Saturday, April 28, 2012

Simple, yet ever essential: vegetable stock

As the title implies, making a vegetable stock is simple. And while not a complicated thing to produce, it will provide much satisfaction; even smugness. I never make the same vegetable stock twice, but I can tell you this - they all taste delicious despite the absence of bouillon cubes, instant powders or those icky gelatinous little Knorr blobs that Marco Pierre White has been peddling (a tragedy in and of itself). Nevertheless, there is more than one approach to a vegetable stock, but the first and most important ingredient you will need is water.

Water: the giver of life and filler of swimming pools. Tap water is clean, safe and a miracle of municipal engineering. I boil spaghetti in it. I moisten my toothbrush with it. However, to have a really good stock, you need water that doesn't reek of chlorine. A basic countertop water filter like a Brita reduces much of that taint (for the true purist, a reverse osmosis gadget in your kitchen can deliver Michelin-starred stock). To be perfectly honest, I have cooked with straight-out tap water and the chlorine is not terribly bad in my community - just a bit nit picky on my part - it can't hurt to take that extra step. 

The next consideration is the vegetables. Here's something interesting: a de facto vegetable stock, such as I'm discussing here, does not really exist in traditional French cookery. The French Culinary Institute text has no recipe for a vegetable stock. Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking does not have such a recipe. Nor does the Larousse Sauce Bible. The tradition from which many of these classics derive, treat vegetable stocks as something to poach fish in: a court bouillon. However, in these modern times of lighter, fresher cooking, a court bouillon is no longer merely an after-thought - we can, and should make it the star of the show. As it is, the classic French poaching liquor is indeed successful at capturing the most critical of base flavours; namely a mirapoix and a bouquet garni - the very flavours we look for in a good vegetable stock. To me, the following are absolutely essential to a proper vegetable stock (enough to fill a small to medium sauce pan):

-Half an onion, skin-on
-One clove of garlic, skin-on
-Two or three fresh bay leaves (please use fresh - they are so much better than dry)
-Two or three branches of fresh thyme
-Six or seven whole black peppercorns

These ingredients are essential. You can not make a good vegetable stock without these basics. To this, another good addition is the carrot. One or two, cleaned, peeled and split. I find the carrot is good under most circumstances, but not always. If you want a very clean stock for a neutral risotto, then I usually leave out the carrot. Just my preference.

Celery is close to essential, that is, almost always required. However, I have indeed made good stocks without it. Celery is assertive, so be wary of its power. However, the flavour it imparts has an ancientness to it that is comforting. While I might say it is criminal to omit bay leaf from a stock; it is not criminal, strictly speaking, to omit celery...but, you will need a good excuse. For example, maybe you don't have any celery in your crisper. 
Another ingredient that I find especially flavourful to a vegetable stock is dried mushrooms. Morels add a specifically delicious flavour. They come with a caveat: there will be a bit of grit on the bottom of your sauce pan, so make sure your approach takes this into account (strain through muslin, or leave the last few tablespoons behind). In fact, I would go as far to say I would never make a vegetable stock without at least one dried mushroom bobbing about in it. But that's just me.

Leeks are always a good ingredient - it sometimes comes down to what you have handy.

What would I discourage you from putting in a basic veg stock? Well, meat for starters. Yes, anchovy is meat. Yes,  bacon lardons, no matter how small, are meat. Bones are meat. What else to avoid? Things that will monopolize the colour and flavour, i.e. tomotoes, peppers and things like that. Yes, they are vegetables, but they are are not 'stock' vegetables as such. Chilies, raddishes and other dominant beasties  should stay well away from a basic stock. We're looking for neutrality and subtlety.

Now that we know what goes in to a vegetable stock, how does one go about cooking it? It's down to preference. In Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Veg book, his vegetable stock consists of the standards I have just listed: onions, carrots, celery (otherwise known as mirapoix), along with herbs. He introduces some white wine (never a bad thing), and suggests grating all the veg on a box grater and then sauteeing in a bit of rape seed oil before adding the water. All well and good. His grated vegetables sort of melt away in the simmering water. However, I don't like to introduce oil to my stock. I want it to be pristine. I can add fats later. Here is what I do:

Take the 'essential' ingredients alluded to above (half an onion, garlic, bay leaves, thyme and peppercorns) and get them into a medium sauce pan. Follow that with a couple of dry morels, one to two juniper berries and a couple of chunks of carrot and celery. The skins from the onion, along with the dried mushrooms will impart a bit a colour from their natural tannins. Add enough water to cover everything, then turn on a medium fire. What about salt? Well, are you going to reduce this stock? If so, then don't season, or season very lightly. Is this for risotto or some veggie gravy? Then season. Make sure your stock tastes salty enough that you'd eat it as a cup of soup, i.e. good enough to enjoy as is: now you know you're seasoning is right. I like my salt, so I may go a bit overboard. 

The last ingredient is time. Amazingly, a really good veg stock doesn't need much more than 20 to 30 minutes. You're looking for a spirited simmer not a hard boil. Once done, shut it off and let it cool for a while. It will infuse like a cup of tea. Then strain it out and you have a delicious, and healthy stock you can call your own. Congratulations!

Special Note: You may have noticed the, ahem, photographic quality is much higher for this post. As a result from an amazing afternoon spent with food stylist, Chris St. Onge, I wil be improving the photography on this site, along with future blogging about my recent education. Thanks Chris!

1 comment:

  1. Charming and informative as always...and the shot looks great!