Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Stock Tips

Although I think that buying foreign currency is a good hedge against your domestic investments, this is a post about the other kind of stock.

Home made stock is such a great thing to have in the kitchen. Soups made with your own stock just taste better. They add a depth that is impossible to achieve with water or with canned broth. I am not one of those annoying people, though, who will smirk and tell you how easy it is to make stock. Why are they smirking - because they know that it is actually difficult to make good stock.

You have to start with the right ingredients. Stock made from chickens available in your typical store, even the organic free-range raised-on-Beethoven chickens, just don't have enough flavor to make great stock. It's because they are too young, they haven't used their muscles enough, even if they are free-range chickens. Older, tougher chickens make great stock, although you don't necessarily want to eat the meat from such chickens. My secret source is Tello's Farm. They sell amazing farm fresh eggs at The Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket every Saturday. They sometimes have hens too, and these babies are the real thing for stock.

What else should you use when making stock? I have limited experience with red meat stocks, but for chicken stock I like a whole garlic bulb, an unpeeled quartered onion, a parsnip, a chopped carrot, a slice of ginger, a couple of black peppercorns, and maybe a few sprigs of parsley. I do not use celery because I find that it imparts a metallic taste. Some swear by hard cheese rinds, although I have never tried this. For vegetable stocks I also load in the leeks.

I have noticed the "free fish heads for stock" sign at the fish stall at the Greenmarket for months now and I never felt brave enough to ask for some. I have never made fish stock before, and what if I cop out and don't make the stock, then what? This Saturday, after purchasing a pound of lovely looking and ultra fresh sea bass fillets, I heard myself say "Can I have some fish heads for stock?" The lady nodded and pulled out a huge whole bass from a cooler, missing only the fillets. I guess its not just the head that you get.

I pulled out my copy of Bones, by Jennifer McLagan, a pretty darn good cookbook that celebrates slow roasting, braising, and other cooking of meat and fish on the bone. The recipe for fish stock sounded straightforward enough, emphasizing a short simmer and the use of white wine.

First major problem: I haven't gutted a fish since I was a kid at camp. This bass required gutting and cleaning, and that turned out to be disgusting. Especially since I have no clue how to do it. I basically cut the fish open and started pulling things out. Second major problem: removing the gills. The recipe said that the stock will be bitter without removing the gills. They were firmly attached to bone and it was an epic struggle, the bass gazing sadly at me the whole time with its large eye, as if to say "Go ahead friend, take out my gills, I understand. You CAN take out my gills, can't you?"

It took me an hour to clean and chop the fish! Then apparently it's good to soak it in ice water (photo, left) for 15 minutes to draw out any blood in the bones. Okay, now the fun begins. I sauteed some carrots and onions (no garlic - seemed like it would be too powerful for a delicate fish stock) and added the fish (photo below). I had no leeks or I would have used 'em. Then about a cup of white wine.

I used a 2005 La Buxynoise Bourgogne Aligote, $13 that my pal Adam served at brunch with bagels and lox. Aligote is the other white wine grape in Burgundy, and is great for everyday drinking, especially with escargots or seafood. This wine is fragrant with citrus and a bit of toast, crisp with steely minerals and lemony acidity. It is a very good value and delicious with food. I think that you should cook with wine that you like to drink - cooking with yucky wine doesn't make sense to me. Won't the food taste like yucky wine?

Some parsley, some bay leaves, some black peppercorns, some water, a boil, then a slow simmer for a half hour (simmering stock, left). The kitchen smelled wonderful and the stock really tasted great, before any salt too. Line the sieve with cheesecloth, strain, pressing the bones and vegetables for extra juice, and voila. I salted the stock and the flavors sang out like Ella Fitzgerald.

We had to use some of the stock with our dinner, so we pan roasted the bass fillets and placed them atop a puree of rutabaga. I deglazed the pan with fish stock, added a splash of white wine, some little carrot and onion cubes, let it cook down a bit and then added a pat of butter. So good, if it weren't for the gutting, cleaning, and gills I would be doing this all the time. And the Aligote went great with dinner!

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