Thursday, 31 December 2015

Silk in a bowl (weekend bone broth directions for kitchen virgins)

A little bird has awoken me from hibernation with a request for help. I'm more than happy to oblige in such a good cause. Here's how I do my bone broth, using a roasted chicken.

Onions, sliced lengthwise, topped and tailed, their golden brown skins left on, go into the crock pot first. Then one or two (but not more) cloves of garlic, bruised, still sheathed in their silver, to follow. The skins add flavour, trust me. A small piece of kelp, 3 inches or so. Three dried shitake mushrooms (the dusty, funky smell amuses my nose every time I open that container.) A dozen or so crinkled peppercorns, a generous helping of coarse grey salt. Half a stick of cinnamon. One or two 'arms' of a star anise or a slice or two of fresh ginger root. Sometimes, if I have any, I toss in a prune, or a twist of lemon rind. Always, a bay leaf.

On top of these, the carrots. Scrubbed, not necessarily peeled, depending on their maturity. Two, or maybe only one, depending on their girth. Like the onions, sliced lengthwise first, then crosswise if needs be.

The still warm roasted chicken goes in now, bones and skin, most but not all of the meat removed. Morsels of anything that was roasted with the bird, caramelized bits of onion and carrots, hopefully a sweet, dark sunchoke or two or four (they blacken when they're roasted in their skins, mmm). Cold water, just enough to cover.

Simmer. Stir occasionally.

Nothing could be simpler, could it? I do this right after supper, while the dishes soak and when the chicken is just (barely) cool enough to handle. It simmers all evening, I turn it off at bedtime then turn it back on again in the morning while the kettle boils for coffee. By about midday I turn it off, and put my big strainer over my biggest pot, then with a slotted spoon take out all the solids and let them drip. I transfer those to a bowl, strain the liquid through the strainer into the pot, and then, because I've learned the hard way that a hot crock pot on a cold counter can spell disaster, I rest it on a tea towel to let it cool.

This is round one. This stock I might use it as the base for a soup, but I like it best just as it is, this is silk in a bowl. An egg, soft-poached in this broth, a snippet or two of green onion over the top, served with triangles of toast is a breakfast that warms the cockles.

Round two. Repeat. Fresh onions sliced lengthwise and garlic (in their skins), carrots, return the solids from round one to the crock pot. This simmers for the rest of the day, goes off for the night, simmers again for a couple of hours the next morning. By then, the bones will be softening; I can and do cut through them with the side of my wooden spoon when I stir. The bones seem to disintegrate (and then integrate themselves into the liquid) whether or not I remember to add vinegar, so its presence or absence must not matter as much as they say. This stock will be lighter in flavour, leaving room for me to dress it up as I fancy another time.

Sometimes I skim the fat when it's cold; it's good to have some schmaltz on hand. But mostly I leave it in. There's flavour in those gorgeous globules, to me soup just seems naked without them.

On hot summer days when roasting a chicken is the last thing I want to do, I'll buy odds and ends, thighs or wings or a mixed bag to ensure my supply of broth. I make sure to put them under the broiler to brown just a little first, somehow raw chicken just doesn't give the flavour I want. When I use beef or lamb bones, I do the same.

I've learned, the hard way, that cabbage, most leafy greens and even celery are best left out of the long-slow-simmer stage; they're not part of the broth itself but part of the soups I make with it. I've learned that sunchokes, if they go in as leftovers, roasted, elevate the flavour of a chicken broth to divinity.

Above all, I've learned that tomatoes are flavour bullies; unless I want a certain sort of soup they don't get near my broth. But when I want that certain soup, I let them brawl it out with kalamata olives, extra mushrooms, extra extra garlic and green peppers that were all roasted with the chicken, along with lashings of olive oil and handfuls of oregano and basil. Then I have a broth so seductive it would make old Pan himself blush.

Every cook has their own ways, and so we should, just as every lover does. I've been told that cooking is a chore, and that I should be quick about it, get it over with so I can get out of the kitchen. Get out of the kitchen to do what, I can't imagine .. I like to linger there, but that's just me.

In truth, getting the broth going only takes me ten minutes, maybe 15. When I hear anyone saying they don't have 'the time' all I can think is 'oh my, they must be very busy indeed, poor things..' Ironic, isn't it, that when someone is that busy, they're likely also so stressed that the one thing they most need is probably a bowl of silk!

Maybe you've seen the study that came out a while back, the one aiming to burst our bubble of broth as a 'super food'. I had to chuckle. One lab experiment vs the wisdom of probably every culture in the world? I'll go with the wisdom of the grannies, thanks. I've seen broth work wonders in everyone who partakes of it; from the terribly ill going through chemo who can tolerate nothing but, to farmers with the strength of bulls. Those who investigate the science behind broth will never put their finger on where its magic lies. And magic it is. What else can we call it when we combine what is essentially scraps and leftovers into something that's so healing, so nourishing and above all so lovely?

Broth is not only cheap to make, it's money in the bank in its way. All our grannies knew the way to not waste that left over rice or those left over potatoes is to keep them for tomorrow's soup. Now our friends in the labs have discovered those leftovers not only feed us, but our gut bugs too. Maybe that's a big part of its ability to fight colds and other illnesses, not through feeding us but by feeding them, our blessed little critters. You can buy supplements in capsules, you can buy powders and mix them into cold pastes, hold your nose and choke them down - inulin, RS, PS, glucosamine, gelatin, ad infinitum according to the latest studies and marketing - or you can get it all in a bowl of silk. Heat some up in the morning, put it in a thermos and take it to sip at work, you might even avoid the flu that your co-workers are trying so hard to give you.

If I was going to place broth in a category of herbal medicine, I'd call it an adaptogen. It strengthens the weak, it calms the wired, it normalizes the metabolism to help you lose or gain weight as needed. Like the best of herbs, it nourishes deeply. You can add the tough parts of wild foods at the slow cooking stage - roots of burdock or dandelion or mallow or any of the wild fungi deepen the flavour. Or you can add young greens to your soup - nettles, mallow leaves, violet leaves or the sour ones like dandelion or yellow dock. Each have their own character and the possibilities are without end.

I always use my crock pot/slow cooker. You can make good enough broth on the stove (even on a hotplate, so there is really no excuse not to), but you can make kick-ass bone broth in a crock pot and all you need is an outlet. If you don't have a crock pot, someone you know does, deep in their garage or the back of a cupboard, it's one of those things people buy (or are given) but don't use, mores the pity. New, you can get one for $50. Scour the second hand stores and you can find one for $10. Ask your mom and you might get hers for free.

Above all, don't be intimidated, this is a simple thing to do. Don't worry about not being able to afford free range or grass fed anything to make your broth with, either, anyone who tells you otherwise is a teeny bit of a snob, has money to burn and is making the perfect the enemy of the good. If you can afford organic, free range then have at 'er, of course. But if you can't, embrace the frugality - I hereby give you permission to use a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store if you're not inclined to start from scratch (I used to buy them day-old, half price when the kids were small, what a deal that was!).

You can do this. You absolutely can.


  1. Ha! I just bought a whole chicken to roast tomorrow and make broth of the bones.

    I'm with you on the vinegar, sometimes I add, sometimes not, never seems to make a difference.

    Thanks for the timely post!
    Happy New Year!

  2. I made a quick broth with chicken thighs for mulligatawny soup. Added my already cooked potatoes for some valued RS!