Welcome to the first official edition of Food Files. I’ve been wanting to implement a food project here at Beams for quite a while now, but have been waiting on the possibility of us building an Archives section (to house all the posts somewhere). As that project still needs funding, and is thus still on a possibly distant horizon, I’m jumping in anyway. I’ll have to do some old fashioned manual linking at the end of each piece instead, but whatever it takes!
Most of us here at the site are active supporters of the (post-industrial) food movement, and we’ve written quite a bit about it. Hell, we even lost one of our founding members as he set out to the land to become a farmer. See my post The Food Revolution Continues- Some Resources for links to much of that food writing, which also sets out the philosophical underpinnings and impetus for Food Files.
In North America (in particular), there’s been one key Achilles heel for the food movement, one gaping hole that’s hindering its greater success. Most people don’t really know how to cook. For the last two generations or so food knowledge hasn’t been passed down in household from parents to children, and as a result, most people don’t know how to cook in a way that makes it easy, efficient, and healthy to do so. So I’ve concocted a little plan to try and help fill in some of that hole. Food Files. I’ve been a chef by trade for about thirteen years now, and feel I’ve gained a body of food knowledge that I can pass on to others.
My idea is this- to slowly, over time, construct a hyperlinked matrix of food “structures” to help folks who need a little support in the cooking department. I don’t want to share recipes. By the word structure, I mean a core basic food form that many flavors and ingredients can be plugged into. A pesto, a pureed soup, a curry, a stew, a hummus, a stock, braised meat, and so on. Recipes are fine are far as they go, but my experience with observing less experienced cooks is that recipes keep people a little scared, a little nervously tied to exactly what’s on that page.
I want to help people break free from that, to learn how to produce a bunch of food basics from the ground up, and to learn to cook with their senses alert- how does it smell, what’s the sound it makes while it’s frying perfectly, while it’s burning, how does a dish taste at the various stages of its cooking? This sensibility builds confidence and a different kind of competency, and it’s also a gloriously enjoyable way to prepare your food. I’m convinced that with a grasp of these structures- which will also include how to organize and use your kitchen in a way that’s most efficient- that even in today’s absurdly busy world, we can gain the ability to cook whole foods in a way that’s tasty, cheap and not overly time consuming.
If you’re interested in the sounds of this Food Files, there’s one cookbook that’s a must have in your library- The Flavor Bible. This book let’s you look up almost any food ingredient (meats, vegetables, herbs, spices etc.), and it lists for you every known ingredient/flavor that works with that item. This kind of basic knowledge is crucial for the kind of relation to food I’ll be talking about. Say you want to make a pureed broccoli soup. What would work in that? The Flavor Bible will list everything, and that enables a type of confidence and creativity in the kitchen that’s really important.
In my second post I’ll focus on tools- what are the basic tools one needs in a kitchen to increase efficiency and help the food preparation experience to be safe and enjoyable. In this post, I’m going to start of with one of the core fundamentals to quality food production- the stock.
The Stock and Stock Bag
In my view one of the key components of building a functioning, hands on whole-foods home kitchen is the stock. And for the stock bits, you need a stock bag (or bucket; or big glass container; or some such thing in your fridge). There’s several reasons the stock is so great. One, it increases flavor immensely, and I use it as the base of all my soups, stews, curries and bean dishes. Two, it’s awesome to develop this kind of peasant like resiliency; so much of what would other wise be food waste is now put to use. Lastly, there are nutrients in those stock bits, and that’s now in your food.
Once you know what to put in your stock bag, the whole process is easy. Instead of tossing your trimmings in the garbage while/after you chop away, you toss it in your stock bag. Every time I cut up vegetables for one major dish, I usually have enough stock parts for the next dish, and that creates a nice little cycle. I almost always have either a couple big glass jars of stock in my fridge, or a bag full of trimmings ready to be made into one.
Speaking of glass jars, I want to emphasize this point, because having the right equipment is the key to efficiency and pleasure in the kitchen. If everything’s a disaster and a pain in the ass, you won’t want to cook. Let’s avoid that. I went to my local dollar store and bought two large 2 liter jars and I always put my stock in those. The jars also have wide mouths, which is important. None of this pouring stock into a bunch of tiny jar openings shit, that stuff will make you go mad, as it dribbles everywhere. Keep it as streamlined and easy as possible. If you have to use jars with smaller openings, purchase a small funnel to ease the pouring process.
