Stock_PotI haven’t done a food post in a while, and this is one of my favorite cooking tricks, so I thought I’d share it with the rest of the class.

It’s homemade stock.

I think a lot of people have the idea that making your own stock is a big pain. But it’s really not. It’s ridiculously easy. And homemade stock adds a wonderful richness and complexity to your cooking. It’s delicious in soups and stews; we always make pots of beans with stock; it’s essential in gravy, in my opinion; and you can cook rice with stock instead of water, to give it flavor and a little more substance. Almost any savory dish that you cook with water can be enhanced by using stock instead. And yes, homemade is better than store-bought.

Besides, if you eat meat, making stock out of the bones gives you that whole “using every part of the animal” thing. I’m not a vegetarian, but I sort of feel like I should be, and getting as much use out of the meat as I can is one of the ways that I assuage my guilt about it. (Not eating it very often is another; mostly eating free- range, grass- fed, pasture- raised, etc. meat is another.)

So here’s my EZ, low-stress recipe for homemade stock.

The Meat Version

Vogelskelett1. If you cook with or eat meat, save the bones. If there’s meat or fat on the bones, that’s good, but it’s not necessary. Keep them in a big, gallon-sized freezer bag in your freezer. (This is the part that grosses Ingrid out — she had a hard time getting past the “Why are we keeping garbage in our freezer?” issue — but I think I’ve finally convinced her that chicken bones are an ingredient, not trash.) I sometimes even ask restaurants to give me the bones in a take-home bag if there are any left on my plate.

We keep chicken and beef bones separate. I suppose you could mix them, I’ve never tried it — but different animals have distinctive flavors, and I’m inclined to think that mixing them would be a muddle. Also, we don’t cook with beef often, and when we do it’s kind of a big deal — so we like to keep our beef stock for special cooking occasions. (We’re still cooking with the bones from our Christmas roast beef.)

You can also include the rinds of hard cheeses like Parmesan in your frozen bag of bones. It makes for a very rich, smoky, strongly-flavored stock, so be sure that that’s what you want if you’re going to do that.

Vegetables2. When you’ve saved up enough bones (and hard cheese rinds, if you’re doing that), put them in a big-ass cooking pot. Add in a bunch of cheap, flavorful vegetables: onions, carrots, garlic, celery, bell peppers, corn, pretty much whatever you want. (This is a good use for veggies that aren’t actually rotten but are past their prime — rubbery carrots, wrinkly peppers, that sort of thing.) Just be sure the veggies are the flavor you want: tomatoes, for instance, will give your stock a very strong, tomatoey flavor like ministrone, so don’t use them if you don’t want that. If you want to play it safe and have a very versatile stock, stick with onions, garlic, carrots, and celery. Chop the veggies up some, but you don’t need to do it finely — big chunks are totally fine. And don’t bother chopping the garlic — just peel the cloves and throw them in whole.

Add some whole peppercorns (more or less, depending on how much pepper you like — I usually use a small handful for a big stock pot), and fresh herbs of your choice. (When we make stock, we usually just get the packet that our organic produce delivery service calls “mixed herbs,” and that works just ducky. And no, you don’t need to make a sachet out of the herbs — you’re going to strain it all out anyway, so just throw the damn herbs into the pot already.) The pot should not be too full — say, about a third to a half full of bones and veggies.

Salt is not necessary or called for. You can add salt to whatever you’re cooking with your stock. The stock doesn’t need it, or want it.

Pot3. Cover the whole mess with plenty of water. Bring it to a boil, turn it down to a simmer, keep it covered, and cook it for about an hour. You can stir it now and then if you like, or you can leave it the hell alone.

Sieve4. Strain out the boiled bones and veggies from the yummy liquid. You’ll probably need to do this three or four times to get all the pulp and gunk out. Use a sieve, and keep straining until you’re no longer straining out a significant amount of pulp.

Throw the boiled bones and veggies away. They are now useless: the flavor and nutrition has been boiled out of them and into the stock. That’s the whole point. However, if there’s any edible meat left, you may want to pick it off the bones and keep it with your stock. You won’t want to make a sandwich out of it or anything, since it’s now been boiled to a fare- thee- well, but it can add some meatiness and substance to soups and stews.

You can use your stock right away, or you can stick it in your freezer and use it whenever you want.

Many recipes call for roasting the bones and veggies before you simmer them. Supposedly this makes for a richer, more flavorful stock. But it’s also, obviously, more work… and for me, one of the great joys of stock is how fracking easy it is. I love doing something that adds such a distinctive touch to my cooking, with so very little effort. So I’ve never bothered with the roasting. But if you think I’m wrong about this, let me know.

