Sunday, December 11, 2011

Taking Stock While Making Stock

Last weekend, I spent Sunday making homemade chicken stock, but to just tell you about that alone is boring. So, I’m going to include a little story. Oh, and don’t expect a recipe here, I don’t have one. I have found that I enjoy “winging it” when it comes to cooking – usually to Tara’s chagrin. “Winging it” is maybe not entirely accurate. I generally have an idea of ingredients that work well together from my days as a cook – but no measurements.

So, before I talk about the chicken stock, I want to explain how we got to this point and what the heck I know about making stock – in case you’re wondering. This is important because I like to think I had a hand in teaching Tara to cook, though, at this point she has far exceeded my skill level; especially when it comes to creativity. She believes it was part of some master plan or as she put it, “Cook for a woman and she eats for a day; teach a woman to cook and a man eats well forever.” That wasn’t my intention, but it worked out pretty well.

At age fifteen I began working at a regular chain restaurant as a bus boy. I’m not going to lie, the work was terrible and the pay was worse. Part of my job was to keep the bathrooms clean between cleaning tables (think about that the next time you go out to eat). $5.15 per hour to clean puke off the floor after some kid stuffed himself sick on spaghetti and an oversized sundae was not part of the official job description when I applied. Oh, how I hated kid’s night. It wasn’t long before I decided that I wanted to be in the kitchen creating the spaghetti dinners – rather than dealing with them post mastication and partial digestion. So, I decided to move on.

The first step was getting into the kitchen. I ended up as a dishwasher at an assisted living home. Actually, I began as a waiter but I lasted only one day in that position. After I was hit in the face with a bowl full of pureed meat product delicately mixed with an unrecognizable medley of mashed up veggies (you know your mouth is watering), I asked to move to the dishwasher position. The woman behind the meat bowl had dementia so I certainly don’t fault her but, nevertheless, one bowl of pasty goodness in the face was enough for me.

Washing dishes and pots and pans really wasn’t bad. The hardest part of my duties was keeping the kitchen spotless. And, in a facility like that, I do mean spotless. We had inspections more often than Joan Rivers has plastic surgery. I think she’s trying for the Benjamin Button effect.

Anyway, the goal was to get behind the line - to get cooking. Eventually, I was successful in moving into a line cook position. It was a dirty, hot, exhausting job – that was great. I learned a lot and probably ended up doing more customer service from that position than being a waiter; the elderly are picky eaters you know. I never did learn how to make over easy eggs that are scrambled as one lady demanded. It was hard to make food, which was required to be overcooked and bland for health reasons, still taste good. That was part of the challenge and I learned that appearance really can be everything.

One of the draw backs to cooking in a facility like that is that following recipes is an absolute must; both for health reasons (limiting the amount and variety of ingredients) as well as for concerns over food cost. I felt like cooking was the only form of art I was capable of doing and I wanted to learn more while, at the same time, recognizing that I wasn’t planning on making a career out of this.

I worked a second job for a while as a cook for a catering company. The biggest challenge there is constantly working in a kitchen you are not only unfamiliar with but you have never even seen before. You know your oven at home cooks slightly faster in the back right corner – I had no such prior knowledge of those kitchens.

Finally, my brother got me a job cooking at a local, reasonably high-end restaurant where he was Executive Chef. Now, that is what I was looking for. That place built every meal to order, from scratch. Sure, many of the soups and sauces were made in advance to save time during the dinner rush and, of course, there were some recipes that you followed – how else would you know what to keep in inventory? But no expense was spared on ingredients. And, you were encouraged to try new ingredients and flavor combinations. I learned how to make lobster and duck and spicy peanut soup. I learned how to make real crab cakes; not the stuff you get in the freezer isle or at your local diner. I learned the importance of slicing all of the pieces of zucchini and squash exactly the same size and thickness so that they all cooked at the same pace – no burnt or mushy pieces mixed in with nearly raw pieces at that place. All of those things were a far cry from blended meat product and veggie medley.

By the time I left there, I had memorized how to make a variety of dishes. And, I had acquired the ability to piece together new combinations. So… what was this post about again? Ah yes, chicken stock. So most of the cooking I have done since then has been without a specific recipe. That brings us, finally, to the chicken stock.

Now, the stock we made at that restaurant consisted of chicken and duck as well as a much larger variety of veggies. My stock is a much more simplified (read as “cheaper”) version. I started by cutting celery, carrots and onions into large chunks. I put them in a pot (actually, two pots since we don’t have any huge ones) along with whole garlic cloves and a variety of herbs and spices. Those included fresh rosemary, oregano, poultry seasoning, salt and whole black peppercorns among other things that I can’t even remember now. I put in a few chicken backs (with the bone) along with various, otherwise useless, chicken parts.

I added water, brought to a boil and then let simmer for around 4-5 hours; basically until the meat falls apart and all the flavor is cooked out of the veggies. There should be oil on top of the stock from the chicken fat. I usually taste it a few times during the simmering and add various things to taste. Also, since it cooks down and becomes concentrated, I add water so that it is ready to use when needed. It takes up more space but is a little easier in a pinch.

After letting it cool, we filled up former quart yogurt containers and put the stock in the freezer (it’s a good thing Tara likes yogurt). I believe it turned out pretty well and it made a ton – probably enough to last us all year.

So, that’s my very simple chicken stock – about the easiest thing to make. And, now you know why I enjoy cooking and why my cooking often annoys Tara – the “winging it” doesn’t always turn out the way I imagine it will; but that’s half the fun. I encourage you to try different things and throw away the recipe card from time to time. Good luck and enjoy!


  1. For anyone who was not lucky enough to be visiting while this stock-making occurred, trust me when I say it smelled awesome. Tara and Keith, if you could find a way to make me a chicken stock candle I would burn it in my kitchen every day and be forever grateful.

  2. Maybe I'll just give you a tub of it and you can pour a little out and simmer it on the stove whenever people are coming over. Then it will smell like you are cooking!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...