Thursday, December 15, 2011

What it All Boils Down To

Mo' fat, mo' flavor.

These four simple words, spoken by Chef Ryan Dowie, quickly became a catchphrase of sorts for those of us studying under him. If he threw a full stick of butter into a pot during class, a chorus of "mo' fat, mo' flavor" would quickly resound from the audience. But maybe we're getting ahead of ourselves...

A good starting point would be to introduce Chef Dowie and explain how the heck we even know who he is. As far as we last knew, he's the head chef at the Waterfront Restaurant in Des Moines, and a part-time instructor at the Iowa Culinary Institute, part of the Des Moines Area Community College. DMACC, as it's known, has a fairly highly regarded culinary program, to the extent that there's a waiting list to even get in to the degree program. Fortunately, they also offered a one-semester seminar course to casual, "non-career" chefs. Last fall, Greg took the class.

Over the course of the semester, we moved from the basics, through soups, salads and breads to the various meats and more, learning the proper preparations for each. But one of the most lasting lessons occurred in the early weeks of the class, and it came in handy again tonight.

Any ideas what we're making out of this? Let's see: bay leaves, pepper, thyme, celery, onions, garlic, carrots, and... a bunch of empty shrimp shells? That's right, baby, we're making stock!

Homemade stock is great - it's as versatile as the boxed stuff, but you get to control exactly what goes into it, so no MSG, preservatives, or other junk. Plus it tastes so much better, and it's a breeze to make. We'll often make chicken stock with leftover carcasses; shrimp is a little less common, but we had been saving shells from several meals-worth of shrimp. Shells come free with the shrimp, so it seems a shame not to use them for something.

The first step is to chop up the vegetables. The good thing here is that the chop can be pretty coarse, since it will be simmering for quite a while (even more so with chicken and beef).

Some folks will just throw these into a stockpot with boiling water, but we prefer to sautee them about 5 minutes or so first. It releases some of the flavors, and it's how Chef Dowie taught it, so who are we to argue? We sauteed in butter, but you could use an oil if you prefer.

We also sauteed the shells for a bit, to start releasing some of their flavorful oils.

 We did this for maybe a minute or two, then added two quarts of water, plus the 2 bay leaves and a small palmful each of pepper and thyme. We don't add any salt at this point, because it's easy to overdo it. As the stock cooks, liquid evaporates off, so the salt could get really concentrated. It's best to just salt at the very end, once the stock is pretty much done.

Then comes the really easy part of making stock. Bring it to a boil, lower it to a simmer, then go watch an episode of your favorite TV show! Well, you can do whatever you like to fill that time, but you're free for about an hour while the stock does its thing, pulling flavor from the ingredients into the liquid.

About this time, you'll probably start to notice that your stock is becoming fragrant, and has taken on a much richer color. Yum! Seeing soup in your future? Only a few steps to go. Now we need to filter out the pieces. All their flavor has gone into the liquid by now, so they're pretty much used up (and ready for the compost bin). We strained through a cheesecloth and a mesh strainer. Be sure the bowl you're straining into is big enough to hold all the liquid.

And there it is. Just over an hour, and we've gone from discarded shells to a lovely shrimp stock. We're not planning to use it immediately, so we poured ours into a couple of freezer containers for another day.

Now we're all set to make a shrimp bisque sometime, possibly a gumbo, or maybe some sort of seafood risotto. The possibilities are almost limitless. And it'll feel good to use, knowing we made it ourselves.

This same basic procedure will work for any sort of stock, though the simmering times will vary. Veggie is the shortest, from about 30 to 45 minutes, chicken should go for a few hours, and beef is kind of an all day project. We hope you'll keep this idea in mind next time you're peeling shrimp, or have some leftover bones!

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