The Veggie Version

Vegetables 2The veggie version is exactly like the meat version. Just leave out the “storing the mutilated skeletons of dead animals in your freezer and then boiling them in a pot like a ghoul” part. If you eat cheese, though, hard cheese rinds are a very nice addition to a veggie stock, giving it that smoky richness without the dead animals. So when you’ve grated your Parmesan down to the rind, put the rind in a baggie or a Tupperware in your freezer, and use it when you’re ready to make your stock.

The big downside of homemade stock is that, between the last batch of stock you made and the bag of bones you’re saving for your next batch, it can take up a fair amount of room in your freezer. But IMO, it’s totally worth it.

Any thoughts? Do any of you make your own stock — and if so, what tricks do you have to offer?

Mixing Brown and White: Rice, Pasta, and Pointless Carbs

BreadI’m not an Atkins devotee. Far from it. Grains and bread have been a staple of the human diet for millenia, and I think any diet plan that treats them like Satan incarnate is a bit off the rails.

But I do try to limit what I call “pointless carbs.” White bread, refined sugar, Twinkies. That sort of thing.

And I run into a problem when it comes to rice and pasta.

PastaOn the one hand, white rice and white pasta definitely count as pointless carbs. They’re made from grains — in the case of white rice, they are grains — that have had most of the icky fiber and nutrients processed out of them, leaving behind only the glucosey goodness.

On the other hand, I think brown rice and whole-wheat pasta taste like peat moss.

So a few years ago, Ingrid and I went to a restaurant with a wonderfully elegant solution to this problem. (The Big Sky Cafe in San Luis Obispo, if you want to know.)

They had mixed brown and white rice.

And ever since then, that’s how I’ve been making rice. Pasta, too. Half brown, half white.

Brown_and_white_riceI actually think it tastes way better than the plain white rice and pasta that my Midwestern palate was nurtured on. You get this lovely complexity of flavor and texture with the mix. The stronger, earthier flavor of the brown gives a nice balance to the milder flavor of the white, and vice versa. And you get the dense, rough texture of the brown, without feeling like you’re chewing through a hay bale. It’s definitely a best of both worlds deal, a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

I realize that plain brown rice and plain whole wheat pasta would probably be better for me. But I don’t like them, and I’m not going to eat them, and it’s not better for me if I don’t eat them. Mixing is a good compromise. The harm reduction model of healthy eating.

Kitchen_timerThe only tricky part is the timing. Cooking times are different for brown and white rice and pasta, so you have to finesse that. It’s really not hard, though. You can cut the Gordian knot if you like: make the brown and white in separate pans, and mix them when they’re done. But if you want to cook them in the same pan, just put in enough water for both, put in the one with the longer cooking time, and then put in the one with the shorter cooking time later, timed so they finish together.

Example: If your whole-wheat pasta takes 12 minutes and your white pasta takes 10, just start cooking the whole wheat pasta, and put in the white pasta 2 minutes later.

Or for rice: If your brown rice takes 40 minutes and your white rice takes 20, start cooking the brown rice, and add the white rice 20 minutes later. Be sure to start with the right amount of water for both. (I know, your mother told you never to remove the lid when you’re cooking rice; but really, nothing terrible will happen if you just do it once.)

Anyway. This works really well for us, and I thought I’d pass it along. If you try it, let me know how it goes.

Chopped Salad

SaladThis one goes out to everyone who hates salad. Or who just doesn’t like it.

I’ve never been a salad fan. It’s not my sworn enemy the way broccoli is, and there have been individual salads in my life that I’ve quite enjoyed. But as a rule, I find salads tedious. A chore. Unobjectionable, but still something I eat because I feel that I should, not because I actually want to.

But I had this dish at a dinner party recently, a salad that I loved and actively enjoyed. I’d never even heard of it before this dinner, so I wanted to share it with the rest of y’all who don’t much like salads but wish you did.

It’s chopped salad.

It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It’s a salad, with greens and stuff; but instead of the greens being in big leaves that you have to chew through like a cow, the whole thing is chopped up together into fairly fine pieces. The contents are totally green salad contents; but the vibe is more like a relish than a green salad.

Cow_female_black_whiteAnd I had this flash of realization. The reason I don’t like salads isn’t that I object to the taste of lettuce or spinach or whatever. The reason I don’t like salads is the whole “chewing through the leaves like a cow” thing. That’s what makes it feel like a chore. When the greens and the goodies are all chopped up together, you get the deliciousness, without the “chewing your cud” experience. Plus you don’t have to wade through the big chewy leaves to get to the yummy treat parts; it’s all chopped up together, and you get little bits of the whole salad in every bite. And somehow, chopping it up into smaller bits brings out the flavor of the greens in a really nice way.

