Saturday, June 25, 2011

Depression-era cooking... or not

Some of you may have noticed that the economy could be better. It's just a rumor at this point, but I've heard people suggest that. And if you're looking to save pennies wherever possible, here's an idea that the Trophy Wife and I have started doing, which basically goes back to the concept of "Use everything."

Now, a quick disclaimer: the Trophy Wife and I cook from scratch a lot. Which, by itself, can save you money. First, unprocessed ingredients tend to cost less. And further down the road, eating healthier can save you money in medical bills. (Plus it tastes better, unless you really suck as a cook. But that can be fixed...)

When you start to cook from scratch, you'll notice that you end up using stock a lot: beef stock, chicken stock, and even (less often, unless you're vegetarian) vegetable stock. Stock making isn't hard, and plenty of people are happy to tell you how. Here's a quick overview.

I'll tell you one thing about this stock recipe: bitch is crazy. Completely batshit. She took a simple concept, and made it cost about five to ten times what it should.

Let's start with the chicken. What the hell is she doing putting an entire chicken into her stockpot? She is literally wasting all of the meat, because it's going to add very little to the stock, and when it's done, it is literally only good for dog food (now, admittedly, the dogs will be overjoyed, but they also stick their noses in each other's butts).

What you want is the bones, cooked or not. The remaining carcass from a whole cooked chicken is perfect; with the larger stock pots, you want two. (Also, you know that turkey skeleton left at the table after the relatives descend on it like piranha's? Same thing - I think turkey and chicken stock are interchangeable, but some people will argue that. For example, the wife...) Plus, since you were only going to throw those bones away, this is pretty much free.

Now, as to the vegetables, she's once again wasting perfectly good food. And here's where, with just a little planning, we keep this stock basically free (we're paying for water, a couple of spices, and the cost of running the stove; oh, and some ice, but that comes later).

When you peel an onion, what do you do with the top and bottom ends and the outer skin? If you compost it, well, good for you; most of us just throw it out.

Likewise carrots. Most of us scrape off the outer layer, chop both ends (and the greens, if you buy them that way), and toss it. Garlic skins and the dry brown tip where it came off the bulb? The ends of celery? You just throw it away, right?

Instead, keep a bowl above your cutting board (or in the sink, or by your feet as you sit on the floor in your lonely cell; wherever you cut the stuff up), and stick the peelings in that. When you're done, put them in a ziplock bag and shove it in the freezer. Every time you cut up vegetables, pull out the bag and shove in the new stuff. When it gets full, use a marker to put the month and year on it, and shove it to the back of the freezer.

The only real tips about what vegetables to include are pretty simple.
• You don't want to put things like potato peelings into the bag. For one thing, what the hell are you doing not eating the peel? For another, starch doesn't add anything to stock, except to thicken it more than you want.

• Bell peppers are in the same family as their hotter cousins ( jalapeƱos, habaneros and the like), and all the heat in those peppers comes from the membranes and seeds inside. It's just bitter in the bell pepper, but who needs that?

• When you overcook cabbage (like, say, boiling it for hours), it breaks down and throws out sulfur compounds. Which doesn't improve your stock at all.

• Beet stalks turn the stock a bright red, or reddish-brown. We like that. You might not.
By the time you need stock again, you pull out a bag or two (depending on the size of your stockpot), throw in the bones, one or two bay leaves and a handful of peppercorns, and run that sucker up to a boil. Back off the heat until it's at a bare simmer, and let it go for several hours.

The description we used when we asked our kids to check the boil every so often was "the Bog of Eternal Stench" from Labyrinth: one bubble breaking the surface every few seconds, rather than a rolling boil. And basically, the stock is done when the bones break easily to fingertip pressure when you fish one out; in fact, if you've extracted all the connective tissue, they pretty much crumble to the touch.

We usually take two days to boil this stuff: if you trust your stove, you can let it boil overnight, but depending on your household situation, you might be risking a fire (or boiled cat, which is a completely different flavor). We just ice the stock down overnight (see below) and restart it in the morning.

The next secret they don't tell you? Don't try to skim the fat off while it's hot. Our method is that we bought a set of three stock pots. We lay out newspapers, and carefully pour the big pot through a colander into the medium pot ("carefully" being the important word - it's boiling hot). Then we lid the pot, stick it in a cooler on a folded towel (it's a plastic cooler - think about it) with two ten-pound bags of ice emptied around it.

(Alton Brown suggests some frozen water bottles in the stock, too: your choice. One other trick, though. Leave the colander draining above the stock pot until it stops dripping juicy goodness, and then you can throw the solids out. For that matter, you can compost them, if that's how you roll. Personally, I use a fork - it's still hot, remember - to pick out the biggest chunks of meat, and carefully separate the meat from the remains of the bones. And then I put it the meat in a plastic container in the fridge, and supplement the dog's food. They seem to approve.)

That was my next biggest problem with the video, by the way; right after using whole chickens instead of just bones. If you stick a big pot of boiling hot liquid into your freezer, you're going to defrost your freezer and ruin anything else in there. Plus, frozen fat doesn't come off nearly as easily.

The next day, you peel off the yellowish-brown disk of fat off the top, and do what you want with it. We put a little schmaltz on the dog's food once any boiled chicken runs out. They seem to appreciate it.

The fat's going to come off in chunks, not as a disk. Don't let that bother you, all the little pieces float. You need a good-sized slotted spoon, a little patience, and a container for the fat.

Then we pour it into small ziplock bags, one cup per bag. (If you use more, go for two cups per bag - again, your choice.) We freeze it flat on cookie sheets and store it until we need it.

I've seen people say you can freeze it into ice cube trays, so you have convenient one-tablespoon cubes. Which is great if you use one tablespoon of stock at a time. Also, if it's a plastic ice-cube tray, don't ever plan to use it for ice again. Oils and any remaining fat will be happy to bond with the plastic, and unless you're drinking iced chicken soup, that might be an issue.

By the way, this same method can be used for beef stock; in our case, we've used both beef bones and ox tails (until the price started going up). But lately, we've found the cheapest thing on the market: hooves, often labeled as "beef feet" around here. Since they're nothing but collagen, they make the most amazing stock.

And finally (you could probably have worked this out), you can make vegetable stock, which only takes a couple of hours and there's no fat to mess with.

And if you're really into composting, you can recycle the remaining vegetable matter one final time. (I don't, but I support the idea.)

One word of warning: this is not a method for the anal-retentive cook who obsessively measures every last grain of salt. Our vegetable mix is different every time, which can subtly change the stock. But if you're not a professional cook, making 500 identical dishes every day, this probably isn't going to matter to you. It's that little bit of chaos that keeps things interesting.

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