Friday, December 6, 2013

Taking Stock

The chill has arrived in Asheville, flowing down from the hills and under our front door. The mountains have lost their haze and we have the crystal distance again. Our Fall is gorgeous and I am feeling renewed. It has been a long year for me. This time last year I was in terrible shape, dependent on machines for survival and in an ICU trance.

I had nothing by mouth for three months. Gods! This is a pure food guy here! As I began to improve I imagined what my first meal would be. I knew that it was cold outside (although the weather never changed in the hospital) and dreamed of stews and braises, chowders, soups, short ribs, beef tea, chicken and bone broths and consommes. For me, these are the most comforting and restorative foods.

Of all the elements of great cooking, the liquids we use are most fundamental: stocks, broths, Court Bouillon, fruit and vegetable juices, beer, wine, tea, herbal tisanes, milks (cow, sheep, goat, horse, donkey, water buffalo, coconut, almond, rice and soy), butters, syrups and oils. Plain water is advanced with aromatics, herbs and redolent vegetables plus heat and time.

Of course you can buy stock: organic, free-range and low sodium if you like. Sadly, the very best of them do not compare with what you can make yourself. One can improve store bought foods and if I am unable to make my own stock I will take two quarts of a clean stock (read the label and eliminate anything you would never find in your kitchen). To these two quarts I might add chunks of celery, carrot and onion with a bay leaf and a few peppercorns and then reduce to one quart. This results in a serviceable cooking stock.

Delicate flavors require delicate liquids, simmered briefly with mild additions. Sole poached gently in lightly salted water with a bit of lemon juice and fresh parsley leaves. But for a warming, nourishing and healing meal I choose braises and stews which (for me) require a deep and rich meat stock. Which takes time...a lot of time. Stock may be reduced very slowly from gallons to quarts, from quarts to pints and further until it becomes nearly solid.

This semi-solid is called demi-glace and begins with roasting meat, bones and vegetables until dark and caramelized. The browned ingredients are added to a pot that is deeper than it is wide, covered in unseasoned water and simmered slowly for 8 hours to extract all of the flavor. The rich stock is strained and de-fatted, then slowly reduced and concentrated (for another 8 to 10 hours) until it forms a thick syrup, dark, dark, dark and powerful.

It's true that I am a bit of a mad man and consider it a pleasure to spend 20 hours to produce something which is, however magical, a single ingredient. Of those 20 hours, only 2 requires your attention. The rest is a murmuring simmer that should not be disturbed until done, It is absolutely worth the time and effort. I use it to push dishes over the top; the last step from wonderful to the sublime. Dishes that I savor with my eye closed.

As it happens, one can also buy a tub of demi-glace. I have tried two different brands and they are remarkably good. I am not sure why I can buy a good demi and not a good stock. Go figure. They are pricey and a bit hard to find (the one I have now came from Amazon!)

It really is a kind of secret weapon. Typically, I only need a spoonful. For example, I might pan roast a steak which leaves a very flavorful skin on the bottom of the pan called the fond. Throw in one or two finely minced shallots or garlic and cook in the fat until browned and then a half glass of red wine to loosen and then incorporate the flavors already there. When the alcohol has burned off and the sauce has slightly thickened stir in a teaspoon of veal or beef demi-glace. Finally a pat of butter. Time to close your eyes and savor.

Back to being comforted and restored: Boeuf aux carottes...beef braised in red wine and carrots. Braise, slowly and tightly sealed in a enameled, iron pot for two and a half to four hours (as long as it takes for the meat to yield to spoon-soft) in a moderate, 350ยบ oven. This seems to me as the ideal French farm house meal. An inexpensive chuck roast cooked with vegetables and a fruity wine. The important thing is to chamber everything, not permitting evaporation.

About an hour before the meat reaches the yielding softness I aim for, I strain the spent carrots and whatever vegetables that have not dissolved and add fresh carrots and a tied bundle of parsley and thyme sprigs. I might add cubes of turnip and some fingerling potatoes. At this point I taste the juice which has begun to thicken and adjust salt and pepper and finally, before I reseal the pot I stir in a spoon of demi-glace (for an excellent approach to this  dish, see the daube recipe in Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table

I am working on the next post that includes a recipe and technique for my go-to healing broth. 




  1. Looking forward to the next installment! One invaluable tool to my stock-making over the last few years: a big pressure cooker. You can knock six to seven hours off of the simmering time and expect a nice, rich result. Hope you are well!

  2. Happy to hear from you John. Hope you are well as I am.
    I have been told that I may not, under any circumstance, bring another pot or device into our home. I have always wanted (and feared) a pressure cooker.

  3. Chris, what a delightful - and palatable - read. I am so happy I had just eaten, otherwise I'd be tearing through my kitchen looking for something that wouldn't touch nearly the level of nourishment your recipes - and writing - offer.