Another installment of “The Basics” has been long-time coming, and even longer overdue, but it’s finally here.
“The basics” of cooking are different for everyone, I think. Well, maybe not if you’re a restaurant chef—I think those “basics” they get from culinary school are pretty much the golden standard. Unless you’re training as a sushi chef… Then I think there’s that idiom that all you do is make rice for 3 years before you can even touch any fish. I’m sure there are other exceptions, too, but you get the idea. But no matter who you are or how you cook there are things you can always benefit from knowing how to do. A lot of these basics can be store-bought now and while, in some instances, these are fine, there is something to be said about some of these staples being homemade. Store-bought stocks (chicken, beef, veg, seafood, etc.) can all be bought in cartons at the store and are a very worthy substitute. Things like marinara/tomato sauce, pesto and hummus are on the fence for me; they’re good but making your own can be just as easy, quick and cost-effective as cracking open a jar or container so the route I take depends on my motivation-to-laziness ratio. Things like jarred roux and Alfredo “sauce” are criminal—like, seriously?
So, with “The Basics” I’ll show you my basics. Part of my gravitation towards making some of these things is out of not wanting to waste anything. I don’t want to sound like a hoarder but I hate to throw any foodstuffs away. I have a freezer full of egg whites stored in sealable bags in singles and pairs (leftovers from when I’ve only needed the yolk for something—a testament to the amount of Carbonara and ice cream I make), containers of rendered bacon, pork, and duck fat. For making various stocks and broths I save the forest-green tops of leeks, cleaned and roughly chopped; bagsful of yellow onion scraps like the tops, root-end, skin and tough outer layers; the shells and tails from EZ-peel shrimp; the carcasses of roasted chickens and backbones of ones jointed, and so much more. It might look a little crazy to someone else, but to me these scraps are essentials to making a variety of recipes, from stocks and sauces to mousses and meringues. Besides, the actual crazy thing is the bag labeled “Organs” in my freezer (in the dark, scary basement, of course). The other reason I like to make my own basics (sometimes) is because I think it gives me a better sense of the bigger picture—like, I don’t know, you can’t be a Rock God without learning the basics of music (I turned on the radio today and realized this was a terrible example), so knowing how to make the basics gives you a better sense of how to cook (not to mention confidence).
So without further ado…
Making a good vegetable stock is a lot like making a good chicken stock, just without chicken. Well, sort of. To get a good, strongly flavored chicken stock you need roasted, or at least browned, chicken in some capacity; for me most of this usually comes from scraps and carcasses from roasted chickens. When I break down a whole chicken, I save the backbone and the wings (they’re usually left uneaten here anyway so better to save them for more useful purposes for me), and if my freezer-inventory of roasted chicken carcasses is low I give these a quick sear for a little deeper, richer flavor. When I make turkey stock before Thanksgiving for gravy (not to be confused with Day-After Turkey Stock) I roast or sear wings, legs or thighs (whatever is the least expensive, frankly) that I buy separately to use in making the base stock. But I’m getting off topic—we’re talking about vegetable stock here. Since there’s no meat or bones in veggie stock, you need to give it a little help in developing a roasted and rich flavor equal to its meat-based counterparts. The best way to achieve this roast depth is just that: roast the vegetables.
Roughly chop some onion, carrot, celery, and the tops of some leeks (if you’ve got them) as much as you can be bothered to, and toss them with a little olive oil, whole and unpeeled garlic cloves, and some bay leaves. Tumble this onto a sheet tray that has been heating in your oven, throw the whole thing back into said oven, and roast until they’ve browned and are a little soft. No need to be too concerned with how cooked through they are, either—roasted edges are more important here. Next they get tossed into a hot pot that you’ve been gently cooking some tomato paste in a little more olive oil in. Toss in some herbs and black peppercorns before pouring over cold water, bringing it to a simmer, and keeping there for 1 – 1 ½ hours. I tend to just leave it until it’s completely cooled before straining, but if you’re pressed for time straining it right away won’t stop the Earth from spinning.
See. Simple, right?
Simple & Fresh Tomato Sauce
With tomato season either upon us or in full swing, depending on where you are, is there really a better time for this? Whether you buy them by the bushel at local farmers’ markets or grow your own, these are one produce that always seem to be better when sourced locally and in season. A great way to use up some of them—and if you grow them, I know, you may have a lot—is making a tomato sauce. Now, I’m not saying that this is faster or easier than opening a can of San Marzanos and dumping it into a pot—though the time and effort to do it is still minimal—and I’m not even saying that it’s better than that, either, but it’s different. It has a fresher, brighter taste than even the best of canned tomatoes, but that doesn’t mean this way tastes better; it’s merely a different way to tasting something, a different experience.
If the tomatoes taste incredible, and I mean really incredible, and the thought of cooking such a thing of beauty breaks your heart you can just forgo it all together at go the route of sugo crudo: peel, deseed and finely chop the tomatoes, toss with a few cloves of lightly crushed garlic, a few torn basil leaves, bit of olive oil, and a pinch of salt and sugar, let it macerate at room temperature for at least an hour, but up to 8, before removing the garlic and basil, and serving. Otherwise cook them until enough of their natural water has evaporated that you’re left with a concentration that you’re happy with (keeping in mind it shouldn’t go much longer than 20 minutes or so).
If you have a food mill you don’t need to peel or deseed the tomatoes—the mill with catch all of that stuff—but this also means you get a very smooth sauce. Since I like a sauce with a bit more texture and, frankly, milling a huge batch of sauce through my smaller food mill lacks any appeal, I take a few extra steps to prepare the tomatoes, and let the cooking process break them down. Make a small “X” in the bottom of the tomato, piercing the skin only just, and plunge them into a pot of fiercely boiling water for 30 seconds. Remove with a spider or slotted spoon and immediately refresh in the largest bowl you can wrangle up, filled with ice water. Discard the boiling water and watch as the skin instantly peels off the flesh in the ice water.
I then half or quarter the tomatoes (removing the tough stem portion), scooping the seeds and pulp into a small dish as I go. Roughly chop the tomato flesh and throw them in to your now empty pot. Set a fine mesh sieve over the pot and pour the pulp and seeds in, stirring to encourage the pulp to fall below while holding back the seeds. That pulp is an important component to the flavor of the sauce, but I don’t want it to be seedy. It’s then that you simply throw in a few cloves of lightly crushed garlic, a leafy stem of basil, and a bit of salt and sugar, before putting over a medium-low flame. Once it’s done, stir in a glug of olive oil and remove it from the heat.
Toss it with some al dente pasta and scatter with whole baby basil leaves and maybe a light snow of Parmigiano for comforting and light summer succor.
Give them a try! They may not replace the store-bought cupboard staples, but these are simple to make and their taste is second to none.
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