Chopping_boardThe one we had at the dinner party had nuts and cheeses chopped into the greens; so I made one last night with spinach and walnuts and blue cheese (which is what we happened to have around the house). It was marvelous. And easy-shmeezy. You basically just make your salad, chop it up as finely as you want (which took about five minutes), and dress it however you normally would. (Although I’d personally stay away from gloppy creamy dressings like ranch or blue cheese, since I think that would just make it a mess. I’d stick with oil and vinegar, oil and lemon juice, things like that.)

I’m not sure how it would work with a regular salad with lots of vegetables, like tomatoes and cucumbers and stuff. Although it might work just fine. But for the sort of salad with greens and nuts and bits of cheese, it’s yummers. I am now completely sold on the whole salad issue. Kudos to Jimmy, who has opened my eyes like no-one else before to the way of the salad.

When Life Hands You Cliches…

Life handed us lemons this week.


In a very literal way. We get a weekly delivery of organic groceries and produce from Planet Organics (a service that we love, btw), and normally we custom order to get the particular produce we want. But this week I forgot to custom order, so instead we got the produce that they picked for us.

Which included four lemons.

Lemons that we didn’t really want or have any use for. Also, we have a lemon tree in our backyard, so they were superfluous as well as being unwanted.

So there was really only one thing I could do:

I made lemonade.


Hot honey lemonade, to be precise. What with the weather being so cold and all.

I mean, what the hell else was I supposed to do? Life had handed me lemons. I don’t really see that I had a choice here. The opportunity was just too perfect.

When life hands you lemons, you damn well make lemonade.

And when life hands you cliches, you gas on about it in your blog.

Dinner, Art, and Class Warfare: The French Laundry

French_laundry_2I’ll admit right up front: I may be being unfair.

Here’s how this got started. Ingrid and I have a big anniversary coming up soonish: in January 2008 we’ll have been together for ten years. We’d been making vague plans to celebrate by going to The French Laundry — considered by most to be the best restaurant in the entire Bay Area, by many to be the best restaurant in the country, and by some to be the best restaurant in the world. We knew it was pricey, but when one of the best restaurants in the world is just an hour away, it seems a shame not to splurge on it at least once.

Money_2So we were chatting with my in-laws when the subject of The French Laundry came up. We mentioned our plans
 and they told us exactly how expensive dinner for two at The French Laundry is.

Including everything — food, service, wine, tax — dinner for two at The French Laundry costs about $750.

And poof — there go those plans.

It’s not so much that we can’t afford it. If we saved up, if we stopped going out to dinner for a few months and set that money aside, I’m sure we could manage.

CheBut the idea of spending $750 on dinner for two makes my gorge rise. It doesn’t make me think “romantic luxury splurge.” It makes me think “class warfare.” It makes me think of what the blue-collar families in our neighborhood — hell, on our block — could do with that money. Hell, it makes me think about what we could do with that money. The thought of taking that money and shoving it down our gullets makes me both morally and physically nauseous.

FloysterWhich isn’t exactly the frame of mind you want to be in when you’re eating at the best restaurant in the world.

But I started this piece by saying, “I may be being unfair,” and I meant it.

SunprotectionIt can be argued — it has been argued — that a meal at a place like French Laundry isn’t simply a luxury or a splurge. It’s a work of art. And I don’t have any moral revulsion at all over spending $750 on a work of art. I’d do it all the time if I could afford it. I get a little grossed out when I read about millions of dollars being spent on a Van Gogh — especially since Van Gogh lived and died in poverty and won’t ever see a dime of it — but if someone spent $750 on a sculpture by my friend Josie Porter, I wouldn’t be troubled in the slightest. I’d think she deserved every penny of it, and more. Artists work hard at what they do, and spend lots of time learning how to do it well. And I don’t have any doubt that the chefs at French Laundry are artists.

Hundred_dollar_billAnd it’s also the case that this is, to some extent, a question of scale, a difference of degree and not of kind. We’ve never in our lives spent $750 on dinner for two — but we’ve certainly spent $60, $80, $100. Not that infrequently, either. And while the idea of people spending $750 on dinner for two makes me think fond thoughts about storming the castle and parading around with the baron’s head on a pike, I’m sure that for many people, the idea of people spending $100 on dinner for two makes them feel exactly the same way.

FlparmesanSo maybe the whole gorge-rising, heads-on-pikes, moral and political outrage thing really isn’t fair. Maybe it does make sense — not just financial sense, but moral sense — to save up our eating-out budget, to forego the nice dinners out for a while and save up for one truly spectacular one.

I dunno. I really can’t figure this one out. Thoughts?

Sculpture above: Sun Protection by Josie Porter. Copyright © 2006 Josie Porter, all rights reserved. Image reprinted with permission of the artist, who totally kicks ass.


LoafWe discovered a trick about bread recently that changed our lives — a small change, granted, but a wonderful one — and I wanted to tell you all about it. (And yes, I’ll be getting back to the Big Questions soon. Come the new year, I’ll be posting about atheism and sex and grammar and other controversial topics. I’m just giving myself a short break from it all.)