Another tip- I always keep a small stainless steel bowl just above my cutting board that I throw the trimmings into as I go along. Again, this is about ease and efficiency. The bowl has a wide-open mouth and I can just toss stuff in there until it fills up. I then grab my stock bag and grab handfuls of the trimmings and stuff em in. If you’re trying to put bits and pieces in the bag as you go along, the bag rarely stays open and you have to keep fiddling around with that thing to stick your bits in. Pain in the ass, waste of time. Throw em in your bin and keep chopping. (If you're using a stock bucket, this point is moot).
Ok, so what can go in our stock bag? Here’s a list with a bit of commentary.
-onion parts. The skins are something chefs debate over, as some find them dirty, so it’s up to you. But once you start using a stock bag, you’ll realize that there’s big parts of that onion you’re not using and are going to waste. Peel off that skin on the top layer, or keep it, but onions are key.
-carrot ends. Carrot peels are again controversial, even more so, and I don’t use them. I do find they give off a dirty flavor, but its up to you, try it out. But that little stub at the top and bottom you’ve snipped off to work with your carrot, put those in there for sure.
-tomato bits. If we’re slicing a tomato for something- a sandwich or burger or whatever- we often take off the top and the bottom and don’t use it. That’s a lot of waste for an expensive item, and it adds great depth to a stock.
-mushroom parts. We normally use most of a mushroom, but if you happen to be taking off stems (such as on a portobello), get em in there.
-garlic trimmings. I use ever part of a garlic bulb except for that little bit holding it together at the bottom, and often that too. All the skins of the garlic make for great stock. And if you ever roast a whole garlic bulb, and squeeze out your roasted garlic, definitely put that casing in the stock. Very rich flavor.
-green onions. We often trim off the tops and don’t get all the way to the bottom. Great for stock.
-rosemary and thyme. When we pull the leaves off these fresh herbs, there’s often a bit left on the stem, particularly with thyme. Throw that shit in the bin!
-parsley and cilantro stems. When you start making stock you start to love buying parsley and cilantro because they got some big stock giving action. I often use the whole of a cilantro bunch when cooking, as I like things rustic style, but if you aren’t using the stems, definitely put them in the stock bag. Parsley too, that’s primo stock territory.
-fennel ends. When I started really getting into a cycle with stock, I found myself using more and more fennel for dishes (usually soups, stews, curries, beans), because they have such a big amount of waste you have to trim off- waste that makes for great stock! Use all the tops, and the bottom and any innards you trim out.
-ginger and lemongrass. Ginger and lemongrass trimmings make for good stock too, especially if you want to make a more Asian flavored one. I often put ginger trimmings in anyway, as you can’t specifically taste it in a big dish, and why not, ginger’s awesome. (if you do make an Asian flavored stock, other things that work are star anise pods, kaffir lime leaves and coriander seeds).
-chilies. I always sprinkle a good pinch of dried chili flakes in my stock, but a bird chili or other hot peppers always add a good layer to a stock.
-leeks. Okay leeks are some dirty ass bastards, so you have to work with them a bit, but it’s worth it, great stock flavor and depth. Here’s what I do- get a big enough bowl and fill it with cold water; cut off the green leek tops and chop them up in mid size chunks, and let them soak for a few minutes in that bowl of water. Swish them around a bit in the water with your hand to shake off more dirt, then strain them and maybe just give them another quick squirt of water. Let em drip dry in that strainer for a bit while you’re chopping other things, then put em in the stock bag when ready (they don’t have to be perfectly dry).
-celery parts. Celery has so much on it that is ‘waste’, but for the stock bag it’s a big ole boon. Take all the parts you don’t use, throw em in a strainer in the sink, and give it a good rinse, rubbing it around with your hands a bit. Like the leeks, let em drip dry for a few minutes while cutting or doing other stuff. Once they’re not soaking wet, into the bag all those lovely leaves and parts go.
-salt, pepper, and bay leaves. Peppercorns are classic for a stock, and it’s always good to have a jar in your pantry for this reason. Throw in a good spoonful or so. Bay leaves too are great, but they’re not absolutely necessary, so don’t stress about it (it will depend on income levels and whether it's in the budget to always have some on hand). I always throw in a good pinch of salt in the stock too. Salt brings out flavors, and although you’ll be seasoning whatever dish you finally make with the stock, I find it nice to add a little salt to the mix.
