Monday, April 9, 2012

The Backbone Of Cooking

Once you experience days in the kitchen like I've had recently with my meat and cheese extravaganzas, stock and sauce day just doesn't seem like fun. I mean, how interesting can it really be to cook down veggies or roast bones? Well, I kinda eat my words each day in the kitchen, it seems. Learning the essentials of making stock is honestly the backbone of cooking as a whole. Stock is used in so many things, in any cuisine, and making a good one can make all the difference in your dish being mediocre or outstanding.

Taken from my book, "a stock is a flavored, aromatic liquid used to make soups, sauces, braises and stews and to moisten preparations such as risotto". Without quality ingredients, your stock might as well be water in the end. Cooking at home has given me very slight knowledge of how important stock is and, after tasting the dishes we've made using stock from exceptional ingredients, I don't think I can ever go back to buying it in the store. Aromatics are amongst the most important part of the structure of stock. The ultimate selection of what those aromatics are is often particular to a chef's personality, but it usually always contains carrot, celery, onion and garlic. Herbs, such as parsley, sage, thyme, marjoram, oregano or rosemary are often used, as well. Throw in a few peppercorns or whole cloves and you've got a stellar "bouquet" on which to build your stock flavor. All of these ingredients are strained out in the end so it's kind of a fun way for a chef to put his or her own twist or spin on something traditional. Making stock reminds me of just how true it is that cooking really is an art. It's an expression of one's own vision and taste which I find so incredible and exciting. 

We focused on the basics and made chicken, fish, veggie and veal stocks. Each one was totally fascinating and I'm not even kidding. Fondo bruno, or brown stocks such as veal, get their color and name from the most important element, roasted bones. They develop a rich flavor and color as they roast and coating the bones in something like tomato paste only enriches the outcome. These stocks are simmered for a very long time, up to 12 hours or more. I can't even explain how amazing the kitchen smelled as the veal bones were roasting. Check out this graveyard o' bones and veggie skeletons: 
Fondo bianco, or white stocks like fish, chicken or veggie, are a bit less involved. Bones and other aromatics are brought to a boil for anywhere from 20 minutes (as in fish stock) to 2 hours (as in chicken). One thing to note on fumetto di pesce (fish stock) is that you want to use fish bones from very neutral and mild flavored fish like sole or flounder. If you use a fattier fish, like tuna or salmon, the flavor is far too strong and can result in an unfavorable stock. We worked for most of the day on all of these and I really wish I could convey how interesting it was to create something so flavorful from ingredients most people just toss right in the garbage.

The coolest part of the day for me was learning to make a consommé. People, this is a pain in the ass thing to make. I've always seen consommé on menus and wondered what the hoopla was about it. It's expensive and always just seemed like a bowl full of chicken broth to me. I mean, what's exciting about that? Well well well, let me just tell you. Consommé is so far from just a bowl of broth. It's a deeply layered, rich flavored soup that is clarified over and over to create a translucent liquid free from any and all impurities. They can be made from any stock but the most common are made from beef, poultry or game. The process is detailed and delicate, involving mixing a lean protein and vegetable base, to be cooked into the stock thus creating a "raft" that collects impurities as it simmers over time. I can't really get into detail about how you do it, I'll just explain that it's meticulous and incredibly neat. If you're successful, your consommé will come out completely clarified, lovely and full of depth. In all honesty, this is the dish I'm most proud of to date. Yes, I'm serious. It didn't hurt that Chef Guido said it was exquisite:
Yeah, totally just a bowl of broth.

In addition to all the stock work, we made a couple of basic but essential sauces. We did salsa di pomodoro (tomato sauce) and pesto (basil sauce). The fun part of authentic tomato sauce in Italy is that it begins with a soffritto which is a cooked mixture of aromatic herbs and veggies in which a chef can, once again, put their own signature twist on. It's the foundation of so many Italian sauces and most commonly includes carrot, onion and celery, once again. With pesto, it's native to Genoa (on the Ligurian Sea) and comes from the word 'pestare' which means to crush or beat. I've only ever made pesto in the food processor and guess what? It's almost shameful to do so! Originally, pesto was made in a mortar and pestle in order to crush everything together while leaving the basil intact enough to have a strong presence and flavor. Pesto is one of my very favorite things on earth and I swear to you, I could eat it in or on anything. Mine turned out really great but, let's get serious, it's a tough thing to screw up:

On a side note, we also fried up our stuffed olives from the other day:
They were just ok, to be honest. The filling is pretty involved, made of chicken, pork butt, beef chuck and even chicken livers, yet all of the flavor got completely lost in my opinion. They just tasted like crunchy, oily green olives. Boooo!

I got a whole lot out of this day in the kitchen and I'm glad for that. I'm learning ever so slowly but surely just how incredible the world of cooking really is. It far exceeds anything I've known so far and continues to amaze me. The reason behind my passion is constantly confirmed in the most unexpected ways and for that I'm so grateful and happy.

1 comment:

Allie A said...

This is by far my favorite post. Such an amazing explanation of different stocks and sauces and how they are made -- I am definitely a consumer who has taken for granted what goes into their creation. And it made me giggle thinking of our nights making pesto in my crappy blender...I guess I need to fork over some cash for a mortar and pestle? Such a cool photo of the "bone and veggie graveyard" -- is this something I might be able to learn? Or will I just end up calling you like usual to tell you how much of a disaster I've made? hee hee So proud of you.