AcmeAnyway. Bread. I’ve always loved those crusty artisanal peasant breads from Acme and the like. They’re so… bready, so much like what bread is supposed to be like and what mass-produced sandwich bread is just a pale imitation of. But it goes stale so fast, in a day or two, and the two of us just don’t eat it fast enough to finish even half of it before it goes to waste.

BoulotBut we recently started getting Bay Bread Company bread in our Planet Organics basket (par-baked, so we can finish baking it fresh ourselves)… and it changed our lives. Not just because it’s amazingly delicious bread (although it is). It changed our lives because it came with instructions on how to keep a loaf of artisanal bread fresh.

I desperately wish I’d known about this sooner. I’ve wasted years of my life eating mass-produced sandwich bread just because it stays fresh longer. So in case any of you have found yourself in the same “can’t eat it fast enough before it goes stale” predicament, I want to pass these instructions along.

1. When you cut the bread, store it cut side down on a wooden cutting board.
2. Cover it snugly with a cotton cloth (a dishtowel is fine).
3. Once a night before you go to bed, sprinkle a few drops of water on the towel.

ClothSimple, no? And it totally works. The bread’s obviously not quite as fresh on the third day as it is on the first, but it’s still yummy and edible. And it means we never have to buy mass-produced sandwich bread again. For which we will be forever grateful. Enjoy!

The New Comfort Food

Comfort_food_2So enough for the moment with the heavy blog topics that keep me up at night. About a week ago I invented a new comfort food, and I thought y’all would like to know about it.

I came home last week from a day of running errands in the cold and the rain, wanting something to eat that was (a) hot, (b) gooey and melty, (c) loaded with protein, and (d) chocolaty. If it weren’t for (d), I’d have gone for a grilled cheese sandwich like I usually do. But chocolate — hot, gooey, melty chocolate — was essential. Cranky hunger is the mother of invention, and I came up with this new comfort food treat that’s definitely making it into the regular rotation:

Chocolate_chipsThe Grilled Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chip Sandwich.

The recipe is simple. Self-evident, even. The only trick is that you have to put peanut butter on both slices of bread, so the chocolate chips get sandwiched in between. And you should grill at a fairly low heat, to give the chips time to melt. I used butter in the frying pan, for the deliciousness; and I used whole wheat sandwich bread, to pretend that it was marginally healthy, and also ‘cuz that’s what we had in our fridge.

SandwichI’ve probably re-invented the wheel here. I’m sure I’m not the first to think of this. But I’m ridiculously proud of it anyway. If any of you try it, tell me how it goes. And if any of you have ever invented any comfort foods, let me know! I’d love to hear about it.

Dream diary, 5/21/06: Cream pie and Star Trek

Cream_pieDream #1: I dreamed that Ingrid was teaching me how to make a cream pie filling out of frozen waffles, Cool Whip, and frozen fish. It was important that you use the right kind of frozen fish, and you had to use two different kinds. The filling was suprisingly tasty, but somewhat bland, and Ingrid was explaining how to add flavor — there was a complicated formula, things like “To make it taste like blueberries, you have use coffee.”

StartrekDream #2: I was trying to convince the buyers at my job (Last Gasp, the small press/alternative book and comic distributor) that we had to carry every Star Trek magazine that was published, and to take all of them to all the book conventions we attended.

I seem to be dreaming a lot lately about food and pop culture. I don’t know what this means.

Truth is grosser than fiction: The Thorax Cake

So the other day I was googling “cake,” looking for the women who throw the feminist stripper parties… and about the tenth entry from the top on Google, I saw this phrase:

“This year I decided to go the whole hog and make an entire thoracic cavity cake.”

Naturally, I immediately abandoned my search for boring old feminist stripper parties, and instead followed this bright new trail in search of the pleasures it might bring. The road less travelled, and all that. (I’m sure Robert Frost was talking about thoracic cavity cake Websites when he wrote that…)

I’ll warn you — the picture below is gross. Amazing, but gross. (Do click to enlarge — the level of detail is stunning.)


There is, in fact, an entire multi-section Web page devoted to this thing — including details on how it was made (it took hours and hours of work), the event it was made for… and, of course, many more pictures, both of the finished product and the steps along the way. It’s here:

I don’t really know what else to say. I’m kind of speechless. All I can say is: I love people. People are so deeply weird, it kills me. I love that people will spend hours and hours making something this elaborately grotesque, only to offer it to their friends the next day to be eaten. (Well, okay, and to photograph it and put it on their Website… but still.) We can be such a beautiful, obsessive, profoundly odd species, and as fucked-up as we are, there are times when I feel blessed to be part of it. And discovering that I share the planet with the creator of the thoracic cavity cake was definitely one of those times. Mazeltov.