, , , ,

It is mid-January, and this is a garden blog. Lately I have been asking myself, who starts a garden blog in January!? When the earth surrounding you looks like the dark days of Narnia, there is not a whole lot to sow and grow. What is even in season in January, you ask? If you’re lucky enough to have a root cellar, maybe you have storage potatoes, turnips and rutabagas ready for cooking, or if you left a few carrots in the garden and you’re happy digging up the frozen tundra, I guess that’s seasonal. Up north, our much more tropical distant states graciously send oranges, pineapple and pomegranates to the arctic markets, but really, the only produce that is “in season” in southeast Wisconsin are what was frozen at the end of last summer. And at this point, all that’s left in my freezer is raspberries, blackberries, peas and a vast assortment of herbs. So what is a seasonal-minded home cook to do come January? First off, she is to calm down and buy some damn groceries. Second, she is to take advantage of the cold and make some rich, warm, silky chicken/turkey/beef/any-tasty-meat soup stock to fill with beans, grains, and root vegetables from the pantry. January is, after all, soup season. Now, I am not at food-hoarder level, but I am pretty much a certifiable food extreme cheapskate. While I do not (yet) collect scarps left on diner’s plates at restaurants, the more food I am not throwing away, the less I am paying at the grocery store to replace it. Of course, part of this is that I despise food waste. Food waste is kind of like a slap in the face of everyone that has ever gone a day without food. Additionally, most of our processed foods have chemical preservatives so they don’t readily break down in our landfills. Financially, food waste is a bummer. Ecologically, food waste is a super bummer. Vegetable gardening has not only improved the quality of my dinner table deliverables, but has expanded my view on food and food use. What does any of this have to do with soup? I give you The Ultimate Cheapskate (and delicious!) Chicken Stock. This is so simple and can cost almost no moolah if you make a few adjustments to your routine food preparation STEP 1: Gather your Equipment IMG_1268 That’s it. Right there. A large pot. If you have a stockpot, even better. But I don’t and I make it work, albeit with some manhandling. STEP 2: Collect your Ingredients IMG_1269 What is that bag of green stuff? That is two weeks worth of vegetable scraps that would otherwise be destined for the trash bin. This is KEY #1 to The Ultimate Cheapskate (and Delicious!) Chicken Stock. During the summer, most of my vegetable scraps go into Jessica’s dinner bowl or the compost bin, but by the winter, the compost is full and very slowly breaking down so I can’t dump the scraps as often as I need, so I simply keep a bag in the freezer and throw in anything that I think would flavor a stock. I usually stick to aromatics in the onion family, fresh herbs, dark greens, and roots like carrots, parsnips, turnips, etc. I avoid potatoes, which will add too much starch, and anything too flavorful like tomatoes, which can overpower the flavor. But, its really chef’s choice and every stock batch I make has a different profile. Its part of the fun! IMG_1270 Let’s see, in the mystery freezer bag I have some leeks, ginger peel, green onion, fennel stalk, Swiss chard stems, and spinach. These are the parts that I didn’t use for fresh cooking, or got a little old or wilted in the fridge. Just pop them into the freezer bag. Nothing to waste. This might add 30 seconds on to each meal you prepare. Assuming you prepare on average 1 meal a day with fresh produce, over the course of a year that is 3 hours additional work. The pot I use is a 6-quart capacity. For that size, I will throw in about 3-4 handfuls, give or take, of veggies from the bag. Now, pay attention! These measurements are crucial and precision is key to successful stock. IMG_1273 I could only use my mystery bag to flavor the stock, but there are some staples that I always have on hand and I like to throw into the pot. IMG_1272 Carrot, celery and garlic make great stock and add some goodness as well. I chop one carrot, one rib of celery, and as much garlic as I want. You will see I don’t bother peeling the carrot. It’s all good stuff, just wash or scrub any scary dirt you see. When you peel carrots for food preparation, in fact, you can save the peels and throw them into the mystery freezer bag. No waste! For the garlic, peel and smash the cloves. I don’t bother chopping. The flavor will release in the pot. IMG_1274 IMG_1275 IMG_1276 IMG_1278 Add it all to the pot. IMG_1280 Already I am getting hungry. If I were making vegetable stock, I would add way more vegetables. But I am making The Ultimate Cheapskate (and Delicious!) Chicken Stock. Now I will tell you about KEY #2: the chicken. IMG_1271 If that looks like a frozen chicken carcass, you would be correct! Just like my waste vegetables, I save the shells of the animals I consume. My freezer looks like it belongs at a Hannibal Lector dinner party. I don’t compost meat because 1) it attracts raccoons and coyotes, and 2) its illegal in my city. So what we don’t eat, I freeze. This primarily consists of bones and organ meats. For example, Thanksgiving turkeys, rotisserie chickens, ham bones, beef bones, and bones of any non-human food animal (my freezer would not actually be useful at a Hannibal Lector dinner party). This also may add an additional 30 seconds to your meal cleanup. On average I collect the bones of my enemies…er…dinner once a month. That is 6 minutes over a year. Wow. The