Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Soup Nazi

"And Tom brought him chicken soup until he wanted to kill him. The lore has not died out of the world, and you will still find people who believe that soup will cure any hurt or illness and is no bad thing to have for the funeral either."
- John Steinbeck (Nobel Laureate in Literature, 1902-1968), East of Eden

            I didn’t intend this week to be about chickens, but someone must really have it in for the chickens. (Maybe the cows.)  But if you are going to bother making schmaltz and matzo ball soup, do you really want to embarrass yourself with canned broth?  I know it’s convenient, but canned broth, tastes, canned.   Even though I have used canned broth (because you always need a Plan B in the kitchen), I can’t seem to get that metallic aftertaste out of my mouth.  It’s akin to a more pleasant trip to the dentist.
            I’ve also tried the vacuum packed cartons of broth, but I’m still not satisfied.  Doesn’t have the tinny taste of canned, but it just doesn’t have any taste to begin with.  What a waste of $1.99 for colored water.  You should drink water in LA if that's what you want.  You’re probably asking yourself, “How much stock am I going to use anyway?”  You’d be surprised.  Stock is the basis for many classical sauces – velouté, Mornay, most gravy and pan sauces.  Stock is also the foundation for risotto, rice pilaf, chicken piccata, tom ka gai, chicken potpie, molé, and of course, chicken soup. You will run out of stock before you run out of uses.  This is especially important for simple recipes, such as risotto.  Risotto is basically a combination of stock, rice and wine (maybe some shallots if you’re adventurous).  It’s a house of cards.  Bottom card gone, the rest go-a-flying. If you like stabilizers, MSG and “artificial chicken flavor” in your risotto, go canned.  If not, make your own stock.
            If you choose to go down the righteous path of stock making there are a couple of tips and tricks.  With regards to the chicken, the best stock is made with a lot of bones, and very little meat.  What gives stock its mouth feel is the collagen[1] from bones, skin, tendons and muscles.  You’re getting flavor from all the rest of the ingredients – not from the meat.  So don’t waste your money adding extra meat, unless you like to play fetch with a rubber chicken.  But do use chicken parts with lots of collagen and bone.  Chicken feet rock.  You can get five pounds for a couple of bucks at your local Asian grocery store. Backs and necks work too.  Basically, if you can’t really eat it, it will be great for stock.
            Speaking of flavorings, I say the fewer, the better. The main problem is that whatever spice or herb you add will influence the nuances of your end product. Thus, if you are making Mornay sauce out of chicken stock flavored with star anise, it’s not going to work; it will just taste like liquid Good and Plenty’s. The rule of seasoning: You can always add it later.  Once it’s in the pot – sayonara.  It’s there for good and you’re stuck with it.[2]  So the best way to go is to make a basic stock for cooking purposes, and then add other flavorings when needed for a specific recipe. Thus, if you are making an Asian soup, you can always defrost a bag of stock and reheat it with some ginger, chili, coriander root, etc.  The same goes with stock for risotto.  Add thyme, bay leaves and parsley while the stock is heating and it should work out just fine.
            Last bit of advice, strain your stock well and defat.  There’s nothing more unattractive then trying to explain the little bits of god-knows-what to your guests. (“Really, it’s not a fly.  Just looks like one.”)  And skimming the fat off not only cleans the stock any residual bits, but also clarifies the flavor of your stock.  It’s fairly easy to do both.  Just set cheesecloth over a colander and strain away, pushing on the solids to extract all the juices.  Then chill the stock, and all the fat will solidify on top, making it easy to skim off.
            Finally, you have all the components for matzo ball soup.  If no one appreciates your efforts:

 “No soup for you today!” 

Chicken Stock
Yield: About 7-8 cups
3 tbs. unsalted butter
3 tbs. olive oil
3 large carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
1 large onion (NOT RED), peeled and roughly chopped
3 large stalks of celery, roughly chopped
1 head of garlic, cut in half horizontally
1 c. dry white wine
1 tbs. black peppercorns
4-5 pds. chicken bones, feet, necks and/or necks

1.     Heat the butter and 1 tbs. of olive oil in a heavy stockpot over medium heat.  When the butter begins the foam, add carrots, onion, celery and garlic and sauté, until the vegetables are browned.
2.     Take out the sautéed vegetables, and reserve.  Add 2 tbs. of olive oil back into the stockpot and heat again over medium heat.  Sauté chicken parts until lightly browned.  Add wine and scrape the fond (the brown stuff on the bottom of the pan) from the pot.  Add the rest of the ingredients, and enough water to cover, about 1 to 2 inches.
3.     Bring stock to a simmer, and turn the heat to low.  Skim off any scum that rises to the top, but DO NOT STIR.  Stirring will cloud your stock. (It tastes fine, but doesn’t look very pretty.)  Simmer uncovered for about 2 1/2 hours.
4.     Line a colander with some cheesecloth (or a double layer of paper towels) and strain the stock into a large bowl, pressing on the solids to extract the excess liquid.  Cool to room temperature and store in refrigerator overnight.
5.     Skim the fat from the top of the stock and store in airtight containers (I use Ziploc quart and pint bags).  For smaller amounts, pour stock into ice cube trays and freeze. 
Note: If your stock comes out the fridge looking like chicken jello, no worries.  That is how it is supposed to look.  The gelatinous texture is from all the collagen leeched out of the chicken bones.  Just don’t try to serve it with marshmallows.

[1] Nerd Alert: Collagen is the protein that provides elasticity in almost all structural tissue.  One-third of the human body is made with collagen.  Osteoporosis is partially due to the lack of collagen produced in older adults.  That’s also the same reason women spend way too much money on skin cream (including yours truly).  It’s also the same stuff in Jello.  Next time you think Bill Cosby, think collagen.
[2] This is the main reason why you should ALWAYS go easy on the salt.  Once salt is added, it is very difficult to correct for over-salting.  And no, adding sugar will not help.

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