Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Scraps-of-Summer Soup Stock

Are your tomato plants on their last legs? Is the pot of herbs on your window sill going south? Are your summer veggies almost all gone?

If so, gather up your tired, your wilted, your sunburned and your funny-looking, last-of summer produce. It's time to make soup stock.

 (The one on the left is too far gone, but the one with splits on the right is perfect.)

 (Wrinkled tomatoes will do just fine, thank you very much.)

Sure, it's too hot to contemplate soup for dinner. But you can use those final, yummy bits from the garden for a taste of summer, when the first cold winds blow.

Here's how:

Harvest your last, sad, odd-looking tomatoes, zucchini, and anything from the summer vegetable plot. (But not leafy green things like spinach and parsley: they are best when added right before serving.)

Wash all the bits and bobs, and toss everything into a large plastic container with a lid. It's okay to throw things in whole; you don't  have to cut anything up. (If you don't have a big plastic container, an extra-large, zip-style food storage bag will do.)

Carrot bits, onion scraps, and the pan juices from a roasted chicken = delicious.

Next, toss in the scraps from your last few al fresco summer dinners: think leftover corn cobs, scooped-out baked-potato skins, the tips and butts of carrots and onions, and any steak bones, nibbled-clean ribs, or chicken carcasses--skin and all--that you have accumulated. (Don't have any? There's still time: Invite some friends over for a final BBQ and voilĂ --there you go.)

If you are a vegetarian, throw in even more veggies--the flower and stem ends of bell peppers, zucchini, pattypan squash, eggplant, the butt end of celery, etc.

If you don't mind mixing meat and dairy, throw in the natural rinds (not wax ones!) from hard cheeses, like Parmeggiano-Reggiano. (If you haven't been saving those rinds, start now: Stick them in a small baggie in the freezer to keep them from getting moldy.) Cheese rinds are divine in soup stock or simmered in a tomato sauce. You'll never throw away a cheese rind again. 

Cheese rinds are pure gold in soups or tomato sauces.

When the box or bag is full-to-bursting, thaw it slightly in the fridge, then tip the contents into a large stock pot, cover with cold water, add some fresh herbs (store-bought, if you have none left from the garden), and a good grind or three of black pepper. Cover with a lid, bring to a boil, and then drop the heat down to a low simmer:

Simmer for several hours or all day if you wish. (Of course, don't leave the pot unattended.) Keep the lid on so the stock intensifies without drying up.

(I strongly recommend adding corn cobs to your stock. Corn gives a silky texture and another layer of flavor to stock.)

When you think most of the flavor has been cooked out of the scraps and bones, carefully pour off the liquid into a large mixing bowl. Discard the solids. Put the bowl into an ice bath in your sink to drop the temperature a bit, then put it in the fridge overnight.

In the morning, scrape off any fat that has congealed on the top, take note of the amount of liquid left, and pour it into a clean, zip-style freezer bag. Zip the bag shut. (Although you could add salt at this point, I don't advise it. You can always add salt later, right before you serve the soup.)

Label the bag with a felt pen (i.e., "chicken/veg stock; 1 qt."). Then place the stock flat on an emptied shelf in your freezer.

(If you're like me, you may have to temporarily shuffle things around to clear some horizontal space.)

After the bag's contents are frozen solid, stand the bag up, book-style, on a shelf in your freezer:

They may look ugly, but these bags are filled with the beginning of a delicious soup or stew.

When the cold winds blow, take a bag out, thaw it a bit in your fridge, then tip it into a large soup pot. Roughly dice up whatever veggies you have on hand--potatoes, onions, parsnips, carrots, celery, bell pepper, frozen peas, even canned mixed veggies will do--and bring to a boil. Drop down to a simmer, and in 20 or so minutes, give it a taste. Add salt if necessary.

If your soup seems sort of thin or "anemic," here's three quick fixes: 1)Add some leftover cooked grains such as rice, quinoa, barley, or even plain, unsweetened oatmeal. 2)Use a microplane to grate in some cheese. 3)Add a few slices of cubed soft bread, like challah, white bread without the crust, or brioche. The bread breaks down as it simmers and thickens the soup in a delightful way.

There's always leftover challah in our house. It's perfect for thickening up a vegetable soup.

Using not much more than the leftovers from your vegetable garden and your summer BBQs, you can create a fantastic, hearty, made-from-scratch vegetable soup that tastes of summer.

And from now on, promise me you'll save your corn cobs, cheese rinds, and funky-looking veggie scraps?

But you can save a few cherry tomatoes for my pugs.

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