All human history attests
That happiness for man,—the hungry sinner!—
Since Eve ate apples, much depends on dinner.
-- Lord Byron, Don Juan. Canto xiii. Stanza 99
Whenever I post to this series I wonder what my own contribution might be. The answer came yesterday when I awoke to a forecast of cool weather and the words "chicken stock" popped into my brain. Chicken stock is something I’ve been making for years; it is the foundation for so many dishes, and making it always brings me spiritually closer to my ancestral roots. Plus, a certain person in the household had developed a bad bad cold and how better to keep it from turning into “La grippe, La grippe, la post-nasal drip” than with a hot cup of broth?
The key to great chicken stock is of course the chicken. Mine come from a farm in Pennsylvania, they’re free range, organic, etc. etc. but most importantly, they arrive with feet and head attached. I whack these off and freeze them, along with the backs and necks. When my freezer drawer is full, it’s time to pull out the stock pot and get going.
One could probably make a perfectly delicious stock with these chicken parts alone but I prefer to enrich mine with vegetables and aromatics. Here, then, are my ingredients, most of which I picked up during a morning circumnavigation of the Union Square farmers market. Clockwise from top right: chicken parts, carrots, thyme, cloves,parsley, peppercorn, ginger, salt, leeks, lovage, onion. The practice of adding a knuckle-sized piece of ginger began circa 1990 and adds a bit of brightness though the flavor cannot be detected. I would ordinarily use celery but instead used lovage because, well, there it was at the market. Why not give it a try?
The first step, and this is something recommended by a celebrity chef whose name escapes me, is to rinse the chicken parts, put them in a pot, fill it with water, and bring it to a low boil. Let it boil away for a few minutes while lots of scummy stuff, similar in appearance to what you might see trapped between rotting branches on the shoreline of a stagnant pool, rises to the surface (below left). Strain the chicken, discarding the cloudy water. Wash the film of scum from the pot, return the chicken to it along with the remaining ingredients (below right) and fill with water.
You can see that I've left the skin on the onion and everything else is chopped rather coarsely. This is all that's required because your stock will cook for a long time and you don't want the vegetables to disolve into mush and make it cloudy.
Bring the filled pot to a simmer, and stand by for ten or fifteen minutes or so. ( If you turn your back, this might happen.) More scum will rise to the surface and you must remove it with a fine mesh skimmer, repeating to yourself this mantra, revealed to me by a college boyfriend who later attended cooking school: “Skim the scum with a skimmer then simmer, skim the scum with a skimmer than simmer, skim the scum with a skimmer then simmer.”
When it seems you've removed most of the scum -- you won't get it all -- partially cover your pot and leave it to simmer for three to four hours. It takes that long to coax all of the good gelatin out of those chicken feet! This is what makes your stock rich with flavor and protein. (I prop up the lid with a wooden spoon like this.)
Now you're free to make yourself a cup of tea and park in front of the television to watch the news for a few hours, checking every now and then to make sure your stock simmers "with beaded bubbles winking at the brim." (Not exactly what Keats had in mind when he wrote that line but it always comes to me during this step.)
When three or four hours have passed, you should be able to pull effortlessy any meat that was clinging to the chicken parts. Spear a large piece of carrot, let it cool a bit, and take a taste. The carrot should be cooked completely through and nearly flavorless. Your stock is done. Remove the solids to a collander set over a bowl (I use a large bamboo handled strainer) and while doing so say a silent prayer of thanks to the farmers who raised the chicken and grew the vegetables and to the chicken and vegetables for giving up all of their flavor and nutrients to your stock. Hope that the end result is worthy. Then, throw away the solids. They're spent.
Strain the stock through a collander lined with several layers of cheesecloth into a large pot. I always taste it though there really is no point. It's too hot to tell if it needs salt or anything else. If the stock is clear and golden (below left), I'm happy.
Cool the stock a bit, cover and put it in the refrigerator overnight to cool. By the next morning you'll be able to remove the layer of fat that will have congealed on the surface (above right). Beneath it will be your rich, gelatenous stock, ready for sipping, or to be used for a spring asparagus soup, in risotto with ramps and morels, or to braise lamb shanks, or, or, or . . . you tell me.