Stocks and sauces are the backbone of the kitchen. Stock (or fond) provides the base for so many dishes, like soups, sauces, stews and braises so it’s got to be spot on. Produce a bad stock and it will be cloudy, and greasy and have the wrong flavour.
Good quality bones are essential. The veges and herbs must be fresh.
The chicken carcasses must be clean and free of impurities. The veal bones must be roasted until there is some caramalization but over-roast them and they will be bitter. The fish stock only takes a short time to cook. Overdo it and it will smell of ammonia. And always use cold water and bring it slowly to a simmer. Good stock takes time and patience.
Today Chef is making four stocks: white chicken, brown veal, fish and vegetable. Browning, chopping, sautéing, cleaning, slicing and dicing and in no time, there are four gently bubbling stock pots on the stove.
He devotes his time between the pots carefully ladling off the scum that rises to the top. It’s a time consuming but critical part of the process. He uses the base of the ladle to gently move the yukky stuff to the edge of the pot so that it’s easy to scoop out. It’s a classy action.
After passing the chicken, fish and vege stocks several times through a conical sieve or chinoise they are ready for tasting. The chicken stock is clear and pure. The fish is delicate with a hint of the herbs and spices and a dash of lemon juice. The vegetable stock is fresh and flavoursome, which is surprising given that bones are usually responsible for most of the flavour in a stock. Several students comment that juice from a pot of veges has never tasted so good. Even the veal stock, which hasn’t finished cooking, tastes gutsy.
So, I leave the class with notes saying “quality ingredients, temperature, cooking times, skimming and passing”, and a determination to create clear tasty stocks. There’s going to be a lot to do in the practical and I’m relieved when Chef says we will do the chicken, fish and veal stocks in pairs, and the vegetable stock on our own.
I team up with Caitlin and we plan our approach. She’ll start on the veg and I will do the meat. Quelle horreur. The veal bones arrive as four complete necks. Great chunks of meat and bone that need to be ‘cleavered’ into pieces. This creates a larger surface area to extract maximum deliciousness. A dull thud starts up around the kitchen but it isn’t rhythmical. For most of us this is a new action that’s repetitive and blister inducing. It’s really hard but I soon work out that if you turn the neck over and chop it from the other side as well, it weakens and releases more quickly. What relief when the first one comes away.
Once they’re browning in the oven I examine the chicken carcasses. I remove all the ghastly bits along with any fat. After a good wash to get rid of any excess blood and other pesky little stubborn veiny suckers, the bones are covered with cold water and brought up to the boil slowly forcing any impurities to coagulate and rise to the surface for skimming.
We get the fish on. It seems the simplest. It only has bones, onions and aromatics and a short cooking time. But we taste it and it’s not right. It’s weak and insipid. We call Chef over – “too much water”. Can we bring it back? We pass it and put it back on to simmer in the hope that some reduction will give us the intensity we need. It helps but it’s not brilliant. We’re really disappointed but the other three stocks are tasting great. We’ve got more passing and skimming to do when Chef says he wants to start tasting in 10 minutes. That means we’ve got to get those benches spic and span and get the stocks out of the pots and into trays. We make it.
I grin as Chef’s spoon darts back into the chicken stock for a second taste. It’s really good. The vege and veal stocks get his approval too. He knows about the fish so doesn’t dwell on it. I plan to use the chicken stock for asparagus and prosciutto risotto dinner and freeze the rest (but only for a maximum of 3 months). It wont last that long.