Boston is currently having it’s second (or third, depending on which news source you believe) snowiest winter in recorded history. I’m all for it. I am probably also in the minority of people that actually want to surpass the number one spot of 107 inches. In fact, it’s been less than a month since our first giant snowstorm buried us under nearly two feet of snow. With all these bonus days off, late starts and dilapidated transit system screeching to a halt, I’ve been making tons of stews and braises. Although, in all honesty, that’s no different than any other winter.
If you’re anything like me, I usually start off any dish with onions, celery, carrots and garlic and then I’ll add in mushrooms or some root vegetables and go from there. Half the time I don’t really have a plan and I just dive right in and clean out the fridge at the same time. Plus there’s always some things hidden in cupboards that I’ve forgotten about that can get used to up too.
One staple of my cupboards is stock. Vegetable, chicken, beef, veal…it’s all fantastic and helps to elevate any dish you create. If you’re cooking grits, swap out the water for stock for an extra boost of flavor. Stocks are the basis for great soups and stews. Why spend the time flavoring water when you can already start with some pre-flavored water. The hard part in having a winter like this current one is keeping a big stockpile (no pun intended) of stock around. If you use it all the time, you fly through it and end up spending a ton of money on it. If you’re in my situation, trekking to the store on sidewalks the size of snow shovels and carrying home an extra 10 pounds of stock trying not to slip on black ice isn’t exactly ideal. So here’s a helpful hint: make your own vegetable stock.
Ok, so that doesn’t exactly sounds like any sort of exciting or revelatory tip. But this is what is: use the scraps of all your vegetables! I keep a freezer bag on hand when I’m prepping dinner. Carrot peels, carrot ends, celery leaves and ends, mushroom stems, the top or a bell pepper, the hairy bottom of a leek, stems of fresh herbs, the skins of garlic, the ends of onions…it all goes in the bag. Each time I make a meal, I pull the bag out of the freezer, throw the scraps in, seal it back up and then pop it back into the freezer. When the bag reaches full capacity (or I’m low on stock) I grab a stockpot, dump the contents of the bag in and top it off with water. If I remember, I’ll even throw in a few peppercorns and some bay leaves. Then I crank the heat, bring it to a boil and then let it simmer for about 45 minutes to an hour. After that, you just have to strain your scraps and divide your stock among containers. And now you have stock. Plus you’ve even re-purposed what most likely would have gone into the trash right away.
Now, if you do it this way, your stock won’t be the same every time. If you want your homemade stock to be the same each time, that’s when you need to measure and put the exact ingredients in every time. But the truth is, unless you’re doing a broth or require a specific flavor, it really doesn’t matter. The scrap stock is just another way to add more flavor and extend the life of your sad and forgotten vegetable scraps and fill up your pantry whilst saving money.
There are some things to keep in mind. Adding in hot peppers, like Jalapeno and Poblano, will add a bit of spice to your stock. I usually don’t add potato peels because I don’t think there’s all that much flavor in them, but if you want to add them, wash them first. There’s way too much dirt on those to just throw in. If you want to go the extra mile, line your strainer with a few layers of cheesecloth. This will catch any dirt particles that were left on the vegetables.
Also, make sure to remove any stickers stuck on your veggies. Remember, some poor sap got stuck placing a sticker onto each vegetable, so show your appreciation of their handiwork. Be sure to store scraps in the freezer, this way you can fill the bag up over a number of weeks.
Oh, and before I forget, you can make chicken stock too! The next time you get one of the deliciously amazing rotisserie chickens from the market, save all the bones and scraps and juice (you can even freeze them until you’re ready). Dump it into a pot, add your vegetable scraps and bring to a boil, then let it simmer for a couple hours to really get all the flavor out of those chicken bones. It also works with rib bones and turkey scraps and…you get the idea.
Now, save a bag of scraps so you can make stock and bring your dinner to the next level.