About a year and a half ago I started working two days a week in the Times Square area in Manhattan. At first it was so exciting to be right there by 9th Avenue (forget Times Square -- all I cared about were the restaurant options), with lots of great food, and an hour all to myself to go out for lunch.
My friend Nick and I went out for Ethiopian, sushi, burritos at Chipotle or at the smaller family-run Mexican place, curried rice noodles at Zen Palate, Indonesian, the healthy Korean place and more.
But after a while, even just lunching out two days a week, the options got boring. And it stopped being worth it to pay $10 for a lunch that tasted good but had lots of stuff in it I didn't want to eat. It's all factory-raised meat, non-organic produce, and white flour or white rice, everywhere you go. And -- who knows what else?
So I went crazy and started bringing my lunch. I was totally inspired by Lunch in a Box, but even if I never achieve the level of Biggie's morning masterpieces, my lunches have been great.
At first I was making sandwiches and quiches and elaborate salads. I still do these sometimes. But increasingly I've been happy with soup. By now, it's become part of my Sunday routine, to make soup. From scratch. Stock and all.
I think everyone should make stock. First of all, isn't there something weird about how normal it is to throw away meaty chicken bones, and then go and buy boxed chicken stock? And, have you ever you looked at the ingredients on those boxes? It should say "Chicken bones, onion". Or "Organic chicken bones, dried shiitake mushrooms". What else is there to put in chicken stock? But the list is always longer than that.
Second of all, there is no comparison between boxed stock and homemade stock, in terms of flavor.
Third of all, how else are you going to manage to eat rutabaga, turnips, cabbage, squash and all those other things that are basically the only local foods you can get in my part of the world, during this time of year, and that make incredible soups?
This is my process:
1. Save bones. Everytime I roast a chicken, I save the carcass. This is easy: I put it in a Zip-loc bag in the freezer. It's a lot easier than taking out the garbage, which I would have to do if the carcass went into the garbage, since we have a very clever dog in the house.
2. Make stock. Some Sunday morning, when you feel like you should get something done, but also feel like sitting around, empty the bag into a giant pot of cold water, turn on the burner, and go sit on the couch with a good book. Making stock satisfies the same lazy work ethic that getting a sun tan does. You're just sitting on your butt reading a book or listening to the radio; but actually you are hard at work, preparing for the week. Sometimes I add dried shiitake mushrooms, or a piece of kombu seaweed, but it's not necessary. I let my stock simmer for hours (and sometimes overnight), but you can make an okay stock in an hour or two, if you have to.
3. Skimming. This is my favorite part. It's like cleaning without actually getting down on your hands and knees and going behind the couch. It helps that I have this great tool -- my handy dandy skimming spoon. I don't actually know what this is called. My mom brought it back from Taiwan, and I eventually figured out it was amazing for skimming stocks. They sell them here, too.
3. Straining. This is my least favorite part. It takes about 1 minute, but I find it really unenjoyable for some reason. I think I just hate throwing away the bones. Can't I find one more use for them? The thrifty Puritan deep in my DNA would love to grind them up and make bricks or something like that. (Sometimes, if there is a lot of chicken meat left over on the bones, I pick it off and feed it to my dog for dinner, which does satisfy my inner-Puritan for long enough that I can sneak the bones in the garbage.)
4. Dealing with the fat. Sometimes I chill the stock and then cut off the cold fat. But after reading Nina Planck's book Real Food, in which she talks about the anti-microbial action in chicken fat, I don't always do this. Plus, I need a hearty soup that is going to get me through a long work day, not some anemic diet soup.
5. Do your own thing. When the stock is strained, you're ready to make soup. Classic mediterranean soup-making calls for the essential trinity: celery, carrots, and onion. You can play around with this: the onions can be leeks, the celery can be fennel, and the carrots can be some other sweet orange root vegetable. But except for mild subs like that, the trinity should not be messed with. It's a solid foundation for an excellent soup. Once the foundation is down, do what you want. Lately I have been using a mix of chickpeas and green lentils, and lots of root vegetables like rutabegas and turnips. Love those spicy turnips. Last week I put a small handful of butternut squash in with the usual root vegetables, which was exquisite. I almost always add a little bit of ham or chicken.
6. Bright green stuff. Soup can get a little dark, so I like to add green beans or zucchini at the last minute. They give a great bright snap to the soup. Of course, they are not seasonal just yet, so I add a little pinch of guilt, and then it's all good.