and ends
Parsley stems
Tomato peels and seeds

Good for stock for soups, etc. using these vegetables as main ingredients:
Corn cobs
Mushroom stems
Asparagus ends

Bonus for richness:
Parmesan cheese rinds

That Was Too Long, Sum It Up For Me:
Throw a bunch of shit in a pot! It’s trash, then it’s gold!

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