Although there's not a lot of work to do here right now in Amateur Land, there's plenty to enjoy, of course. And my favourite harvests, at all times of the year, come from my herb patch. They add so much interest to every meal, and in a small space like mine, herbs offer the best value per square inch of ground. In fact, if I could only grow one class of food plant, it would be herbs. (But thank goodness I don't have to live with that restriction!)
During the week I made some more stocks for our future use, and herbs are such an important part of making flavoured water I thought I'd devote my energies to them this time round. In fact, I can't help but start by saying that I think stock-making is made far, far too difficult by too many cookery books and experts, and a much simpler approach works just fine. Ignore the experts and make your own flavoured water, I say!
Here are some of my favourite water-flavourers: onions, eschallots, parsley, thyme, bay leaves.
Unless you want a seriously large tree in your backyard, grow your bay tree in a pot. Apart from attack by scale insect in winter (oil sprays control them, anyway) these plants are tough as teak in the right climate. Nice leaves, eh?
Ahhhh, parsley. Pictured here are both curly and flat-leaf types, and the main trick I've found with these excellent herbs is to grow them from seed. Here in Sydney they take about two to three weeks to germinate from seed, but once underway they do well. They're a bit wilty and temperamental when grown from seedlings, I've found, especially if it's remotely warm and/or dry.
This is close to my favourite plant, I use it so much in cooking. Thyme. Good old common thyme, none of that fancy lemon thyme or those other pretentious types. Give me proletarian thyme, any time. Only one plant is needed, so don't bother with sowing seed. Just grow it from a bought seedling, or cuttings. Nice little groundcover, too – loves the hot, dry weather.
Confession time: I have high blood pressure! My doctor has given me the assignment of getting it under control (bit of a sad family history of it, I'm afraid). While prescription drugs help, the better option is weight loss, exercise and improving my diet (not in deliciousness or quality, but in those obscure, unappealing nutritionist-driven measures of calories, sodium, fat, etc). And one issue I've homed in on is my salt intake. See the label above, for example, for the packaged Campbell's chicken stock in our pantry: 1300mg of sodium (ie, salt) in one 375ml pack! My daily max for sodium should be just a bit over 2000mg, so making my own low-salt stocks suddenly became a mission, not an option.
All my local supermarkets sell 'soup packs' of vegies, plastic-wrapped trays containing a few carrots, celery sticks, a swede or turnip, a potato, an onion, and several sprigs of parsley. All for a bit over two dollars. I buy and use them regularly when it's stock-making time. Here they are after my latest effort, making vegetable stock, cooked for two hours with the addition of plenty of parsley, thyme and bay leaves, plus a few tomatoes.
Carrots always win on the colour stakes, unless beetroot is around, but all the flavours are there. I like to think of the result as nicely flavoured water. This little batch isn't destined to make a soup. I'll use it to flavour vegetables or rice, in small batches.
Can't resist labelling things destined for the freezer. Here's that bowl of vegie stock measured out into 1 cup (250ml) lots, ready for freezing.
Already in the freezer, 1-cup (250ml) chicken stocks. As I don't add any salt to my home-made stocks I presume they have very little salt, apart from the naturally occurring salts in the ingredients, which aren't that many. I made this batch of chicken stocks in about 25 minutes, using just a couple of ingredients. They taste great, smell great while I'm making them, and they prove to me that making your own little quick and easy batches of stock is something worth doing.
And so, beyond the photos, a couple of recipes I use for making stocks, plus a couple of recipes using stocks. First of all, my 25-minute chicken stock.
Easy chicken stock
1. Some offcuts of chicken – eg, chicken wing tips, or backbones, or odd bits of chicken meat, with the fat trimmed off. The last batch of offcuts came about when I removed the backbone from a chicken to grill it 'spatchcock-style' (so beloved of the Portuguese), laid out flat on a grill tray. I added the wing tips and had plenty of chickeny bits to work with, especially the flavour-laden bones
2. One onion, chopped (or 2 eschallots, chopped)
3. Herbs (4 sprigs of thyme, 2 sprigs parsley, a few bay leaves)
4. 500ml-750ml water (about a pint)
5. 3-4 whole peppercorns
Method: whack everything in a saucepan, bring to the boil, simmer 20 minutes. You'll have some deliciously flavoured water, for future use in cooking (see recipe ideas below).
Easy vegetable stock
1. Bunch of vegetables, chopped: ideally, 1 onion, 2 celery sticks, 2 carrots, plus root vegies such as 1 potato and 1 turnip/or 1 swede (rutabaga), plus 2 tomatoes, chopped
2. Bunch of herbs (parsley, thyme, bay leaves)
3. Water (not too much, one to two pints, or 500ml to 1 litre)
Method: whack it all in a saucepan, bring to the boil, cover and simmer 2 hours over low heat. Strain liquid, turn vegies into soup thinned out with some of the stock, use the rest of the liquid as stock.
Easy prawn (shrimp) stock
1 bunch prawn shells (after peeling)
1 slice lemon peel and/or some lemon leaves
1 or 2 whole chillies
2-3 parsley and/or mint sprigs
500ml (1 pint) water
I make this stock when I'm cooking prawns (shrimps) for something else. After peeling the prawns, I wash the shells thoroughly, then make the stock.
To make the stock, I toss the shells into a saucepan (no oil needed) over medium heat, and the shells will soon turn pink in their own attached water. Stir shells until all are pink (only takes a few minutes). Then add the other ingredients, bring the water to the boil and let it cook for about 20 minutes.
You can use this prawn stock to make Asian-style soups such as the classic Thai Tom Yum Soup, but it also works really, really well with any seafood risotto, for example.
With all these stocks, you'll end up with very nicely flavoured water for not a lot of effort, and with a host of applications in cooking that you can file under 'secret ingredients'. I package up my stocks into 250ml (1-cup) plastic containers to freeze, which I then use in cooking.
Here's just a couple of uses I make for stocks in cooking.
Rice cooked in stock and spices
1 1/4 cups rice
1 tablespoon ghee or oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
pinch ground cloves
pinch ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
2 cups stock
Wash the rice well then drain.
Heat the oil in a saucepan then add the onion and cook 4-6 minutes until soft, then add garlic and cook 1 minute more, then add the rice and turn over in the oil and onion-garlic mix for 1 minute until well coated.
Add the stock and spices, stir well, bring to a simmer, then turn the heat down as low as possible, cover with a tight lid and leave it to steam on super-low heat for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat, stir with a fork, put the lid back on and leave it a few minutes more. Serve as a side dish with something spicy.
Variations: you can add a bit of lemon juice for a sharp flavour that goes well with seafood and chicken, and tossing in some peas or carrots diced to pea-size when you add the rice works well and fills out the meal, too.
Potatoes, carrots, greens, herbs and stock
Chop a small onion or eschallot and fry in hardly any olive oil, and when golden, add 1 chopped clove garlic and fry one minute more. Add 2 potatoes diced into 1-inch cubes, plus one or two carrots cut into half-inch dice and stir-fry for 3 or 4 minutes, until warmed through. Now add 1 cup stock plus the leaves from 2-3 sprigs of thyme and 2 sprigs of parsley, chopped, and bring to a simmer, cover with a lid and cook over low heat for 10 minutes, until the vegies are almost tender.
Then add at least 1 cup of green vegies of your choice (I prefer broad beans, shelled, then peeled again down to the inner bean, but peas are just fine, so too beans cut into smaller pieces). Just 3-4 minutes more cooking should do for a nice side dish.