time commitment is really adding up. IMG_1281 STEP #4: Fill the Pot with Water IMG_1282 STEP #5: Bring to Boil, Cover, Simmer Now just fill that bad boy up with water, feel free to grind in some pepper, or other dried herbs you wish, bring to boiling, pop on a lid and set to low and simmer simmer simmer as long as you want. I recommend at least 6 hours for the flavoring components to thaw and for the good stuff to be pulled into the water. If you are fortunate enough to be at home during the day, or work at home, like me, you can start this in the morning, forget about it entirely, and emerge from work 10 hours later and the entire house smells like chicken noodle soup. My mouth is watering. IMG_1286 For the majority of you who may have to leave your house everyday, this might be a weekend project, or you can do everything in a slow cooker on low. The total prep to get the pot going takes about 10 minutes. 10 minutes!!! I make stock about once a month in the winter, which where I live is 6 months, so that’s a total of 1 hour over a year’s time. Okay so I have a pot full of stock, chicken and vegetables, now what? Now, I must be honest. This next part is the most labor intensive of the entire process. You have a few options here to strain the solids from the liquid. My preferred method is to use a large measuring bowl and cheesecloth. IMG_1289 STEP #6: Strain Stock I use a 12-cup measuring bowl with a pour spout, and cheesecloth that is approximately $1.50 for two yards at the grocery store and it lasts me the entire year. Just spread a cut piece of cheesecloth over the bowl, and verrrrryyy sllloowwwly pour the finished stock over the cheesecloth. If you pour too fast, the cheesecloth will collapse and won’t strain well. IMG_1290 Next, just gather the edges of the cheesecloth to bundle the solids and remove. You can use a strainer to remove any large pieces that were missed. IMG_1292 I mean look at that color! You will notice that the Ultimate Cheapskate (and Delicious!) Chicken Stock is deeper in color and more opaque than it’s commercially prepared fancy cousins. That is due to the inconsistency and variety of flavoring components. Also, did I mention that this version is completely fat-free? No? That’s because it is not. It is not even close to being fat-free, which is why you will see it is so. damn. tasty. The chicken fat, proteins collagen and gelatin, and bone minerals all melt into the liquid with the leached vitamins and minerals from the vegetables. Smooth. Silky. Flavorful. Full of goodness. You will see. STEP #7: Cool Stock Once the liquid is separated, it will be hot. You can let it rest at room temperature for an hour (at most two), and then just cover with plastic wrap, make a few slits to vent, and pop into your fridge. Your best bet is to cool it in a place with lots of air circulation. My fridge is perpetually empty because we eat everything that’s in there, so I always have room. You want to bring the temperature down to at least 100°F, or warm to touch, but not hot. The bowl should be cool. While it’s chilling out, take some time to prepare your freezer bags. This is KEY #3: Freeze the Stock. I do this with a bottle of wine. That’s not a requirement, per se, but…isn’t it? I use 1-quart freezer bags because they can easily hold 2 cups of liquid. For 12 cups of stock, that would be 6 bags. I label the bags with the name of the innards “chix stock,” the amount “2 c.,” and date it was made. This allows me to keep a first-in, first-out inventory in the freezer. IMG_1296 But why can’t I just keep it all in the fridge? Because this is pure stuff and even with all that boiling, bacteria, yeast and mold that live in your kitchen (yes, they do) have instantly taken up residence in the stock. See, there are many benefits that preservatives provide. Increased shelf life is assuredly one of them. I have found that the stock stored in the fridge will stay fresh tasting for about 4-5 days at best. It could go longer, but you want to ensure you are re-cooking it (boiling) with all subsequent use. If you are planning to use it in the next few days, by all means don’t bother freezing. In fact, I usually keep 2 cups in the fridge to get me through the next few days. STEP #8: Freeze Stock Take your cooled stock out of the fridge. You may see a layer of oil collected at the top. If you cooled it long enough, you may see a hard layer solidify. You can scrape that of (if hardened) to remove some of the fat, or use a fat separating measuring cup. This style of measuring cup works because it is plugged at the spout and the spout feeds from the bottom of the cup. Pour 2 cups of stock into the measuring cup with the spout plugged, and then pour it off slowly into the bag (with the spout unplugged of course), stopping when the oil layer reaches the base of the spout. IMG_1299 Carefully seal up the bags, pushing out as much air as you can without spilling. You will notice that if you lay the bags flat, they self-level as all liquids do. I like to lay the bags flat on a large tray, and pop the tray right into the freezer and let freeze overnight. This makes flat, easy to store, 2-cup chicken stock blocks. IMG_1301 Now, you don’t have to use the freezer-bag method. Any freezer container would work. I highly recommend adapting to what best suits you and your stock usage requirements. So the last step takes the most time commitment. I would say, it’s a good 30-minute active process to prep the bags, pour and freeze. That amounts to an additional 3 hours annually, keeping with my 6-month stock-making schedule. So, how much time are we talking? Well let’s do the math:

