Few things will improve your cooking as much as getting rid of all commercial broth products and making your own. On my website I have extensive notes about broth-making, and you can read them here. In this post, I’ll just add a few notes about broth and its uses, and refer you to that site for the details.
Use very good materials to begin with. You can get lovely flavorful pastured chicken necks and backs from Pollo Real at the Santa Fe farmer’s market, and there is no better basis for chicken broth. Give the roasting step the time it needs, and the pay-off in flavor will be considerable. Don’t salt your broth, because you may want to reduce it later which will concentrate it manyfold. I pressure-can mine for later use, but if you have room in your freezer, that’s an easier alternative.
Once you have good broth on hand, you can use it to reduce waste and pick up some goodness from all kinds of things that you might otherwise discard. If I buy a pound of oyster mushrooms or shitake mushrooms to roast for a winter dinner, I put the stems and trimmings in a quart of broth to simmer for an hour, building the foundation for a great mushroom sauce or mushroom soup on another day. Chicken bones left over after dinner? Pop them in a quart or two of broth to simmer and enrich the flavor. Onion skins and ends on your cutting board? A slow simmer in broth will improve its flavor and give it a lovely gold color, and the rawness of the onions is lost en route.Many people save their bones and vegetable trimmings in plastic bags in the freezer, but I think the flavor is better if you simmer them while they’re fresh. The broth can be frozen more successfully than the ingredients.
Fish and seafood broths need to be cooked separately from other meats, naturally, and don’t include any salmon trimmings. I love salmon, but it does ruin fish fume’. But if you buy a few mild fish heads to start fish broth, then every time you have shrimp shells, crab shells, or any other flavorful but inedible seafood bits available, you can extract its flavor in broth and save the broth for a great paella or gumbo when you’re in the mood.
Once some good enriched broth is hanging out in your kitchen, what do you do with it? There is almost no pan-grilled or roasted meat that can’t be improved by a simple reduction sauce. Remove the meat from the pan, pour a cup of good broth into the pan over high heat, boil hard and scrape all the lovely browned bits into the broth, and when it’s reduced to a few tablespoons and has a syrupy consistency, swirl in a tablespoon of butter and serve immediately. A glug of good red or white wine, depending on the meat and seasoning, can be added to the pan for the initial deglazing, then add the stock and boil down. If you want to get fancier, most of the sauces of classic French Cuisine are at your command when you have really good broth to start with, and you can check out Glorious French Food or another cookbook to consider your options. Grains like rice and bulgur are delicious when ccoked in broth. If you’re a fan of Mexican cooking, you’ll want to try Zarela Martinez’s trick of toasting dried chiles of various kinds and then soaking them in broth rather than water before grinding them into a mole’ paste or other flavoring paste. Great stews like coq au vin are within your reach, although they will use up a lot of broth, which is why you make a lot in the first place. A paprikash like the one above requires little more than a meaty main ingredient, top-notch paprika, and really good broth (my own far-from-conventional recipe is below.)When I’m feeling dispirited and glum I revert to my Louisiana roots and make gumbo, and it invariably cheers me up, and usually cheers some other people too.
I advise avoiding strong-flavored vegetables of the cabbage family, such as broccoli and kale, for general-purpose broth. If you use leafy greens, they will color the broth, so don’t use them unless you’re willing to have green broth. Onions, carrots, celery, shallots, and leeks are aromatic staples that improve any broth. If you want to make all-vegetable broth, my favorite way is to roast the vegetables to bring out their flavor via the lovely Maillard reactions, and add a few mushrooms for the base note; dried shitakes are especially good for this, and as long as you don’t use too many, the flavor will not be identifiably Asian. .
If we can grasp some positive principle from the wretched ecomony, it should be to get the best value we can from everything we use. Nothing does that better or more gracefully than broth.
Somewhat Eccentric Paprikash
The reason that my version is non-classical is also the reason that it tastes great: I use Spanish pimenton vera instead of ordinary paprika, because the warm full smoky flavor simulates cooking on a wood stove, and I use porcini flour instead of wheat flour as the thickener. This isn’t necessary, but the lovely complex woodsy notes that it adds are worth trying. If you don’t have any or don’t want to order any, use ordinary white flour.
2 tablespoons butter, preferably pastured
4 chicken thighs, preferably Pollo Real or other pastured chicken
1 medium onion, finely sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons Spanish Pimenton de la vera, or smoked paprika (you can find it at The Spanish Table in Santa Fe.)
2 tablespoons porcini flour
2-3 cups good full-flavored chicken broth
1/2cup cream fraiche or sour cream
salt to taste
Melt the butter over medium heat and brown the chicken thighs. Set them aside and add the onion to the pan. When it is cooked and just starting to turn gold, add the chopped garlic and cook a little longer. Stir frequently, and don’t let the mixture brown. When the garlic in the mixture is cooked, add the paprika and porcini flour and stir a few minutes, until they are fragrant, but don’t let them burn. Add the broth, stirring vigorously. When the liquid is smoothly incorporated, put the chicken thighs back in the pan, add salt to taste, and simmer until the chicken is cooked, about 30-35 minutes. Off the heat, stir in the sour cream, check the salt, pepper to taste, and serve over spaetzle or egg noodles with your favorite greens alongside for a very warming dinner indeed.
Just as a point of interest, in addition to its vitamins and other antioxidants, paprika is one of the few really good sources of an antioxidant called zeaxanthin, which is being investigated in prevention of macular degeneration. I just eat it because it tastes so good, but who knows? There may be a hidden bonus someday.