-apples and potatoes/yams. These two are a little more unorthodox, but I learned it from a great vegetarian cookbook and I personally like the result. I added these once in a kitchen a few years ago and had a few guys scoff at me, but oh wells, their loss. It might not be traditional, but apples add nice subtle flavor, and potato (particularly yam and sweet potato bits) can add both sweetness and a nice cloudy texture.
So how do we make this stock? It’s quite easy. Put all those trimmings in a pot big enough to hold them all plus water, bring to a boil and then simmer it for about 30 minutes. Strain out the liquid, throw away all the vegetable matter etc., and you’re good to go.
Ok a few things. How much water? Well, there's no hard and fast rules here, but I usually put my trimmings in the pot, cover it with water, and then add about 1/4 more water to the total volume. But like I mentioned in the introduction, it's best to stay away from being beholden to a specific amount of water. The best thing to do is experiment and keep a close eye/nose/tongue on the results. If you just barely cover the vegetables with water, and then simmer, you'll find the stock has a darker color and can be more concentrated in flavor, even bitter. Taste it and see what you think. Now try one where you double the amount of water to vegetable mass. Taste that and see what you think. You'll probably find it much milder, but now you also have double the stock and you might be making something that would work better with a milder base.
Straining. Here's how I've come to strain my stock in a way that's not a big hassle and mess. I have a big colander that's sits pretty deep. I then stick that in a big ole stainless steel bowl (which is a fair bit bigger than the colander). I strain the stock into the bowl, hold the colander in the air for a bit so all the drippiness can happen, and then stick the colander back on top of the original pot. I let the stock cool for how ever long that takes, then come back and pour it from that bowl into my big glass jars. That move of pouring from the bowl takes a bit of balance, and I've gained that skill as a chef over the years, so you might want to use a big handled measuring cup or something like that to do the transfer. The key is using as few steps as possible, and avoiding as much as possible little rinky dink strainers etc. The easier and cleaner the process feels, the more you'll enjoy it, and thus have no problem doing it again.
Animal bones. I've mainly focused on vegetable stock in this post, as we all have vegetable trimmings around the kitchen, and it's very quick and easy to make. However, animal bones make for great stock too of course, and I always save chicken or lamb or steak bones after we've eaten and just add it to my stock bag, and then just simmer them with my usual veggie stock process. In a professional kitchen there's a variety of stock producing methods (and chefs have preferences), but generally animal bones will be simmered for a fairly long time (up to many hours), and then vegetable mass added in the last 45 minutes. But here, with Food Files, I just want to keep things simple, and we're not going for Michelin star ratings, so if it's not top notch, oh well, it'll still make for tasty and healty eating. So I'd either just add any bones you have around to your vegetable bag as I mentioned, or alternatively, you can save them separately, simmer them first by themselves for about 45 minutes, and then add the vegetable matter for another 30 minutes. That'll make for good stock, good enough on the home front anyway.
Shelf life. How long is the stock good for in your fridge? Well, first of all, we must note how long the trimmings will last in a bag (or bucket etc.) in the fridge before they rot. My experience is about a week to ten days, but there's going to variables like fridge quality and temperature (and maybe how old the vegetables already were when you bought them), so you'll have to keep an eye out for this and gage through experience how long your stock bag is lasting. But I say you can safely accumlate for a week or so. How long will the stock itself last? Again, this will vary, but I've found my veg stock lasts pretty nicely for about ten days or so, and then you're risking it after that. If you're wondering whether it's gone off or not, it should smell pretty funky. You'll know. If you plan to use it within a week of brewing it, you should be good to go.
And that ends post one of Food Files! Please feel free to ask me any questions that you have, I'd love to answer them. And of course, we all have varying degrees of food knowledge, so if you'd like to add other tips or tidbits not found here, by all means, that community sharing is important for our growing food resiliency. Until next time, enjoy whatever it is you make with that stock!
As always with Food Files, we'll be finishing with a clip from San Bourdain on his show No Reservations. Most of the hour long shows are available on youtube in 15 minutes segments, so I've just randomly grabbed one, in this case part 1 of Penang, Malaysia.