Monday, July 06, 2009

Cooking on a Budget: Vegetable Stock

Once I realized I was going to have to put myself on a food budget, I started looking at everything that was happening in my kitchen. In addition to making the smartest choices I could at the grocery store, the butcher, and the green market, I wanted as little to go to waste in my kitchen itself as possible. And within a few days, I was noticing how many produce tips and ends were going into the trash bowl.

I make a lot of soups and stews, so I have been in the habit of always having quart containers of chicken and vegetable broth on hand. When I discovered how easy it was to make chicken stock in the slow cooker, I rarely used the store-bought stuff. But I was still buying quarts of vegetable stock to have on hand. And that stuff can get expensive.

And not only expensive, most of it is crap. Ok, ok, it's purely subjective, but most prepared vegetable stocks just do not taste good to me. It must be the ratio and blend of the vegetables that are used, and some of them are suspiciously thick for being vegetable stock. All of the mainstream brands have a nasty chemical aftertaste to them. And most of the organic brands have a muddy taste to me. That's the best way I can describe it, like the vegetable they use the most of is overpowering everything else, including the dish I want to make.

For a while, I was buying Kitchen Basics Natural Roasted Vegetable Broth at Trader Joe's, which was light and clear, with a delicate taste that enhanced my dish rather than overtaking it completely. And then Trader Joe's stopped carrying it, and I never could find the Roasted Vegetable Broth at the grocery store, and they don't have it on their website, so I think they discontinued it. In the meantime, Imagine's Organic Vegetable Broth made a reasonable substitute. While I did not care for the flavor as much, it was at least a light enough flavor that stayed firmly in the background.

But the organic brands are even more expensive than the conventional broths. I started thinking of spending all of that money for something I knew I could make myself, and probably make more to my liking than what I was finding at the store.

My father made a lot of soup when I was living at home. At some point he read a tip that you should save and freeze all of the liquid in which you cook your vegetables, and throw them into your soup pot. This was when most people were eating frozen vegetables, and there was a lot of liquid being thrown away. It was also about the time that it was discovered that there were a lot of nutrients leaching out into that water that was being thrown away.

From that point on, I would always find little jars half-filled with green, brown, and yellow liquid whenever I went into the freezer. After I graduated high school and moved out on my own, I too would periodically take my leftover vegetable liquids and throw them in the freezer. The difference is that he used all of his little jars, and I would end up throwing them out after a couple of years, by which time I had no idea what they were.

But now I was finding myself looking at every piece of food that I was using, and what I was throwing away. And within a few days I started paying particular attention to how many vegetable ends and pieces were going into the trash. And there was a lot going into the trash that had enough meat on it (so to speak) that I started thinking I could probably make a decent stock out of it.

So I began saving the tips and bottoms of all of my vegetables. I put them in a gallon-sized self-zipping freezer bag. And I even started a collection of little jars with the leftover liquids from steamed spinach and the beet, turnip and kohlrabi greens I have been enjoying. It was a challenge because my freezer is not that big, but I hoped it would be worth it.

The bag filled up pretty quickly. I was somewhat gratified to see how many vegetables I use in a short period of time. Here you can see onions, carrots, celery, zucchini, kohlrabi, asparagus, and more that I'm sure I'm forgetting. Oh yes, there are some string bean ends you can't see, and parsley stems.

After I took the vegetables out of the bag and put them in the stock pot, I took a look in the vegetable crisper to see if there were any good volunteers in there. I had some celery that looked like it was starting to lose some of it's freshness and I didn't have any immediate plans for it, so I threw it in the pot. I also added some of those small garlic cloves that are a pain in the ass to peel and chop that I saved just for this purpose. I did not have too many carrot ends in the bag, but I had a couple of carrots in the crisper so I threw those in too.

I defrosted all of my little jars and added them to the pot, and then I filled up the rest with cold water. I added 12 whole peppercorns and a few bay leaves. I did not add any salt - I figured I could add that when I was ready to cook with the stock.

I brought the stock to a boil, skimmed what scum had accumulated, then turned the heat as low as it would go and simmered the stock for a few hours. I thought about using the slow cooker, but unlike chicken stock you do not need to cook this for hours and it didn't take too long on the stovetop. But you could certainly make it in the slow cooker using the same method I used for the chicken stock.

After it was done I let it cool a little, then strained out the vegetables. I put the liquid back into the pot and brought it back to a boil, just to be sure. It smelled light and sweet and I was pleased with how well it turned out. It was clear, with no hint whatsoever of chemicals. And whatever vegetable lends that super strong overpowering flavor to the store-bought varieties was absent from this batch.

It made about 4 quarts in all. I froze some of it in a quart jar, and the rest in one- and two- cup increments so I would have a variety of amounts available as I needed them.

Because I used mostly the parts of vegetables that I would have otherwise thrown away, this stock is virtually free. It makes a perfect soup base, and it adds an incredible amount of flavor when I cook grains in it.

It might seem like a lot of trouble to make your own stocks, but it doesn't really take any time at all. The items are already prepped, so there is little chopping involved. And it accumulates fast. I already have another bag in the freezer that is almost ready to go . . .


Inessa said...

Awesome. I've long been thinking about making veggie stock and this may just be the final inspiration I need. I make most of Leia's food, so end up with tons of leftover veggie bits. Do you use carrot peelings, etc as well? Potato peelings?

dejamo said...

You can use carrot and potato peels, Inessa. I have not been saving them, but that is more for space than for health issues. Like I said, it really does accumulate quickly, and I could have a freezer full of nothing but veggie scraps.

Many of the nutrients are said to be in the skin, especially in carrots, so I would imagine it would be advantageous to include them, or at least some of them. Hmm, maybe I'll start saving some of those peels after all.

Thanks for the comment!

Anonymous said...

Ok, I am going to have to make that because I am really sick of using chicken stock for everything.

I have been wondering about making stock in my crock pot (I have a giganto one). Any thoughts?

dejamo said...

I don't see why you can't do it in the crock pot, misreall. The chicken/turkey stock method should work just fine. If you are going to use boiling water just make sure you preheat the crock pot before adding the water.

I like my vegetable stock so much better than anything I can buy and it really adds flavor to just about anything.

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