Escoffier called them " les fonds de cuisine "--the foundations of classical cooking. But when was the last time you made stock? And who cooks classic French food anymore?
Homemade stock is one of those things that have silently crept off into that good night of food fashion. One minute we're poring over French cookbooks and are up to our (well-roasted) shinbones in reduced sauces and ragouts. Now we're suddenly Italian and plucking vine-ripened San Marzano tomatoes for pasta sauce. The next thing you know, we'll be researching estate-bottled fish sauces.
Times change and so do tastes. Quality does not. Maybe it's time to revive the cult of stock.
At one point I too was an ardent stock-ite. I confess: For years, I secreted plastic bags full of bones and vegetable trimmings in my freezer. A couple of times a year, I would break them out and cook up a big pot of stock. I remember the process--the browning of the bones, the skimming, the reducing--always made me feel like a cook.
That was years ago, though, when the romance of the kitchen outweighed any practical considerations. In my scheme of cooking, stock-making has, for the last 10 years at least, been definitely relegated to the back burner. On the rare occasions when stock was needed, I was far more likely to do a quick doctor-up job on canned than to make my own from scratch.
But each time I felt like a cheater. Maybe it was nothing more than the hold of the stock cult; maybe it was something more. Maybe things prepared with homemade stock did taste better. But how much? Was it really worth the effort?
So one day I took my trusty old stockpot out of its hiding place, rinsed out the dust and went to work.
First, I roasted the meat. In this case, I used all the beef bones I could find in my market mixed with a nice meaty piece of neckbone (about 4 pounds of beef, total) and a package of chicken backs and necks (between 3 1/2 and 4 pounds). Though people usually talk about beef stock and chicken stock, I prefer a combination of the two--the chicken adds a subtle sweetness to the beef. Many stock recipes call for veal bones, but they are added for texture more than flavor, and unless you're planning on demi-glace , they can be left out.
A little less than two hours unattended in a 450-degree oven left the meat nice and dark and crusty. (For a milder stock, you can boil the meats without roasting, but I like the deep-brown flavor that it gives.) After pouring off the rendered fat (of which there was a considerable amount), I put the meat in the stockpot: bones first, then the chicken.
To this I added things I found when I cleaned out the refrigerator--a couple of big woody carrots, a couple of limp stalks of celery (with its greens), a couple small onions, a half-dozen unpeeled cloves of garlic, a couple of over- the-hill tomatoes and several old, open-capped mushrooms. I covered this with water by a couple of inches and set it on the stove over high heat.
This is a good time to emphasize that what I put in the stockpot was what I found, not a hard-and-fast list of required ingredients. If I had them, I would have liked to have added another root vegetable (maybe a parsnip or turnip) and a leek or two. What I do not add (though many other recipes call for them) are any herbs or aromatics beyond a couple of bay leaves. In my previous stock-making life, I would play with different combinations tied up with the celery stalk in a bouquet garni . Not anymore. Any seasonings can be added when the stock is used. That is most emphatically true for salt, which can quickly become overpowering as the liquid evaporates in cooking. I also leave out any vegetables with a cabbagey background. There is a mustard flavor in these that becomes overwhelming when boiled for a long time. No broccoli, no cauliflower, no way.
When the liquid was nearly boiling, I turned the heat down to low and skimmed the gray albumin foam that floated to the top. The French say to keep stock at a "smile"--a lovely description of that temperature at which bubbles float lazily to the top (a more learned friend says the English word "simmer" is similarly related, via "simper"). Too hard a boil and the heat will seal the outside of the meat, locking flavor in rather than oozing it out.
About 4 1/2 hours later, I pulled the stock off the stove. (In the old days, I put stock on before I went to bed and left it to cook overnight. Somehow, though, waking up to the smell of boiled chicken no longer seems appealing.) I ladled the liquid, roughly 16 cups in this batch, away from the bones and vegetables and through a fine strainer into containers, which I put directly into the refrigerator.