Here at Food52, we love recipes -- but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.
Today: Food52's Assistant Editor, Marian Bull, shows you how to make soups and stews more flavorful with whatever vegetable scraps you have on hand -- or the cheapest produce at the market.
If you're not already making your own vegetable stock, you should start now.
All it requires are vegetable scraps -- or, if you have none, a couple bags of cheap produce -- plus a few unattended hours on the stove. It is also leaps and bounds more flavorful, and less expensive, than the boxed variety. This cannot be emphasized enough.
I keep a gallon-sized zip-top bag in my freezer, and fill it with any vegetable bits and bobs that I discard while cooking. Then I turn my trash into treasure, and let a pot of stock simmer away on the stove for a few hours, after which I have a flavorful broth to add to almost anything. It costs me nothing more than time.
When you begin to make your own stock, its flavor will change with the seasons, and no two batches will be identical. In the summer it may taste of sweet corn and fennel; in the winter, leeks and kale and onions are your star players. Avoid anything bitter, like dandelion greens; avoid potatoes, which will make things cloudy; avoid artichokes, according to Tara Duggan; avoid woody herbs like rosemary. Beets will turn your pot pink.
Some of my favorite things to add are kale stems, carrot nubbins, fennel, alliums of all kinds, bay leaves, and thyme. I also, always, add Parmesan rinds. Whatever you choose to use, vegetable stock will soon become a broth you consider serving on its own, rather than a placeholder in your recipes.
How to Make Vegetable Stock Without a Recipe
1. Gather all of your vegetables. Either pull your bag-o-scraps from the freezer, or gather a few carrots, some celery, an onion that you can cut in half but don't need to peel, a handful of garlic cloves (also unpeeled), and some herbs. Grab, too, any spices you like: I'm fond of peppercorns, and fennel seeds are nice complements to fennel stalks. For me, a gallon-sized bag of scraps is usually enough for a standard soup pot or Dutch oven; more vegetables will mean a more flavorful broth.
2. Add your vegetables to a large pot of salted water. (You can soften them in oil first, and then add water, but I often skip this step and my stock turns out just fine.) Bring your water to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, and partially cover it. Simmer your stock for at least an hour or two; if I have the time, I'll let mine go for three to four hours. It will start to look like a vegetable graveyard and smell like the beginnings of dinner. More time will mean deeper flavor, so just taste as the time passes, add salt as needed, and remove from heat when you like what you have.
3. In the last ten minutes of cooking, I like to add a little white wine or dry vermouth. If you have a bottle that needs using up, and you like the taste of wine in your cooking, dump it in there. Save the last swig for yourself.
4. Using a fine mesh strainer or a colander with small holes, drain your vegetables and stock into another large bowl or pot. If you're feeling shaky, do this in the sink. Go ahead and discard your cooked vegetables. One time I tried making a puréed soup from my stock remnants; I ended up with brownish-green muck, whose consumption I do not recommend to anyone.
5. Strain out any lingering solids, then let your stock cool before storing it the fridge (for up to a week) or the freezer (for up to three months). Or, just use it immediately -- start with risotto, or beans, or soup, or gravy, or in any recipe that calls for chicken stock -- it's a much better substitute than its boxed equivalents. Vegetarians, rejoice.
Tell us: How do you make your vegetable stock?
Photos by James Ransom