I recently got into a routine of making a big pan of stock every weekend, and it is hands-down the easiest way you can turn your soups and one-pots from pretty good to epic. There is something so comforting in winter about a pot of meat and vegetables gurgling gently on the stove. Because it is such a hands-off project, it is easy to fit into your current routine. Sunday night is movie night? Have your stock going then, or while you iron, or wash the car.
I think for many people of my age and background, making your own stock or broth from scratch every weekend sounds about as esoteric and labour-intensive as plucking your own turkey for Christmas. Fortunately, in the Austrian city where I live most of the year, there is a large immigrant population, and a large Oma (Granny) population, and these groups often share a more sensible attitude towards food. In quite ordinary supermarkets you can still often buy bags of pig or beef bones, or chicken backs.
Thrift. “Chicken backs” I said to myself the first time I saw a giant pile of them in a Turkish grocer’s “What on earth do you do with them?” Well, you make stock out of them, and then you make the most sublime soup you have ever tasted out of that.
I have tried to make stock in the past, but never been very successful. The thing is, I don’t care how thrifty it might be, you cannot only use the remains of a roast. You do have to put something in, to get delicious stock out. Cooked, picked-over bones and bits of gristly skin are not enough, you need some fresh meat to give a good strong flavour. The good news is that those bits of meat can be practically anything; the cheapest cut of shin beef, pork marrow bones, the giblets from inside your roasting fowl, tough old animals that are past their productive life.
Variety. We have the tendency to think only in terms of beef or chicken when it comes to stock, but only because that’s the pitiful choice that the food industry has trained us to accept. When you make your own, the variety is much greater. You can use any kind of meat or poultry, and even mix the different types if you like.
Taste. But still, why make your own, when stock cubes are so cheap and readily available? Well, that’s what I thought too, until I realised that by using the same chemical product in all my dishes, they were all ending up tasting roughly the same, and roughly the same as everyone else’s. That bland, over-salted glutematey approximation of what soup used to taste like.
In Austria, most of the little restaurants you find scattered throughout the Alps will offer you a bowl of broth with something in it while you wait for your schnitzel. It’s cheap food and quick, and stops hungry hikers from rioting when everyone wants lunch at once. All sorts of things tumble into those bowls. Shredded omelettes, chopped-up bits of strudel (beef strudel normally, not apple strudel) and a huge variety of dumplings. Liver dumplings, potato dumplings, dumplings made from semolina, dumplings with bacon in them, dumpling with cheese. In one restaurant I had a dumpling the size of a child’s football, looming out of the bowl like an iceberg in a fishpond.
I love Austrian dumplings, and they are a pefect way to use up stale bread, but I think you have to be born within sight of the Alps to make them correctly. Every time I try, they disintegrate as soon as they hit the water. However I have found a foreigner-safe way of cooking them, which is to use the Serviettenknödel method. You make one huge dumpling sausage, wrap it in Clingfilm or a clean cloth, tie the whole thing up with string and boil it like that. To serve, fish it out of the water using the loop of string at one end, unwrap and slice. Austrians are thrifty cooks, and the Serviettenknödel is made using stale bread. If there is any left over, it is chopped in cubes and fried with egg to make Knödel mit Ei; a leftover recipe for a leftover recipe.
• A jumble of bones and meat. This can be almost anything, but if you are using a carcass from a roast, do be sure to add plenty of uncooked meat, giblets and /or bones too.
• Pot herbs. Again, use what you have. Onions, carrots and plenty of herbs like parsley, thyme and bay are a must, but try celery and different root vegetables when in season.
• 1 Tbsp of dried herbs
• 1 tsp of salt
1. Put your meat in a big pan. Peel the onions and cut them in half. The other veg doesn’t need to be peeled, but onion skins will colour the stock.
2. Tuck the herbs and vegetable around the meat. Cover with water and bring to the boil. When it boils, skim of any froth that has formed, and turn down the heat. How long you cook it is up to you, but I find three hours to be optimal.
3. Strain while still hot. You can put it through a cloth if you like a perfectly clear consommé, but in my opinion, a few bits of herbs and meat floating about are perfectly fine, and I don’t want to dirty a cloth for no reason.
4. When cool enough to handle, pick over the meat and vegetables and salvage any which still look edible. These can be added to the stock when you reheat it, but store them in a separate container, as they will turn the stock sour if allowed to sit in it.
5. The meat and vegetables should be used up within a couple of days, but the stock will set to a jelly and be fine in the fridge for up to a week. Use it when you make soups, or any time a recipe calls for stock cubes. Try it simply with these dumplings:
Note: it is difficult to give exact quantities, as much will depend on how much stale bread you have, how thick it is, and how dry. Remember to err on the side of caution, it will take much less liquid than you think, and as my mother always said, it’s easy to put more liquid in, but difficult to get it out.
• Stale white bread cut up into small cubes. (Austrians don’t use as much preservative in their bread, which is good, but it does go stale very quickly. A lot of knödel gets made this way)
For a salad bowl of stale bread, you will need:
• 3 eggs, medium
• 1 cup of milk
• 1 onion
• 1 oz butter
• Salt, pepper, nutmeg, fresh herbs.
• A flavouring of your choice (optional) This could be spinach, as I used, chopped-up bacon, cheese, or anything else that takes your fancy.
1. Put the chopped-up bread in a large bowl and gradually mix with the eggs and milk. The bread should be just coated with the liquid, and there should be little or no excess milk in the bottom of the bowl. Allow to soak.
2. While the bread is resting, chop the onion finely and fry gently in the butter. When softened, add the spinach or bacon, if using, and fry until cooked. If using spinach, finely chop or purée after cooking.
3. By now, the bread should have become very soft and mushy. Add the cooked ingredients, making very sure to get all the delicious butter in, the salt, pepper, nutmeg and chopped fresh herbs. If it still seems too dry, add a little more milk. Bring the mixture together with clean hands.
4. Fill your biggest pan with water and bring to the boil.
5. Lay a sheet of clingfilm or a clean cloth on your work surface. Make a large sausage in the middle of it with your bread mixture, and roll it tightly but carefully. Tie at intervals, leaving a hoop which you will later use to fish it out of the water.
6. Simmer gently in for half an hour, carefully turning it over half-way through the cooking time.
7. Unwrap, slice and place in bowls. Top with stock, vegetables and meat. This is also delicious served with all kinds of one-pot dishes, or as a side for roast pork and sauerkraut.
Hannah Wernet grew up self-sufficiently on a sheep farm in Wales. When she was 20, she moved to Austria where she works as a teacher and owns a small expat bar. She dreams of one day returning to a self-sufficient life in the French countryside. Read all of Hannah's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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