  • 3 hours to collect vegetable scraps
  • 6 minutes to save meat and poultry bones
  • 1 hour to prepare the stock
  • 3 hours to freeze the stock

This brings us to a grand total time commitment of 7 hours and 6 minutes. That’s quite a lot, if it were in one day. But this is over the course of ONE YEAR. One year, friends. That sounds all well and good, but how much is this going to cost me? Oh I am sooo glad you asked! CFO talks about time-equity a lot and it usually goes something like, “blah blah blah, time, blah, blah, blah, money, blah blah blah, equity” and ends with him telling me that we cannot get a chicken coop. I think the point he is trying to make is that before I decide to take on a major project, I should assess the real value of the work involved. So here is my financial assessment of home stock making, per 12 cups (96 oz):

  • Scrap Vegetable cost: $0      Saved from the trash bin
  • Chicken bones: $0      Saved from the trash bin
  • 1 Carrot, 1 celery, 5 garlic: $0.12      Estimate based on full purchase price
  • Freezer bags: $0.67      Six bags at $0.11
  • Water and electricity: $1.00      I completely made this up
  • Gadgets and utensils: $0      Assumed these are owned (pot, tray, bowl, etc)
  • Labor: $0      I determined that labor is negligible, because it actually takes me longer to grocery shop for said chicken stock.

TOTAL COST:   $1.79 Now compare this to commercially prepared chicken stock. I used Target.com to estimate the purchase price of two popular brands:

  • Kitchen Basics Unsalted            $2.54 for 32 oz.
  • Swanson Stock Unsalted            $2.69 for 26 oz.

To purchase 96 oz, it would take 3 containers of Kitchen Basics ($7.62) and 4 containers of Swanson’s ($10.76). My homemade version is 20-25% of the cost!! Additionally, using the estimate of 6 lots of homemade stock a year, that is an overall savings of $35.00-$54.00 annually. I like that, and at least now I can provide numbers to CFO when he asks why I have to fill our freezer with bagged bird carcasses. I don’t use that much chicken stock so this all seems pointless. Hey, to each his own. I actually use stock all the time. The possibilities are endless:

  • Base for soups, stews, chilis as expected, either full strength or diluted to make broth
  • Mix with cornstarch to thicken sauces with more flavor
  • Deglaze a pan
  • Replaces water when cooking grains (rice, bulghur, faro, quinoa, etc.)
  • Dilute with water and use to steam vegetables
  • Reheat until hot, drink during a cold/flu for vitamin-packed punch
  • Poach fish and shellfish
  • Use to make gravy and sauces for meat
  • The best damn risotto you ever had

I use stock to replace water in most savory applications. Try it out, and you too will be hooked.

No Jessica! I need the carrot for the chicken stock!

No Jessica! I need the carrot for the chicken stock!

RECIPE: The Ultimate Cheapskate (and Delicious) Chicken Stock Makes 12 cups Total active time: 40 minutes Total time: 7-10 hours Ingredients:

  • 3-4 cups mixed vegetable scraps, roughly chopped (onions, leeks, dark leafy greens, etc)
  • 1 carrot, roughly chopped
  • 1 celery rib, roughly chopped
  • 4-5 cloves garlic, smashed
  • Bones and cartilage from 1 whole chicken
  • 13 cups water
  • 1 tsp ground pepper (optional)

Directions Add all ingredients to pot, cook on med-high to bring to a boil, cover, and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 6 hours. Remove from heat and strain to remove solids. Cool to below 100°F in refrigerator. Pour stock into freezer containers of choice and freeze until solid. Storage Frozen stock will taste best if used within 6 months, but can be stored frozen indefinitely. For stock stored in the refrigerator, use within 5 days.