Monday, April 9, 2007

Hammer & Chisel Soup

So often you see a recipe calling for chicken stock and the admonition "preferably homemade." I wonder how many home cooks actually take the time to make their own chicken stock. I try to imagine all those industrious souls who not only make their own stock, but make it in vast quantities and stash it away in their huge chest freezers.

Well, I'm not so very industrious and I don't have hardly any freezer space. But I do know the wonders of a homemade stock compared to the (mostly) tasteless commercial stuff you find at the supermarket. What I've found is that taking the extra step toward flavor by making your own stock is less a matter of motivation and more a matter of having the right tools.

Besides a good stock pot, which every serious cook should own, you need a means of cutting the chicken into pieces. And by that I don't mean just separating the joints from the carcass, but actually chopping the bird into pieces. For maximum flavor, it's important to crack the bones where all the flavorful collagen resides.

Cook a stock with cracked bones and nine times out of ten when you refrigerate that stock you will find that is has congealed almost into a Jello-like consistency. That's the effect of the collagen. You will hardly believe how much more flavor this chicken stock has compared to the stuff you normally buy at the store, especially if you use a quality bird, such as a pasture-raised chicken. You can buy these at Whole Foods, but they're even better if you know a local farmer or a supplier at the farmer's market.

I suppose you could do a good job of cracking the bones with a pair of poultry shears. I prefer to use a heavy butcher's cleaver, first separating the limbs from the carcass, then whacking away at all the pieces. If you don't have a butcher's cleaver or poultry shears, you could probably get the same result with a hammer and a heavy chisel. Cut the legs in two pieces, the wings in two, the thighs in two, the back in two, the breasts in several.

Into your stock pot put two stalks of celery cut into pieces, two medium carrots also cut into pieces (don't bother to peel it), one large yellow onion cut in half (also not peeled), a fistful of parsley with stems, a sprig or two of thyme and a half dozen pepper corns.

Pile the chicken pieces on top of the vegetables and cover with cold water to a depth of two or three inches. To keep the chicken completely submerged, I usually place on top of it a stainless device that's normally used for steaming vegetables. It opens like a fan and fits perfectly inside the stock pot. But you could also use a ceramic plate.

Bring the pot almost to a boil, then reduce the heat so it just simmers, with bubbles occasionally breaking the surface, for three or four hours. (Never boil chicken stock: It turns cloudy.) Use a spider-type ladle or a slotted spoon to remove all the big pieces from the stock. Then strain the liquid through a fine-meshed strainer. I usually strain it into a big bowl, clean out my stock pot, then pour the stock back into the stock pot. Then make a place in your refrigerator and chill the pot overnight.

The next day you can spoon off the fat that has settled on the surface of the stock. If you are a fan of cooking with chicken fat--or schmaltz--you'll want to save this for another time. In any case, you now have that "preferably homemade" chicken stock you've seen advocated in all those recipes.

A perfect use for your stock would be the saffron-scented broth I made for our family Easter dinner last night. Saffron is an etheral flavor unlike any other with a warm, orange color and intense perfume. It suits particularly well this transitional time of year between winter and spring when you want something sophisticated to acknowledge that you are tired of winter vegetables but the spring harvest is still barely in view.

All you need do is soak about 1 1/2 teaspoons of saffron threads in a small bowl of hot water for an hour. Then pour the saffron liquid into 2 quarts of chicken stock, simmer for about 10 minutes and season with salt and pepper to taste. You will need to strain the broth again to remove the saffron threads.

I like to serve this aromatic saffron-infused broth with croutons from a well-made, rustic bread. To make the croutons, cut the bread into large cubes. Toss the cubes in a good amount of extra-virgin olive oil, season with salt, and bake in a 350-degree oven until lightly browned.

Serve the broth hot, with about three croutons in each bowl.

Oh, and if any of you were wondering, last night's dinner was "exquisite," in the words of my brother-in-law, Tom. For hors d'oeuvres we served bruschetta with sauteed mushrooms, rosemary and pecorino cheese along with lemon-scented asparagus and a saffron aioli. The asparagus was garnished with tiny violets that are blooming wild in the front yard.

The meal began with the saffron broth and croutons described above, followed by a salad of the mache we recently rescued from the garden with orange sections and yellow blossoms from our bolting tat soi. The entree consisted of our favorite lamb shanks: they were melt-in-your-mouth delicious. I don't think a single bite went uneaten. We served those with mashed turnips and potatoes that took nicely to the lamb braising sauce, along with sweet and sour Brussels sprouts, very appropriate considering how cold it has been lately. For dessert, my wife made her famous strawberry shortcake. The crumbly, bisquit-style shortcakes are so easy yet so delicious next to the juicy strawberries and a big dollop of whipped cream.

To pair with the lamb, Tom brought an outstanding bottle of 1997 Margaux Chateau Palmer, as well as a 2005 Dead Letter Office Shiraz.

Family and friends all went home happy and full.

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