Monday, April 29, 2013

Fairy tales, myths, and chicken stock


Whoever first conceived the notion of a bouillon cube must have been a true charlatan, a charlatan who deprived generations of home cooks of the delight of transforming simple ingredients into liquid gold. In their original conception, bouillon cubes were called portable soups and made from dehydrated vegetables and fat. Now they are made commercially and contain 1200 mg of sodium in a single cube.

Here it is, a rainy spring day, damp and chill, yet my kitchen is warm and cozy because I’m making chicken stock. I’ve always loved the story of stone soup, and this morning life imitated art. When I opened the refrigerator, the meaty carcass of last week’s chicken almost fell into my hands. I pulled out my stockpot, tossed in the carcass, and covered it with water.

While I waited for the water to come to a boil, I found carrot and celery sticks from last night’s crudité platter, the au jus from the original roast that I hadn’t bothered to turn into gravy, and three lonely cloves of garlic. Each of these items alone could have been discarded easily, but they all were welcomed into the pot.

At this point, I could have left well enough alone. The soup would be fine as is, but I do like to gild the lily. A yellow onion studded with cloves (from Penzy’s, of course), a few whole black peppercorns (also from Penzy’s), a sprinkle of sea salt all joined the bubbling jumble in the pot. In the crisper, I saw the green leaves that topped the organic celery, the part that many home cooks toss without thinking, but today they, too, were added to the soup.

In an hour or two, I’ll strain the liquid and refrigerate it. Tonight we’ll have chicken rice soup, and there will be golden stock left over to use later in the week, in recipes that call for a bouillon cube.

Maybe this is more the story of Rumpelstiltskin, of spinning worthless straw into gold. But the funny little man in that tale didn’t tell how he made the transformation. Instead he used his secret to blackmail the queen. There is no secret to making a pot of soup, not even a real recipe. Use what you find in your refrigerator and you’ll find that you, too, can turn leftovers into something even better than gold—because you can’t eat gold. Ask Midas. But that’s another story.