Stocking Up

Chowder made from this Fish Stock, photo by Richmond TalbotThe Jews, the schools, and the auto companies all have the right idea.  The year begins in the fall.  The cooling of the weather puts you in the mood to restart your life.  Naturally I'm making resolutions.  One is that I'll keep the freezer and refrigerator full of material for good homemade soups.

I made a batch of chicken broth.  Old cooks say that you can't make chicken soup properly without the feet so when I'm near a Chinese market I buy a pound of them to keep on hand, but my supply was a little outdated, and a freezer burned chicken foot is not a pretty thing.  I omitted them in this latest batch. I got two family packs of drumsticks on sale and put them in a tall pot with parsley, celery, onion (including the skin for color) carrot, and peppercorns.  I added no salt; it can be put in later if needed. Why you have to pay extra for salt-free chicken broth in the store, I couldn't say. 

I simmered the stock slowly for about six hours, occasionally taking off the gray scum  that rises to the top.  Then I cooled the stock in the refrigerator.  When it was cold, I skimmed the fat from it and froze it in two-cup portions in Zip-Lock bags.  I recommend the name brand product for this because the store brand bags tend to leak.  Remember to label and date the bags before you start filling them. 

Chicken stock is a useful ingredient to have on hand.  With it you can make a soup out of almost anything, and it will have that long simmered flavor.  You can use it in sauces, casseroles, and stir fries.  I make beef stock as well, but chicken is more versatile.  Stocks you make yourself are better and cheaper than those you buy in the supermarket.

Today I made fish stock. This used to be easier because all fish markets cut their own fish, and you had only to get there early in the morning before they threw away the bones.  Now you have to order them, and they're no longer free, but this morning I found myself in Brant Rock having breakfast at my favorite restaurant, Arthur and Pats.  I popped over to Brant Rock Fish Market because its owner, Henry Dunbar, still cuts his fish.

My fish stock recipe is based on that of Jasper White.  I admire him as a chef, and have never gone wrong with his cookbooks, but I started breaking the rules while I was still in Brant Rock.  I got two cod frames, or racks as Dunbar calls them.  White says cod makes an inferior stock, but he uses his stock for delicate sauces that might be overpowered by the stronger flavor of cod.  I use mine mostly for chowder, and I want the heartier taste. 

White tells you to trim off all the skin, but the same old time housewife who insists on using chicken feet says you can't make good chowder without the head so I put it in the pot.  After that I followed the recipe pretty closely. 

I cut up a leek, an onion, two peeled carrots, and three stalks of celery.  I melted two tablespoons of butter in the bottom of my stock pot and sweated the vegetables along with some parsley.  I think White calls for six parsley stems, but I like parsley so I tore a handful off the bunch and threw it in the pot.  I'm a little bit haute cuisine and a little bit rock and roll.

I also used more fresh thyme than he called for on the theory that all this flavorful cod can stand up to more herbs than flounder.  I'm not going for nuance, I want bold flavor.  I tossed in two bay leaves and a handful of peppercorns.

When you sweat vegetables and herbs you don't saut√© them.  You turn the heat down and let them loll around in the melted butter over low heat until they give up some of their flavor.  One rack weighed three pounds, which was the amount the recipe called for.  I cut it into small pieces and put it in with a cup of white wine. 

Will my chowder have the flavor of wine?  Not really, and you can leave it out and use water.  I had a bottle of vermouth in the refrigerator. It makes a great cooking wine and is handy when you're in the mood for a martini.

This wine settled down among the sweaty vegetables and made a fragrant steam that gently cooked the fish.  After a few minutes I covered the fish bones with water and brought it to a boil. I skimmed the surface and then turned it down to a simmer.  You can simmer chicken stock all day, but ten minutes is all White recommends for fish stock, and that's what I gave it.  Then you let it sit for ten minutes more.  Don't walk away and read a book during this operation.  Big flavor is great, but it can be overdone. 

We poured the stock through a fine strainer.  I say "we" because it's a good idea to have a helper hold the strainer while you wrestle with the heavy pot.  The bowl of stock went into the refrigerator to cool before freezing.  For some reason, Annette prefers plastic freezer containers over bags for fish stock.

The nights are getting colder, but I'm ready to warm body and soul on dark winter evenings.  Annette will use the stock to simmer a haddock or cod fillet cut into chunks, adding potatoes, onions, salt pork and whatever else her recipe calls for. She adds milk at the last minute. A grind of pepper, a sprinkle of fresh thyme leaves, and a pat of melting butter, and I won't wish it was summer -- at least not as much.