The new year’s food begins with soup

Starting out a new year, with all of those grey January mornings, calls for some good old comfort food. And if there is one truly essential variety of comfort food, it’s soup. The foundation of every great soup is a great broth. Sure, there are some decent store-bought stocks out there, but none will give you the same flavour or experience of making your own.

A simple vegetable or chicken stock is typically made from cut-offs or extra bits from your cooking process. In restaurants, cooks will often keep a container separate from the compost bin (or garbage can, where most organic restaurant waste actually goes) for vegetable cut-offs which are not good enough for a normal application but are still fine for making stock. These things include the greens of leeks, the leafy end of celery, and bits like that. These parts of the vegetable are rich in flavour, so throwing them away would be a real waste.

What you do not want to keep are the actual bad bits of the vegetables, like the peel or stem end of carrots. Some parts are just bitter. Discard such things and do not think twice about it. You would be amazed how many professional cooks forget this one simple nugget of information: stocks taste like the stuff that goes into them. Like I have explained to many a cook and dishwasher over the years, if you are unsure whether a bit is suitable for the stock pot, taste it. If it’s delicious, use it, even if it is inedibly fibrous like leek greens. If it is bitter, like carrot peels, leave it out.

Below are two basic stocks which ought to get you through most culinary projects. Of course, I almost always use vegetable stock because I am vegetarian and thus most of what I cook is also vegetarian. However, since my wife eats chicken, I also cook it sometimes. When I do, I would be remiss to waste any part of the chicken. Cooking an animal properly and extracting as much goodness as possible is, in my mind, an act of respect. No matter what your dietary choices or requirements, you will always make better food by treating it with respect.

Vegetable stock

Onion, carrots, and celery (The basic ratio is two parts onion to one part each carrot and celery, although some onion may be replaced with leeks, if you have them on hand.)

Bay leaf

Fresh thyme and flat leaf parsley (Not dried. If you don’t have fresh on hand, don’t use any at all)

Whole black peppercorns

Salt

Mushrooms (Optional. If you have a few on hand, throw some into the pot for a deeper, earthier flavour)

1)       Slice your vegetables relatively thin, but don’t worry about making them neat. Put them into a stock pot, along with the other ingredients (except salt), cover with water, and place over medium heat. Note that the quantities are not provided for each ingredient. That’s because this stock is perfectly fine to make by feel. Fill the pot no more than half-full of vegetables and add no more than a couple of sprigs of thyme or a couple of stems of parsley for about four litres of water. For the same amount, add maybe a teaspoon or so of peppercorns and two to four bay leaves. If you like, adjust to your taste.

2)       Bring to a simmer and reduce heat to low for about 20 minutes. Do not boil. Remove from the heat and strain out the vegetables. Give them time to drain, but do not squeeze them. Add salt to taste (if desired) and you’re done.

Chicken Stock

Take the same ingredients as in the vegetable stock. If you have chicken bones or the carcass of a roast chicken on hand, put those into a pot and add the vegetables and herbs. If not, you can make stock from vegetables and a whole chicken, then strip the meat and add it to soup. The choice is yours. Either way, you should never omit fresh thyme from chicken stock. Vegetable stock can take or leave it, but chicken needs thyme.

1)       Place chicken into the pot and cover with vegetables, prepared as you would for vegetable stock. Bring to a simmer and allow it to cook for about three hours. As it cooks, regularly skim away the foam that forms on the surface of the water. Quick tip: the scum which rises to the top of something is almost never seen as desirable. Unless you’re in the NRA. Then you give it a press conference. Skimming the stock as it cooks will leave you with a cleaner finished product. This is also why you keep it at a bare simmer. Aggressive boiling will render the stock cloudy by breaking apart the solids rather than steeping them gently.

2)       Gently strain the solids out of the stock. The finished liquid should be nice and clear. If it’s cloudy, you can let it cool until the solids settle to the bottom and then decant it. You will also want to skim away a layer of fat. If you place your finished product into the fridge, the fat will harden on the surface of the stock, making it easier to remove. This fat is called schmaltz. It is full of chicken flavour and can be used for cooking. Of course, it will go bad eventually, so don’t let it sit in the fridge forever. As well, if you used a whole chicken, strip the meat from the carcass and reserve it for use in soup.

With either vegetable or chicken stock, you can make just about any soup you like. Experiment and enjoy.

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