For most of my life I was thoughtless about what I ate and basically inept in the kitchen. Every now and then I’d make a sad attempt to prepare a dish but mostly I relied on takeout, the microwave, and the cooking skills of my friends and family. I wasn’t unhappy with this situation, and it hadn’t made me unhealthy, so I was not the likeliest person to undergo a complete transformation in my relationship to food. But that’s exactly what happened. About four years ago, during an episode of MasterChef, I had what I half-jokingly think of as a revelation. I’d been a regular viewer for some time and it had seemed like it wasn’t so much the cooking that drew me in as Gordon Ramsay’s funny meanness and the theatrical competitiveness of the contestants. But then, one evening, while watching the show, I looked down at the disgusting frozen turkey pot pie I was eating and a powerful thought came into my head: I can do better than this. And that’s all it took. Ever since that moment cooking has been a consuming hobby and a good deal of my free time now goes to shopping for ingredients, reading recipes and challenging myself in the kitchen.
But for all the pleasure I get from cooking, it can make me flustered, anxious even, because I worry about “getting it right.” I don’t really believe in platonic ideals in the rest of my life but in the kitchen they are maddeningly hard to evade. Take risotto. After trying a slew of recipes I finally hit upon what seems like a solid method; still, every time I make the dish I’m shadowed by the fear that I’ve committed some vital mistake. I like to stir continually but maybe, as some authorities suggest, it’s best to leave the rice alone? Do I have to add my prepared vegetables at the end or can I, as I’d prefer, put them in around the three-quarter point while the rice is still cooking? And it doesn’t stop there because these questions metastasize into doubt about what the final result should be. I make risotto and it tastes good but I can’t help asking myself if I’ve really achieved the consistency it’s supposed to have – and by the way what is that, al-dente, creamy, or something in between? The uncertainty, worse yet, can turn into a sense of panic that overrides the evidence of my palate, making me wonder whether it does in fact taste good.
The problem – aside from my own neuroses – is that in the world of cooking there’s an intense focus on identifying the ideal version of any given dish. Cook’s Illustrated is emblematic of this tendency, churning through dozens of recipes to anoint, say, the supreme lemon meringue pie. But then you turn to Food52 or Betty Crocker and find that they have their own superlative version. There are literally dozens (perhaps hundreds?) of recipes for “the best” or “the ultimate” or “the perfect” lemon meringue pie and each is pronounced with an easy infallibility that is hard to resist. Such recipes put subtle but significant pressure on the home cook because in spite of their generally bubbly tone the underlying message they communicate is severe: if you’re doing otherwise you’re doing it wrong. But when there are so many options someone has to be wrong, right? Right! But how can you tell? Especially if you’re a home cook who’s still trying to get a handle on hollandaise.
Peace of mind, I’ve begun to realize, involves turning your back on the fear of missing out. That doesn’t mean disregarding technique or being indifferent to the quality of what you make. It’s just about recognizing there’s always going to be some other, potentially better way of preparing a dish, and not getting hung up on that. In part it has to do with practice, the more you cook the more confident and comfortable you become in the kitchen. But there’s also a psychological component to it, you have to learn to be content with not getting it right.
I can’t say I’ve learned the lesson fully but I have made some strides and fittingly it’s come about through making stock. As a home cook I’ve come by my skills in a patchy way, guided by idiosyncratic whims that have me jumping from one dish or technique to another without regard for any larger plan. So even though making stock is the bedrock of cooking, something aspiring professionals learn in their first week of culinary school, I really started focusing on it only in the past year. Also, while most cooks, whether pro or amateur, learn to make stock by roasting or blanching bones, for me it’s all about the vegetables. That’s right, I’ve focused on vegetarian stock, that lowliest of varieties. I say that because in the culinary world it gets short shrift. In Michael Ruhlman’s classic account of culinary training – The Making of a Chef – there are pages and pages devoted to the ins and outs of veal stock while the vegetable kind makes only a few scant appearances. Vegetarianism has obviously become more prominent in the twenty years since that book was published but, still, our food culture remains geared largely toward meat-eaters (Bacon!). Now, I’m actually not a vegetarian myself (I’d say I’m an eccentric meat eater – for non-religious reasons I don’t eat pork or baby animals) but my wife is and since I cook dinner for us it’s vegetable stock I’ve devoted myself to.
In cooking, knowing the correct ratios can be liberating; it potentially frees you from slavishly following recipes and paves the way for creative invention. But it can also freeze you up. For longer than I’d like to say I stayed true to the classical formula for a vinaigrette – 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar – even though I was always more or less unhappy with the unctuous result. I like my vinaigrettes to be light and vinegary and so it was with a good deal of pleasure and relief that I finally let myself go with 1.5 to 1. Ratios are prescribed for vegetable stock but, as with vinaigrette, there is actually quite a bit of leeway. In fact, the only rules that really matter are that you should use plenty of onions (or some combo of onions, leeks, shallots, etc.) and avoid including a disproportionate amount of any other vegetable. If you ignore the second rule that doesn’t mean you can’t make a delicious stock. You definitely can. The problem is that if you put in a heap of corn cobs, say, you’ll wind up with corn, not vegetable, stock. (Which actually might not be such a problem!)
