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The Alchemist

20 Feb

I was (lightly) chastised last week for being a chicken blogger who had never made her own chicken stock. It was fair, I definitely portrayed myself as someone who had never made chicken stock before, which, I’m sorry to say, is a big, huge fat lie.

I have made chicken stock before, in fact, I’ve made so many hundreds of gallons of chicken stock that the volume probably rivals the amount made by all the home cooks who have ever blogged about making chicken stock. But, the stock I made wasn’t made in my teeny tiny kitchen and it was never consumed by me.

Perfect Chicken Soup

Years ago during a bout of endless unemployment I had a friend that was going to culinary school. She was doing her externship at a Kitchen that was in desperate need of help, so she called me up and asked if I wanted to get off my self-pitying, Harry Potter-reading, swimming miles and miles at the YMCA, eternally depressed ass and hone my cooking skills by working for free as a prep cook at a really good restaurant in The City. While it wasn’t the ideal situation for a seriously broke and jobless exile from the music industry, it was better than doing nothing, so I jumped at the opportunity.

Our most important tasks each day were: killing the lobsters, cutting salmon into teeeeeeny tiiiiiny perfect little cubes for tartar (the reason you will never see salmon on this site, the smell lingers for weeks and still to this day turns my stomach), roasting beets, washing greens, making sauces and dressings, peeling can after can of roasted red peppers, and yes, making chicken stock.

Perfect Homemade Bread

Our last task each day was to call Chef down to clarify the stock and then create the staff meal with stuff we could scrounge from the pantry and whatever was about to turn in the walk-in. Chef was amazing at helping us think creatively about the staff meal, to think around the globe and to re-imagine ingredients. Apple butter became mustard for duck croque-monsieurs, clam chowders were given a Moroccan twist and chicken wings were elevated far above game-time food with an elegant curry-flecked crust.

That staff meal was often the only meal I would eat each day. My unemployment checks had run out, I was living off my meagre savings, but I was happy. I applied for kitchen jobs but didn’t get them. At one place (which I am happy to say has since closed) the all male kitchen did not speak to me once. At another place I was told I was too pretty to be hidden in the kitchen and offered a position as a waitress. I needed the money so badly I agreed despite the fact that I am the world’s klutziest person. It was a disaster, but I had to do it. Finally a friend took pity on me and talked her boss into hiring me where I am now. I went from working with food, to working with words, to, on my free time, working with food and words. Aha! That’s how this story comes full circle!

Perfect Dinner

And so it was with full confidence that I approached my stock yesterday. My stock. To be eaten by me. It was a good feeling. I remembered all the hints Chef had passed onto me years ago. Leave the skins on the onion. Don’t peel anything. Start with perfectly cold water. Let it go low and slow. If you want a darker stock, roast the chicken bones before making the stock.

I watched the pot go from murky chunks of nothingness to pure gold. Ah alchemy. Turning nothing into something precious.

For my final alchemical turn, I treated the stock simply. Just some onions, garlic and greens with a loaf of freshly baked bread. The stock was astounding, as I’m sure anyone that’s made their own stock can tell you. There’s so much depth and subtlety and comfort and love and care in one simple bowl. I’m not sure I can ever go back to canned again.

(And yes, I am such a child of the Empire State that I use a New York State tea towel as a makeshift table cloth).

Head below the jump for Ann’s Stock and Green & Gold Soup.

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