If you were to stop by my kitchen (were stopping by still allowed), you’d likely find a pot of stock murmuring gently on a back burner. Last spring, when everyone else was baking bread in the chilly, scary beginning of the pandemic, I was making stock. To my mind, it’s the magical kitchen elixir that will carry us all through. Plus, it portends delicious winter meals to come.
Stocks are the backbone for all of the soups, saucy stews, braises, and pots of beans I want make this winter. Unless you’re a vegetarian, the most versatile homemade stock to have on hand is chicken. It’s fine to pull out a box of stock from the cupboard for a few tablespoons to round out a sauce. But if you have your heart set on a dish whose very soul is a rich and flavorful liquid, try making your own. Your efforts will be rewarded.
Besides, homemade stocks are thrifty. My family has not grappled with food insecurity for a very long time. But having plenty is not a license to waste, especially as hunger lurks all around us. While collecting surplus chicken bones, lobster shells, leek greens, or mushroom stems will not feed my neighbor, composing a pot of stock reminds me to make the best use of all that I have. It is a practice of gratitude.
Stock is an ideal lazy winter afternoon project. Once the initial preparation is done, it mostly takes care of itself, while you sit on the sofa with a mystery novel and a blanket over your knees. One pot will give you the basis for dinner that very night, plus enough for the freezer, too.
You can use a whole chicken or parts, but I most often use the scraps of other meals. Freeze the trimmings from raw chickens (necks and backbones, wing tips, and giblets, except the liver) and the bones from roasted chickens until you have about three-quarters of a pound of scraps for each quart of water you want to use. If necessary, supplement your freezer stash with wings or thighs, which will be the most economical (unless you’re lucky enough to live near an Asian market or a local farm where backs and feet are available — their natural gelatin will give your stock more body).
For 4 quarts of basic stock, add 3 pounds of chicken parts along with washed, trimmed, and diced aromatic vegetables (2 carrots, 2 celery stalks, 2 onions — or the green parts of 2 large leeks — 3 smashed garlic cloves, about 10 stalks of parsley), as well as a teaspoon of whole peppercorns, 2 whole cloves, a bay leaf, 3 or 4 sprigs of thyme, and a teaspoon of salt. Finally, a half cup of any dry white wine or half a lemon will give the stock some additional flavor and acidity.
Bring the stock to a very gentle simmer — boiling will make it cloudy. In fact, if you restrain yourself from stirring, and pass the stock through a fine mesh strainer, you won’t need to skim the stock as it cooks. Your stock should bubble softly for about 2 hours. (Add additional water if your ingredients start to poke out of the liquid.) Strain the stock, pressing the solids gently to extract all the liquid.
If you would like to further concentrate the flavor, you may reduce the stock further over medium heat, but I have found that about 2 hours of cooking time results in good flavor and body. Chill the stock in the refrigerator. It should become slightly gelled and the fat will rise to the top (so it’s easy to remove if you want). Use the stock within a day or two or freeze in small containers.
One dish I save for when I have homemade stock is risotto. It will use just half of a four-quart batch of stock. You can make one in 45 minutes with almost any ingredients you have on hand. In winter, I like the ever-available butternut squash. I’ve added bacon (because I have some) and sage (because, even in winter, its leaves are still available in the garden).
Risotto With Butternut Squash, Bacon, and Sage
1 butternut squash, about 1 lb.
2 doz. fresh sage leaves
8 cups chicken stock
1 med. onion or a large leek
6 oz. thick-sliced bacon
2 cups Arborio rice
½ cup dry white wine
5 Tbsp. unsalted butter
½ cup Reggiano Parmesan cheese, plus extra for sprinkling
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
Put the stock on to warm to a simmer, peel and dice the onion or leek, and peel, core, and cut the butternut squash into half-inch cubes.
Put the squash and 6 sage leaves into a wide, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Season with salt and pepper and add one cup of chicken stock. Cover partially and cook until just tender but not soft (5 to 10 minutes). Remove from heat, set squash and its liquid aside in a bowl, and wipe the pan.
While the squash is cooking, fry half of the bacon in a small skillet. Once crisp, remove and set aside to drain. Fry 8 of the sage leaves in the bacon fat until crisp. Set aside with the bacon. Mince the remaining sage leaves.
Chop the rest of the bacon into half-inch dice and place in the saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring, until the bacon begins to brown. Add 2 tablespoons of the butter and, once melted, add the onion or leek and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in the minced sage, then the rice, along with a healthy pinch of salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring until the grains of rice begin to turn opaque, about 2 minutes. Increase the heat to medium high, stir in the wine, and cook until it has been mostly absorbed into the rice. Add just enough of the warm stock to barely cover the rice, stir well, and reduce the heat to medium.
Keep the rice at a gentle simmer and continue to add more stock, a ladle at a time, allowing each addition to be absorbed. Stir occasionally. After about 15 minutes, the rice will be almost cooked.
Stir in the cooked squash and its liquid, adding a bit more stock if needed. Cook for an additional 3 to 5 minutes, tasting for texture. The rice should be firm, but fully cooked and not crunchy.
Add the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter and cheese, stirring. If you prefer a looser risotto, as I do, add just a bit more stock. Taste for seasoning. When the rice has the texture and consistency you want, serve in bowls, garnished with crumbled bacon and fried sage leaves, as well as additional cheese.