Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bounty in your garbage

About 15 years ago now, I realized that we were throwing a lot of good food straight into the garbage can. When I think back on all the years previous to that, two things come into sharp focus: why did it take me so long to figure things out, and exactly how much perfectly good food did we throw away? That last one is the really shocking thing to me.

What am I talking about? Extra food that we prepared and didn’t eat? No. We’re pretty good about either eating leftovers or not making too much food in the first place. I’m talking about bones, scrapes, and vegetable peelings. If you enjoy cooking good food, it’s amazing how much of the “extras” you produce – and for years we just threw it out with no thought, seldom making use of it except for compost.

When making stews, soups, braises and many other dishes, good stock is needed. One way to get it is to head over to the grocery store. It used to be Campbells and other canned soup makers who supplied those sorts of ingredients. Now it’s possible to get fresh, organic stocks and bases in even the most mundane of supermarkets. You pay for it, though, sometimes quite dearly.

But there is another way, an almost free way to supply all your needs: make all your stocks and bases from food scraps. Best of all, doing this takes very little effort. The only requirements are a freezer, time, and a bit of organization. Here’s what we do in the Blechta Test Kitchens.

The other night, I roasted a chicken. Part of that recipe includes using a covered roasting pan and loading the bottom of it with sliced onion. This gives the bird something to rest on and adds a lot to the flavor of the finished product. [If we want to have a really plush dinner, I also throw a few ounces of brandy into the bottom of the pan.] Once our bird was reduced to a forlorn carcass (saving all the bones from the dinner plates), I broke it up, popped the bottom of the roasting pan under the broiler for a few minutes to brown things up nicely and then went about turning it into stock with a few liters of water. To give my stock a little more color, I threw in a teaspoon of Spanish paprika. With a few hours of gentle simmering, it was distilled into a golden broth. The onions that the chicken was roasted with (still in the stock) added a terrific flavor. I strained the stock, then popped it in the refrigerator overnight.

The next morning, I lifted off the hardened fat (I used a small, 3-inch strainer), at which point the stock went into old yogurt, margarine, sour cream containers we save, was clearly labelled as to type of stock and the date it was made, then it went downstair into our large chest freezer. Next time I need chicken stock, I will nip downstairs, take some out and bring it to boiling. That’s all there is to it. We usually have bags in the freezer of poultry bones and trimmings, red meat bones and trimmings, fish and seafood shells. When we have enough, we make stock. [One word of advice: if you’re having barbecue, don’t bother saving the bones. Take it from me, it’s not a good idea…]

“But what about all those nice vegetable flavors that go into a good stock?” you may ask. “Onions alone won’t cut it!”

We have that taken care of, too.

Whenever we use onions or leeks, peel carrots and parsnips, use garlic or shallots, prep fresh herbs (especially parsley), celery and pepper trimmings, tomato skins (more on this later), in short, any vegetable things that might be good in a soup or stock, the leftover bits get thrown into a plastic bag in our refrigerator’s freezer where they’re handy. When I have a full bag, I take it into the larger chest freezer. When I have 2 or 3 bags, I make vegetable stock.

[Sidebar: Every fall we preserve tomato sauce and chopped tomatoes. All scraps (and there are a lot) get put into large plastic containers (usually 3-cup yogurt ones) and they’re frozen for later use.]

Some things not to use in your general vegetable stock: potato peelings. Save those for distilling vodka if you’re into moonshine. ;) Cabbage and members of the cabbage family should be kept separately for making cabbage-based soups. We don’t generally save these.

When I’m making vegetable stock, I throw the contents of my frozen trimmings bags into a big pot, add filtered water (especially important if you live in an area where your tap water has a distinctive flavor or aroma), and slowly simmer my stock for several hours. Generally, I also add a yogurt container of frozen tomato trimmings for added flavor and color. When done, you shouldn’t have any fat to worry about, so simply strain it, load up your saved containers, label and freeze. We generally freeze our vegetable stock in small containers (1 cup).

Final use: Whenever I make a soup or stew, I take out the appropriate meat stock, and one of those 1-cup vegetable stocks, run them under hot water to loosen them in the container, and then throw the frozen stocks into a saucepan to heat them up. The secret here is that you make your two base components (meat and vegetables) separately, and combine them at the point where you’re going to use them. Doing it this way allows you to control the flavor level of the two components. Want a meatier-flavored stock or soup? Make that the larger component. Want more vegetable flavor (better for some soups), increase the proportion of that. Because you have complete control of the process, you have complete control of the flavors.

It doesn’t take a lot of time to make your own stock, and except for the small amount of energy to make and freeze it, it’s pretty well free. Think how much useable food you’ve been throwing out. Right?

Handling your requirements using this method also makes it possible to produce some rather esoteric stocks to use in future dishes. Recently, I had pheasant stock and duck stock in our freezer. The taste of each was amazing. The pheasant stock went into a double-crust meat pie, and the duck stock was used to add flavor to a cassoulet. Try finding those in even the most trendy of food emporia!


Anonymous said...

You mentioning broiling your chicken bones. Is this the same as roasting them? (something you see in stock recipes all the time) And do you roast other bones?

Rick Blechta said...

Hi there! Unless you want to make a “blonde” sauce, it’s a good idea to roast, broil, or otherwise brown the bones. This adds more flavor and color to your stock. I tend to broil the bones because it’s faster, that’s all. If you want to take the time to roast your bones, be my guest. Maybe we should do an A&B experiment to see if roasting vs. broiling produces different results.

Thanks for commenting!