Sunday, 27 June 2010

Taking stock — and making chicken soup

There’s a cooking gene. Some of us have it. I’ve known since I was a teenager that I want to cook things, and want to find out more about food, where it comes from, and how it relates to its culture. This is different to just liking to eat. I like that too — the pleasure of a good meal, the shared table, of food and drinks matching. But deep down, it’s the preparation, the act of taking stuff, and making it into something else, that fascinates me. The alchemy that turns flour and eggs into so many different noodles, tortellini, spaetzle, dumplings. The remarkable ability of tomatoes and basil, or lemon grass, chilli, and coriander, or butter, apples, and cinnamon to come together and become something more than the parts. So, yeah, I’ve got the cooking gene.

However, that gene can become suppressed at times. For the last couple of years my life has been a roller coaster of domestic, work, emotional, and family concerns. A parent’s death; the slow end of a twenty-year relationship; a changing work environment culminating in a new job; challenging family interactions; moving out of the family home into a little flat; the beginning, and spectacular, explosive, unexpected end of a new relationship. Somewhere through all of this, the cooking was lost. There were practical reasons — my job has me away from home regularly; the flat has only simple cooking equipment (no oven, for instance); there’s a huge range of good, mainly cheap restaurants open all hours, just a short walk from my front door ...

But there are only so many schnitzels from Una’s or Bill and Tony’s that one person can eat. At some stage, recently, I began feeling restless on the cooking front. Time to re-assert control; to bring some stability and healing back into my life; to get beyond the sadness that had enveloped me. So, what better way of taking stock than to start cooking a bit more. Making the effort — planning to cook; shopping; and, finally, actually doing It. Inspired by the recent gift of Maeve O’Mara’s Food Safari, and the example of friends Adele and Helen, who are cooking and blogging, Julie Powell-style, their way through that book, I turned to it for inspiration. And one cold weekend, on a whim, I tried my hand at that most basic, fundamental, pure technique dish — chicken soup.

What could be simpler, or more challenging, than chicken soup? Basically, chicken stock. With matzo balls. Not having a Jewish or Mitteleuropa bone in my body, I know nothing, zip, nada, zero, about the matzo ball part of the recipe. But I do know a bit about stock. I’ve been making that for years. How hard can it be?

Well, stock is one of those things — lots of comment from the authorities. Meat only. Meat plus vegetables. Vegies make it go off. Should never come to boil. Should boil hard. Should boil a bit. Will last in fridge for weeks. Will go off in minutes if not refrigerated immediately. Will go sour if put in fridge too soon ... Help!

I resisted my usual approach — full steam ahead, damn the torpedoes — and actually read the recipe in Food Safari. Simple; not too prescriptive. Chicken, onions, carrots, parsnips, leeks. Simmer. Skim. And so I did.

Chicken frames from my local butcher;
into a stock pot, water. It always astounds me just how much scum surfaces in making stock. Proteins, dissolved as the water warms, then polymerise and are thrown out of solution as the temperature continues to rise. Skimming all of it seems impossible — a Sisyphean task. The usual guidance is something simple like “Skim the scum that rises”, or similar. So I try. At some point I give up.
Veggies chopped coarsely. No need to peel. After the leeks go in, my flat smells wonderful.To boil, or to simmer gently? I have a very simple cooking set up. Precise control for gentle simmering seems unlikely. And so it proves. After a while the stock is boiling. And, sometimes, at that point, the amount of rising scum reduces substantially.

And, really, that’s it. After the prescribed two hours, I strain the solids out, let it cool, and refrigerate. The next day, chicken fat has solidified into a solid disk on top, which can be gingerly removed. This is the original schmaltz — the Yiddish word for chicken fat . If you want to be like Elvis, you can use the chicken fat to fry up your peanut butter and banana sandwiches.
You can clarify a bit more by straining through a cloth. This can be slow, so don’t do it when you are in a hurry — say, when you need to get an early start on a DSC trip to Mudgee... Or Stephanie Alexander gives detailed instructions for clarifying with egg whites. This is truly a magical process — real kitchen alchemy. Whoever first thought “I know! I’ll chop those vegetables, beat those egg whites, mix all into the soup, and cook it until the stock is clear.” Not intuitive.

The matzo balls are simple, but again require good technique. Matzo meal, eggs, oil, and flavouring. Maeve uses just salt and cinnamon, but the recipe on the packet adds an onion sweated in some oil. They swell a lot, and are quite delicate at first — keep the simmer gentle, as a rolling boil breaks them up. Give a good squeeze when forming them, to help here.
So, the final bit. How did it taste? The chicken soup was fantastic. A real depth and clarity of flavour, unmatched by commercial tinned or packet stock, and a world away from stock powder. Chicken essence in a bowl. Reasonably clear. Deep golden yellow colour. As for the matzo balls — ho hum. They are bland stodge. Intended for people standing all day in a snowy field, hoeing turnips. I guess you have to have the matzo ball gene to look forward to this. Or maybe I just didn’t make them all that well. I’m genetically programmed to go for pasta or spuds for my stodge. Next time I’ll just throw in a handful of small soup pasta, and call it brodo (broth), the Italian name.

Since it is simple to make, and you can do gallons at a time then freeze some, it’s not an onerous task. And the result is so good, you’ll never look back on packaged stock again. The aroma in the kitchen, the sense of transforming ingredients into a lovely golden liquor — lovely by-products, that all appeal to my cooking gene.