Once upon a time, stock was considered so important to cooking that the French called it fond de cuisine: the foundation. But they also considered most stockmaking the province of what the essential reference Larousse Gastronomique calls “cooking in the grand manner,” meaning at the restaurant level. “Only a limited use is made of these fonds in practical day-to-day cooking,” states the book’s 1961 American edition.
The best home cooks I know might disagree. They don’t concoct 10 varieties of stock, as in Larousse, but they still like to keep homemade chicken or veal stock in their freezer, awaiting not-so-limited use in soups, stew, braises, sauces. Making it can take the better part of a morning: There’s the procuring of the requisite bones, the browning, the boiling, the skimming, the straining.
We vegetarians have it a little easier, honestly. Sure, it’s hard — nearly impossible, actually — to find decent vegetable broth at the store. But if you cook vegetables regularly, you have the makings of it at your fingertips, no procurement
Notice that I called it broth rather than stock. It’s tempting to use the terms interchangeably, and sometimes I do, but “stock” indicates the presence of that rich depth of flavor and velvety texture that come from the slow cooking of animal bones. Some vegetable stock recipes can lay claim to depth by calling for an initial roasting or sauteing, and broth can certainly be reduced and concentrated. Silkiness is another story; you’re never going to be able to boil the stuff down into that sticky veal-stock-based elixir called demi-glace.
Still, vegetable broth is a wonderfully versatile item to have around, for many of the same reasons meat eaters would want a veal or chicken stock. It adds a clean, vibrant backdrop of flavor to dishes you don’t want to dilute with just plain water. My favorite corn risotto wouldn’t be the same without corn broth, which I make with not just the stripped cobs but also the husks and silks.
Last year, during my adventure in homesteading in Maine, my sister and I had our hands full of vegetables once the harvest started coming in. And we made a half-dozen single-ingredient broths, turning the peels and trimmings of, say, parsnips into a broth that we used in soups that featured that vegetable and others like it. The broths filled almost half of an upright freezer in the basement, and most days we would grab one or the other for a specific application. It was a luxury.
These days, my freezer space is confined to that little compartment on top of my refrigerator, so I need vegetable broths that are more versatile. I take the same approach with the trimmings, but without segregating the ingredients. Every time I cut up an onion, I rinse the root end and papery skin that would normally be headed for the compost and instead stuff it into a quart-size zip-top bag that I store in the freezer. I do the same with other neutrally flavored vegetables — woody ends of asparagus, celery bottoms, carrot peels, chard stems (no strong, bitter stuff like kale or broccoli rabe). When I have two bags stuffed full, I combine their contents with water, a couple of bay leaves and a few peppercorns and simmer for a half-hour or so. The result is a golden-hued liquid that I strain, cool, freeze in ice cube trays and store in bags.
Sometimes, of course, you need broth right now, and maybe you don’t have those trimmings saved up. In that case, you can certainly approximate my approach by cutting up two quarts’ worth of whole vegetables and throwing them in a stockpot with water. Keep it to two onion, four or five carrots and celery stalks, maybe a clove of garlic or two, and you’ll be in business.
If your freezer is crammed as full as mine is, you might be attracted to the idea of something you can keep in the fridge instead. In her book “Homemade With Love,” popular blogger Jennifer Perillo includes instruction for a bouillon that uses salt to cure a pureed-to-paste set of vegetables. You use a mere teaspoon per cup of water, so in a single quart jar you’ve got the makings of almost 200 cups of broth — a quantity that could be a challenge to get through in the three months the bouillon lasts, which is why the recipe provided here cuts the yield in half.
For a richer base better suited to heartier, cold-weather dishes, I turn to mushrooms. And when I saw an advance copy of the “Vedge” cookbook, co-author Rich Landau’s mushroom stock recipe jumped out at me. I had eaten dishes based on that stock and others at his and wife Kate Jacoby’s stellar restaurant in Philly, and I had liked the food so much I agreed to write the book’s foreword. Landau uses mushrooms in three forms — fresh, dried and powdered — to create an umami-packed liquid deep enough to earn the moniker “stock.”
It might even pass muster with the French.