Zen and the art of making stocks and broths.

Weekends are the times I feel the most ambitious. It’s where I make a list of all the dishes I want to make during the week, where I plan on out my meals. It’s where I feel I can justify being in a kitchen all day, making five things at once.

Weekends are also the times where I feel like being the most lazy. I often find myself lazing on the couch watching food shows on PBS in the afternoon. Maybe my better half is more motivated to cook something tonight…

There is next to no balance with me on this day. My moods are either inspired or insipid. But I think I may have found the perfect balm to this: making stocks and broths.

The best stocks are made by people who know how to take things slowly. Stocks benefit from being left alone to do their own thing, being gently prodded at not-so-specific times that are decided somewhat arbitrarily by people who would rather relax than obsess.

To take stock of things is to take the time to count, to organise, and to know what is available and accessible.

The act of making stock keeps the kitchen warm with the heat of the oven, perfumes it with roasting bones and simmering things on stoves. The weekend started ambitiously, with an armload of beef and pork bones, a pantry full of dried foodstuffs and a kitchen table covered in cookbooks.

Stocks and broths are very subtle yet forgiving teachers. It does not need your full attention all day long, barraging you with questions. It simply asks that you stay mindful and keep an eye on it, acknowledging it from time to time. In the case of this one, you started with a large piece of kombu, placed in a pot of cold water, and brought to a gentle boil. To the impatient student, waiting for a pot to boil, especially a large one filled with cold water is – pardon the pun – water torture. But to the student who understands that you don’t have to wait, you can sit in the kitchen and read more cookbooks or work on something else, it’s a lot easier. You’re not waiting for the kombu to soften and the water to boil. You’re just letting it happen.

With the water just about boiling, off goes the heat. You take a look at the clock and pay mind to the time. In ten minutes, out will come the kombu and in go the dried shitake mushrooms. The water in the pot smells of the ocean.

The mushrooms are dropped into the pot, and the room starts to take on that slightly rich and savoury smell that you find in good Japanese soups. They will sit in the water to plump, perfuming the air and lending a much needed layer of flavour to the broth. An hour or so will do.

In the meantime, you turn on the oven. You’ve some pork bones to roast in there. It doesn’t take long for the kitchen to warm up. Another layer of flavour to add to the pot, another scent for the air.

Nearly an hour later, the bones are done. Golden in spots, darker brown in others. Out come the mushrooms. In go the bones. There’s a chicken carcass on the counter. Into the pot it goes too. The more flavour, the merrier.

And here is where the real instruction comes in. Here is where your desire to do things quickly and with great enthusiasm will ruin things. In those lovely bones are things which will lend great richness, savouriness and flavour to your stock/broth/soup. But these things are best extruded gently, with low, slow and gentle heat. Remember, turning up the heat will only cloud your stock.

There is something to be said for a clear broth. It doesn’t have to be so perfect that you could view the reflection of the moon in it, but you don’t want to drink a liquid that looks like a storm has brewed there. If your broth or stock is cloudy, it’s because you boiled it. Boiling doesn’t allow you to skim off all those impurities that will rise to the top. You decided you were in a hurry, turned up the heat and boiled the shit out of those bones and vegetables. Don’t. Just don’t. Skimming the impurities that rise to the top of your stock will help in this. There is letting things take their course, and then there is guiding them to the desired final state. That state is clear, remember?

Time passes. Maybe five or six hours. You then add a carrot or two for sweetness. Just to balance things out.

An hour later, it’s time to strain your stock. Out come the carrots, the bones. Once again, here you will gently steer your stock into the territory you clamor for: clarity. Out comes a fine-meshed sieve, lined with cheesecloth. Gently, your pour the stock out.

It’s not so clear that you could read through it, but you can see what is on the other side. This is a good way to be.

And you’re done. You’ve made it.

You’ve done what you felt like doing, following either your ambition or your need to relax, perhaps both at once. Your house smells amazing. And you did it. It’s your glory to bask in. And all you did was add a few things to a pot and let it be.

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