Last week when I was sick I had a real hankering for my mother’s chicken broth. Unlike most people, chicken soup isn’t necessarily something I associate with being sick. My mother has always made her own broth, simmering it for hours and using it for Mexican rice or green enchilada sauce or just a bowl of the hot liquid with bits of torn corn tortillas and a squeeze of lemon juice. Technically it was stock – she used chicken on the bone which converted it into a gelatinous wobbling block after it had been refrigerated – but the nomenclature made no difference. A big pot of hot, slow-cooked broth on the stove was as routine as a pot of soaking pinto beans.
Sometimes it amazes me to think that at my age my mother had two children and managed to cook mostly from scratch everyday. She didn’t work, but that’s still no small feat. Here I am, yes with a full-time job, but no children to care after or husband to make demands on my free time. Just me. It seems only appropriate that I learn to make a halfway decent chicken stock myself. Although it’s not a “sick food” for me (that would be plain white rice with butter or hot tea with lemon), the thought of a steaming bowl of the stuff to break up the phlegm invading my chest was irresistible.
So, on a frosty Saturday morning, I got up, trudged in my boots through the alley’s crunchy fresh snow to get my desperately needed laundry started, made the trip to the library I had been looking forward to all week (and wasn’t about to let a cold or the cold stop), then picked up my stock ingredients at Jewel. I decided to use chicken leg quarters because, at $.99/lb, they were the cheapest option available. Because you’re cooking the stock for a long time, you’re extracting all the flavor from the meat and the bones. This is not the place to spring for $5.99/lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts. The remaining ingredients were pretty standard – an onion, some celery, some carrots, a lemon, and some fresh thyme and bay leaves. The corn tortillas and peppercorns were already at home.
The first thing I did was get to butchering the leg quarters so they would fit better in my pot. This isn’t all that difficult, provided you have a large knife and a little bit of upper body strength. I bent the leg into itself, holding the far ends of the thigh and the drumstick together and cutting through the bulbous part until I reached the gristle of the joint. Once that was done, I cut through the meat on top and pressed down on the knife until it went all the way through the bone. I don’t by any means have the best knife, so as long as you have one on which you can press down on both ends, you can do this too.
“Don’t leave out the bay leaves,” my mother said while dictating her recipe to me. “I’ve made the broth without them before and it just doesn’t taste the same.” Keeping that in mind, I threw a couple of the woody leaves into the pot, along with of the cut leg quarters, a quartered onion, two carrots and two celery stalks cut into thirds, two sprigs of thyme, 12 peppercorns, and a small handful of parsley that I happened to have in my refrigerator. I covered all of that with about two quarts of water and set it on the stove to boil while I went about cleaning up my mess.
Making your own chicken stock is pretty much a chop and drop endeavor, but the one step you do have to pay attention to is removing the scum from the surface. Once the water starts to boil you’ll see white stuff come floating to the top – just drag a spoon across it and remove as much of it as you can. Just check back on the stock a few times during its 3-4 hours of cooking time to remove more and this will keep your broth looking nice and clear.
Four hours later, after I had extracted the limp vegetables and the chicken that had given its all, I poured a couple ladles full of steaming stock into a bowl, tore up a few pieces of a corn tortilla that I had charred on the stove, and let a good torrent of lemon juice stream down on top of it. It was every bit as good as that simple broth my mother used to serve – warm, full of chicken flavor, and ultimately satisfying on a cold day.
5 pounds chicken on the bone
1 large onion, quartered
1 large carrot, cut into thirds
2 celery stalks, cut into thirds
2 bay leaves
6 springs fresh flat parsley
½ teaspoon dried thyme or a few sprigs of fresh thyme
12 whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon salt
Place all the ingredients in an 8-quart stock pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat. As the stock approaches a boil, remove any impurities that rise to the top by skimming with a spoon. Reduce the heat and simmer the stock for 3-4 hours partly covered, continuing to skim impurities from time to time while the stock cooks. Taste after 3 hours for the strength of stock you want. Add one teaspoon salt, or to taste.
Remove from heat and let the stock sit for 10-15 minutes, then ladle through a fine strainer. If you’re using the stock immediately, remove fat from the stock by skimming with a ladle. If you’re reserving the stock for later use, pour into a vessel and refrigerate. The fat will float to the top and, when cold, will solidify and you’ll be able to spoon it off in a sheet. When cold the stock will also be quite solid, much like a chicken jell-o because, well, with the gelatin having been extracted from the bones that’s exactly what it is.
You can cook some fresh vegetables and poach some new chicken (the chicken you’ve cooked with should be utterly flavorless by this point and not much worth eating) for a lovely chicken soup, or you can serve it with a charred corn tortilla like I did. The splash of lemon juice at the end is of utmost importance. The extra bit of fresh acidity brings plain chicken stock to a completely different level.
Makes 1 ½-2 quarts.
I’ve decided to start calculating how much the food I make costs. It’s always interesting to see how freshly made food compares to processed, pre-made food. Sure, it takes more effort to make it, but the cost is usually comparable, if not cheaper, and the difference in taste is immeasurable. I’ll leave out staples – such as salt, pepper, oil, and dried herbs that I typically keep in stock – because the cost of those will be negligible.
Here I left out the parsley, because you can buy a whole bunch for about $1 and use it for numerous things, and the lemon, because you just need a squeeze and then you can use the lemon elsewhere. Corn tortillas are about $1 for three dozen, so their inclusion adds just mere cents to the total. In the end I got a good 8 cups of stock and will calculate thusly.
5 lbs chicken leg quarters – $5.00
2 fresh bay leaves – $0.20
2 fresh thyme sprigs – $0.28
2 carrots – $0.18
2 celery stalks – $0.32
1 onion – $0.56
Price per cup: $0.82
To save the stock for later use, I froze it in half cup portions in this great King Cube silicone ice cube tray I found at Sur La Table. Store the frozen cubes in a freezer bag and you’ve got homemade stock for use any time.