A few years ago, I took a class called Menu for the Future produced by the Northwest Earth Institute. I took this class with some amazing women, and we spent time studying the state of American agriculture, the precarious future of the family farm and the rather distressing statistics of chemical load on our food and the corresponding health risks. But of all the topics we covered, all the numbers we analyzed, and all the pros and cons we weighed, two facts impacted me so powerfully that I’ve never been able to forget them: 1) U.S. consumers spend only a little over 10 percent of their disposable income on food—the lowest percentage in the world. 2) The average American household wastes 14 percent of the food it does purchase.
It’s likely these numbers have changed since the time I was in this class, but I doubt the outcome is much different—one of the bi-products of large-scale industrialized agriculture is very, very cheap food. While this might be hard to believe as you peruse your last grocery bill, it really is the case compared with other places on Earth. We also seem to eat out a lot because of busy schedules and hectic workdays. Eating out can be a special treat, but I sometimes wonder if in embracing the convenience and leisure of eating out we’ve lost something fundament and important—the art of eating as a family.
Whether you are a family of two people (or two close friends) or a tribe of 10, preparing food together and eating together are primal. And if everyone is involved in the prep, cooking, eating and cleanup, it’s not only less burdensome but also a lot of fun! My friend Deb’s mom Sylvia called this “Kitchen Yoga.” I’ve never heard a more appropriate term. (Deb, BTW, is the person who has taken photos with me at the Land of Goshen Community Market, and her talent is much appreciated.)
Of all the food I prepare in my kitchen, nothing says “kitchen Yoga” to me better than making my own vegetable stock. Yep, it is more work, requires a little thinking ahead and takes more time. All things of great value do.
Famous chefs and good cooks everywhere know the delicious benefit of making stock from scratch, whether it’s chicken, beef or vegetable—less food waste, lower food bills and huge flavor. And it is NOT hard. Here’s how I make mine—
I start out by labeling a gallon-size freezer with the current month. Then every time I prepare a meal, I set out a bowl to gather the scraps. As I wash and chop veggies, I toss the peelings, tops and ends into the bowl, and when I’m done, I throw all those scraps I might just toss away in the compost (I cannot bring myself to say trash can.) into the designated freezer bag.
When the bag is full (in our house this takes about two weeks on average), I throw all the scraps in a big stockpot with eight to 10 cups of water, bring to a boil and then simmer for about an hour. Sometimes I add a bay leaf or two and some extra garlic or herbs from my garden.
I let the finished stock sit on the stove to steep and cool for about a half hour, then strain into a large measuring cup and store in recycled screw-top jars in the frig for a week to 10 days.
Almost anything can go in my stock bag, so it is easier to list items that just don’t work that well. These include:
- White potatoes (really get mushy and earthy)
- Cabbage (way too strong for me)
- Hot peppers (Unless, of course, heat is what you are after, in which case it might be best to just add a little slice of jalapeno or habanero to the stock pot. Hot peppers freeze as nicely as bell peppers, but they seem to intensify in the freezer. Be brave but not reckless.)
- While beet peels can add a wonderful dimension to your stock, they take over the appearance (which is why you can dye your Easter eggs using beet water!). If you are using your stock in a tomato-vegetable soup or sauce, this won’t matter, but if you are using your stock in a dish that should not be red or pink, it will be a problem. Again, the answer is to freeze separately and add in when it is desired.
Other than these few ingredients, all is fair in stock creation, as far as I’m concerned. Just make sure the carrot tops, tomato cores, onion skins, broccoli stalks, kale stems, leftover chopped herbs and less-than-perfect celery ribs, etc. are as clean as the parts you’re currently using in a recipe. The more variety in your freezer bag the better.
Making your own vegetable stock is obviously a green alternative—keeping vegetable matter out of landfills, keeping down food waste and creating a healthy ingredient for your family’s table. However, homemade stock also saves money—commercial stock can be very nice, but it is pricey if you are trying to match the flavor of homemade without tons of sodium and (God forbid) MSG. Your own stock has cost you nothing extra but a little time and effort. You can also freeze stock, so no need to waste anything.
One of my favorite ways to make a quick supper is to combine a cup to cup and a half of stock with a small can of organic tomato paste for a very inexpensive, highly flavorful pasta sauce. Just sauté some garlic and onion in olive oil, add a bell pepper or whatever vegetables you have on hand (Peelings go in the next freezer bag!) and finish by pouring in the stock-based sauce and heating through.
Here’s a decadent idea—save and freeze those parmesan rinds. Then toss one into the sauce recipe above and let it melt away for about 30 minutes. Mmmmmmm.