Thursday, October 9, 2014

Magic Elixir

What's happening in this pot on my stove, right this very moment, is magic.

That's chicken stock: foundation of so many meals, elixir of health, comforter of souls.

There are very few things that as a home-cook/foodie—scratch that, there are very few things that as a person, full-stop—give me as much satisfaction as making homemade stock. It has everything, in opposites, all at once: planning + spontaneity, simplicity (in preparation) + complexity (in taste), tradition + variety/innovation.

Many weekdays, I can feel scattered, oscillating between boredom (with lulls in my "real" work, and only mindless housework to fill those gaps) and freneticism (moving between kid activities and husband meetings and personal commitments, usually all planned in overlapping occasions.) It is very easy, at the end of a day, to be both tired and unsure if anything of consequence even got done. Duality is the constant theme. It can feel unsatisfying.

Not today, though, oh no. Today is a chicken stock day. Today that duality got harnessed into something both incredibly basic and deliciously remarkable, all at once. Today I opened up my freezer and pulled out the leek tops and chicken carcass I saved from two previous meals, and thanked my past self for not throwing them away, which always seems easier in the moment. I went into my fridge and grabbed the half-onion I wrapped up on Monday after making a small bit of tuna salad, as well as a few organic carrots and celery stalks purchased on sale. I walked outside to our herb garden on the patio, just off the kitchen, and got the last bits of herbs hanging on: rosemary, chives, marjoram, sage, and even a tiny sprig of Thai basil, just to mix it up a bit. I pulled out my stash of Penzey's spices, picking out a fat dried bay leaf, and pouring out some mixed peppercorns and kosher salt. Into the pot went all of these things, with no real cutting or fuss, just some washing and breaking up with my hands, and covering with plain-old Chicago's finest, Lake Michigan tap water, until the pot was full. I walked away, but then remembered garlic—how could I forget garlic?—so I returned and dropped in a few cloves.

Stock is so forgiving. If I don't have all of my usual ingredients, but have enough, I can make something tasty. If I want to try something new, it's all good. If I forget something, it can always be added later. Stock doesn't judge, bless its collagen-laced heart.

Ten minutes after simmer today, the aroma started to waft out of the kitchen, and it is…well, let's just say, I wish you were here. Divine? Is that too strong a term? My husband, who works from a home office, just peeked out from his secret sanctum of headphones and total focus to ask, dreamily, "What are you making for dinner?" I, too, find myself distracted as I type this, the smell taking over the space in the best kind of way, and we aren't even an hour into the process.

When I make chicken stock, I feel totally satisfied; if nothing else goes well in a day, by evening I will have a dinner in my belly that has made us all smile (tonight: butternut squash risotto), and a freezer packed with the promise of yumminess for at least a month to come, maybe longer. Stock rewards me for my past thoughtfulness with ingredients saved, and pays out in future tastiness via soups, stews, rice dishes, noodles, casseroles…stock just gives and gives.

Do you know why magical characters have cauldrons? I think all the talk of "eye of newt" is greatly exaggerated, and if they are magic, can't they just conjure up any potion they need? No, I think if a witch or warlock really wants to feel powerful, there is only one thing to make in their oversized cast iron pots: chicken stock. It's the real magic elixir.

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