As for what vegetables to include, aside from avoiding those in the cabbage family, which give off a funky taste, the field is wide open. While many say it’s imperative to start with a mirepoix, I’ve found that of the three components only onions are a must. In a pinch, I’ll use whole vegetables but usually I rely on veggie scraps, which lets me sidestep any burdensome preconceptions of how the stock should be. With scraps, I don’t have to consult a recipe or stress over what particular vegetables to put in the pot – the decision is made for me by the cooking that I’ve been doing lately. I put some combination of carrot and potato peels, chunks of bell pepper and seasonal squashes, mushroom stems, tomato tops and other vegetable odds and ends in medium freezer bags and once I have six of them there’s enough for a batch of stock. Since the composition of vegetables is always different there can be no expectations of the stock tasting one certain way. The pressure of getting it right is off.
Using scraps makes for a truly ingredient-driven approach and the freedom it gives carries over into the cooking process. Instead of thinking, what’s the best way to prepare these vegetables and transform them into a superior stock – the kind of thinking that can lead to a desperate state of mind – I take a different tack, focusing on how to creatively solve the biggest challenge of making vegetable stock. The meat variety gains its body, or richness and complexity, largely from the gelatin that’s released when the bones are cooked. When you’re dealing just with vegetables that advantage is missing which means you have to get resourceful to build the richness in. One way is to use umami-packed vegetables such as mushrooms or starchy ones like potatoes or squash. But it’s possible to make a rich vegetable stock with few, or even without any, such ingredients. I put my scraps in two casserole dishes, drizzle them with olive oil, and roast them in the oven until they’re good and browned. This gives the veggies a deep savory flavor that translates into good body. Once everything is in the pot – including a wide-array of herbs and spices (cloves, bay leaves, pepper corns, coriander seeds, thyme, rosemary, etc.) – I fortify the stock some more by pouring in a generous amount of soy sauce.
Is this the best way to do it? I don’t know, probably not. There’s a host of ways to get it right, and I’ll likely try some of them in the future but for now I’m happy with the way I make stock, and that feels like progress. I take inspiration from the food writer M.F.K. Fisher who, as a student, spent several years in a pension in Dijon where elaborate and impressive multi-course meals were de rigueur. But once she started living in her own apartment she discovered that her tastes pointed toward a different destination and found the inner strength to journey there: “I was beginning to believe, timidly I admit, that no matter how much I respected my friends’ gastronomic prejudices, I had at least an equal right to indulge my own in my own kitchen.” That’s it exactly. In cooking, the views of other people matter but they should never overtake your own.
But enough with the moralizing and back to the stock! Even though at this point I’ve made it dozens of times, and have a good handle on how long it takes (about two hours), it’s hard for me to resist checking in regularly. Every fifteen minutes or so, without thinking about it, as if I’m being drawn to the stovetop, I give it a taste and aimlessly stir the vegetables around. The water becomes infused with flavor and body gradually but still there always seems to be a short period of time – seemingly just a moment – when the liquid is transformed into stock. The difference is noticeable instantly. At one point all you have is flavored water, and whether weak or strong, it’s clearly not complete. And then, suddenly, it is. I always miss that moment – it’s so evanescent that it couldn’t be otherwise – but just as with getting it right I’m learning not to yield to disappointment. And, truly, it’s hard to get down when you’ve just made a potful of earthy stock and the whole house is filled with its delicious odor.
Vegetable Stock Recipe
Vegetable scraps (this version of the stock included peels and pieces of carrot, sweet potato, bell pepper, shitake mushrooms, yellow beets, butternut squash, leeks, and green, yellow, and red onion).
2-3 Tbsp. Olive oil
2 bay leaves; 4 small sprigs of thyme; 2 small sprigs of rosemary; 1 tsp of coriander seeds; 1 tsp of juniper berries; 3 allspice berries; 5 cloves; ¼ tsp black peppercorns (you can totally improvise with the spice and herbs you choose to include).
2 Tbsp. Soy sauce
1/2 Tsp. salt (optional)
Preheat oven to 410 degrees.
Arrange vegetable scraps in two casserole dishes and place them on the top rack in the oven. After 15 minutes, take casserole dishes out and put the scraps in a colander. Using a large spoon, press as much water out of the scraps as you can. Wipe out the casserole dishes, put the scraps back in, drizzle them with olive oil, and return the dishes to the oven. Cook for 30 minutes, stirring the scraps once during that time.
After 45 minutes of total cooking time, take the scraps out, put them in a stock pot, pour in 11 cups of water, and add the spices, herbs, and soy sauce.
Bring stock to a boil and lower temperature to about medium for a steady simmer. Skim off the fat as needed. Cook for around 2 hours or until you have a yield of about 6 cups of stock.
Depending on what you’re going to do with the stock, you may want to add 1/2 teaspoon of salt.
Semyon Khokhlov is an academic librarian and lives in Philadelphia. He has a Ph.D. in English with a dissertation on Marcel Duchamp and Gertrude Stein. His writing has recently appeared in The Fanzine.