For the record, I am not a vegetarian. I may love vegetables with an obsessive urgency, but I ate rabbit loin last week at the Blue Plate and wild boar sausage the week before that at Suppenküche. I am not a vegetarian–I'm a meat snob. It's easier (and most definitely cheaper) to find beautiful veggies requiring minimal labor to produce a healthful, satisfying meal than it is to locate and buy responsibly raised meat and do the same. I love quail, but I'm not going to buy one from Wolfe Ranch, let alone stuff it with chestnuts and chorizo, lacquer it with honey, and roast it in my oven at home (à la Deuce restaurant, where I used to work). Housemade sausages from Bi-Rite are one non-labor-intensive exception, but should be used sparingly, and Marin Sun Farms produces glorious but pricey beef and chickens (sold at the Ferry Building with the feet on, to my delight). All this meaty rambling isn't meant to imply that vegetarian cooking is inherently easy–just easier for a nearly broke, eco-conscious health nut to engage in. Plus, eating meat infrequently means that I appreciate it when I do. As with butter and salt, the flavors that come from animals (including their bones and entrails) should be savored slowly.
Recently, I had leftover corncobs hanging around after making cheddar corn chowder and I tracked down a recipe for corn stock in Annie Somerville's Everyday Greens. As per my usual cooking routine, the recipe was more of a starting point than a magical list of instructions to be followed exactly, lest my potion turn to sludge. What follows is a chronicle of my first-ever attempt to make vegetable stock from scratch.
Into a pot I threw:
5 corncobs, broken in half
2 large carrots, cut into sizeable pieces
1 fennel bulb, quartered, plus stalks & fronds
1 smallish yukon gold potato (also a chowder straggler)
1 large yellow onion, quartered, with skins on
5 cloves of garlic, smashed, with skins on
1 bunch of cilantro stems
5 fronds of carrot top (subbed for parsley)
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon kosher salt
10 cups of water
I covered the pot and brought the water to a boil, then removed the lid and lowered the heat until the liquid was bubbling at a very gentle simmer. I left it that way, steaming up my kitchen, for the next hour. The garlic aroma wafted outward first, followed by cilantro and onion, reminding me of my grandmother's house on Thanksgiving. Honestly, the scent alone is reason enough to try this. When the veggies looked like their life force had been extracted (see photo below), I poured the concoction into a colander over a large bowl, then poured the broth through a fine sieve (sometimes called a china cap or chinoise) into another bowl. Then I heaped the softened vegetables, in batches, into the sieve and pressed the juices out with a wooden spatula. According to Mark Bittman–who I sometimes but sometimes don't trust–this is a necessary, flavor-enhancing step (as is pre-roasting the veggies, which I'll try next time). Kat recommends reserving the mushy carrots and using them to enrich tomato sauce.
The finished product, I must admit, was a slightly unappetizing shade of green–similar to that of spirulina-tinged beverages. I blame it on the fennel fronds and carrot tops, which weren't in the original recipe. Algal appearance aside, after adding a little salt, it was delicious: clean, sweet, and fragrant. Like nothing I've ever poured from a hermetically sealed carton, but perfect for the next night's soup of soba, tofu, bok choy and rapini, which caused my carnivorous roommate to exclaim, "It smells fantastic in here!"