(Photos by John Such)
With increasing emphasis on homemade, foraged and hand-squeezed by fair maidens from a farm near you, you’d assume that such a basic building block as how to make a good stock would be covered by the recent British food renaissance. It appears not.
While a trip to the butcher’s is loaded with the middle class dilemmas of organic versus local, corn-fed versus heritage, free range or British, the purchase of ready-made stocks is incongruously without. The only conundrums would seem to be Really Salty, Not So Salty, Endorsed By a Chef, liquid or cube and don’t get me started on Bisto (the work of the devil). Even our indefatigable TV chefs have shied away from explaining the secrets of a good brew.
Not so at Number 6 Padstow, where this year’s Great British Menu contender Paul Ainsworth and head chef, John Walton, toy with the alchemy of bones, vegetables and water to conjure up the intense flavours that provide the basis for many of Number 6’s dishes. Barely bubbling, these unctuous meaty distillations are dotted around the kitchen in enormous jam pans and the elemental act of extracting every last part of an animal, fish or vegetable makes great cooking sense to me. Or so I thought.
John put me right however: “It’s not about chucking it in and hoping for the best, it’s all about the right techniques.” This is contrary to the Mrs Beeton school of thought (and my own) that: “everything in the way of meat, bones, gravies and flavourings that would otherwise be wasted should go into the stock-pot.” John is more Elizabeth David than Beeton, who advocates that indiscrimate chucking was “the absolute negation of the principles of good cookery. All these miscellaneous leavings could not produce a stock with true, fresh flavour.”
There was nothing unplanned about John’s mini-masterclass in stock making and the results were three outstanding examples: a 25-minute fish stock made in a pressure cooker, an aromatic duck stock and a vegetable nage.
A vegetable nage is a quick and easy stock to make and highly recommended as a starting point for making your own. The Number 6 version takes about 10 minutes to cook, producing a clean tasting, aromatic ‘tea’ more than a conventional stock, with added depth and interest from the white wine and lemon at the end.
Vegetable Nage (adjust amounts accordingly – this makes a restaurant-sized whack of 2 gallons).
- 5 leeks, 20 carrots, 10 onions, 10 sticks of celery
- 2 handfuls each of basil stalks, chervil stalks, chives, tarragon, half a head of garlic, 4 star anise, 1 tbs coriander seeds, half tbs white peppercorns
- 1 bottle white wine and some lemon wedges
Cover the leeks, carrots, onion and celery in cold water and once boiling, simmer for eight minutes. Add the herbs, garlic, star anise, coriander seeds and white peppercorns and after two minutes of simmering, pour in the bottle of white wine and add the lemon wedges. Turn off the heat and allow the nage to cool. It should sit in a tub in the fridge for at least 24 hours before sieving and using as needed.
A top tip for making fish stock is to make sure the eyes are out, otherwise they discolour the liquid.
- Dice 1 small onion, 1 stick of celery, half a fennel bulb, half a leek
- 3 garlic cloves halved, with the skin on
- 1 bay leaf, 5 crushed coriander seeds, 5 crushed white peppercorns, 1 star anise, 2 thyme stalks
- 1kg chopped fish bones with eyes and gills removed
Lightly sweat the onion, thyme, fennel, celery, leek and garlic in a little oil in a large pan. Add the coriander seeds, white peppercorns, star anise and thyme stalks, followed by the chopped fish bones which have been washed under running water until the water runs clear. These can include brill, megram sole, monkfish, turbot and cod, the chunkier the bones the better and heads are good.
In preparation for the 2011 Great British Menu, Paul and John discovered that making the fish stock in a pressure cooker (25 minutes on high pressure) was by far the easiest way of doing it. The stock is then left to cool before being passed through a fine sieve. Be warned that fish stock, unlike meat stock, doesn’t improve after 20 – 25 minutes, and may even taste worse the longer it cooks.
- 1kg chopped duck bones
- 1 onion, peeled and quartered, 2 celery stalks cut in half, 1 leek cut in half, 2 carrots quartered, 2 red chillis cut in half, 85g fresh root ginger, roughly peeled and chopped, 1 garlic bulb, cut in half horizontally, 1 bay leaf
- 2 cinnamon sticks, 3 star anise, 1 orange cut in half, a small handful coriander stalks
- 250ml port
- 4tbsp hoisin sauce
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
Roast the duck bones until golden, the smaller the bones, the more flavour can be extracted. Roast the vegetables and bay leaf in a large hot pan in a little oil until browned and sticky. Add in the Asian flavours – the sauces and the chilli then the cinnamon, star anise, orange and coriander. Finally, add in the bones and just cover with water and/or chicken stock, plus the port and bring to the boil.
The satisfaction of a good homemade stock has been underestimated for too long. With any art there is a blank canvas and in the world of food, as far as I can understand, and as Paul and John have affirmed, stocks are the blank white space waiting for the brush strokes of culinary creativity. World famous for our roast dinners, even labeled les rosbifs by our favourite continental neighbour, the Brits are ideally placed to be making the most of our leftover bones. With John Walton’s expert guidance we can all be a little less Mrs Beeton and a little more Elizabeth David with regard to making our own stocks: it’s all about the discerning chucking.