The Secret Weapon

So much of my life seems to represent a struggle against the inevitable.

If the narrative of the last ten years has been my yearning for a stable orbit, the arc of my last two has involved trying to not be engulfed by my life’s own gravity.

Dramatic changes have always rattled me, but lately I find that the force I am most viciously pushing back against is my own risk-averse nature- instincts that tether me to a too-stable job, a predictable routine… and a proclivity for occasional misery.

Maybe I have too many librarian friends who regale me with stories of strange old men murmuring to themselves in the stacks. And I exaggerate only slightly when I joke about myself becoming, in some vague way, “THAT old guy.” Every time I stop myself in mid-self-conversation on the bus (this happens more frequently than I want to admit), and I imagine myself one step closer to accepting my tragic fate. One step closer to Battlestar Galactica reruns and an adult diaper.

This was the year I was supposed to “push.” Not so much a mid-life crisis as a sustained, concerted effort to reset the trajectory. Like cleaning the apartment before guests arrive. More exercise, break the sugar addiction, and actually give thought to how I want to spend the next 30 years of my life. Because, as I’m trying to say, the alternative is simply lowering my head, admitting defeat, and falling backwards into oblivion.

The jury is still out, but I’ve made some changes I feel good about. As many of you know,I declared myself a “Henry IV” vegetarian earlier this summer. And for the most part, it’s worked. My refrigerator is now full of squash and zuccini and mushrooms and broccoli and cabbage and mesclun greens and I think I even have a parsnip or two. My cupboard contains brown rice and bulgur wheat and masa harina and marginally-edible whole-wheat penne. I have several bags of portioned fruit in the freezer ready to blitz into a morning pre-walk smoothie. And I love all of it. Mostly.

Put it this way. I don’t miss “meat.” I miss “meaty.” Savory. Unctuous. Deep and brooding. Extracted in large part from something that as some point in its evolutionary history walked upon this Earth and ultimately confronted its place along the food chain. But chicken stock is now verboten, and I had to come up with SOME way to salvage a lot of things I like to cook – dishes which can deliver vegetables, be stretched into leftovers, and still be cooked simply during the week. Things like polenta, or braised lentils or even a rice pilaf.

Fortunately, I am not without resources.

While store-bought beef broth is an unfortunate necessity, and I’ve bought chicken broth in a pinch, most vegetable broth is quite simply a sin against nature. It’s either brackish and bitter, or basically liquid salt. Even my previous attempts at homemade have been weak and watery. I want something that can elevate the flavors of what’s around it, adding a tender floral sweetness and a slight richness that doesn’t undercut the freshness of what you’re cooking. But the few times I had tried, I had either ignored common sense and made “chicken broth without chicken,” or tried gimmicky things like tomato peel that just didn’t really taste right.

But there is a trick. Actually, two of them. First, corn cobs. They are full of sweet richness and have a ton of extractable flavor. Adding a couple really improves the flavor of any boiled dish.

The second, perhaps more well known (anytime I have what I think is a cool trick, I discover the folks at serious eats have already written about it… The hipster in me is compelled to point out that I had made it way WAY before the article. But I digress) is the rind from good Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. About a credit-card sized chunk of it. You should notice the indicating it’s authenticity (I’m all about the dots). This MAKES the broth.

You’ll also notice I saute the veggies before adding water. This is a key step if you want a deeper flavor.

Anyway, two recipes. A broth and something to do with it:

Secret Weapon Veggie Broth

2 large onions, diced
4 carrots, peeled and diced
4 ribs of celery, leaves removed, minced
2 ears of corn, divested of kernels. Don’t throw leftover corn-on-the-cob into the pot, Bubba.
2 or more cloves of garlic
3 sprigs of time
A pluck of parsley
1 credit-card sized piece of Parmigiano Reggiano rind
Olive Oil
Salt
About a gallon of water

Drizzle some olive oil in your soup vessel and heat until it “Shines” but isn’t burning. Medium heat should be fine. Add the onions, carrots, celery and garlic and a pinch of salt. Simmer for several minutes – longer than you would for a stew – just until the edges of the onion are starting to brown. Add the corn cobs, parm rind, herbs and water.

Make a mental note of where the “water line” is. You might want to add a bit of water occasionally if too much water is lost to evaporation. Remember, what you are doing is more akin to brewing tea than reducing a sauce.

Bring to a full boil, straining off any gunk that accumulates at the top of the pot. There won’t be nearly as much straining as you would have with a chicken stock, but the addition of parm rind means that there will be some protein, and therefore, some work to do. Just tough it out.

Lower heat to a simmer, and allow the broth to cook for about 2 hours. Obviously, the longer you cook, the stronger the flavor.

Paradox Tomato Soup

5 Farmer’s Market tomatoes. Bigguns
1 small onion, chopped
4 cups of vegetable stock
several leaves of fresh basil
Stale bread of dubious provenance.

Peel and seed the tomatoes. Best way to do this is to score the bottom with the letter “x,” dump them in boiling water for a minute, and, then evacuate the tomatoes to an ice bath. The peels will shimmy off. And then squeeze as many seeds /goo out as is practical. Then chop.

Sweat the chopped onion and in olive oil in your soup pot, and when the onions are translucent, add the chopped tomato.

Saute the tomato for a few minutes until the mixture is very soft. You can use a potato masher or immersion blender if you want a smoother consistency.

At this point in your cooking, you must embrace the following paradox: you are going to add broth to make the tomato base dramatically thinner, and then subsequently add bread to re-thicken it. And, yes, it is entirely acceptable to simply add broth, a little bit at a time, to soften the flavors while maintaining a traditional level of richness. You are also welcome to add cream to the mixture, resulting in something like a tomato bisque (to which a few ounces of tortellini would also be great.)

I can only modestly argue that turning your soup into an Atkins nightmare not only allows the tomato flavor to “spread out” a little bit, the flavor of the bread does bring a certain nutty, grainey-ness to the final product, that hint of sugary wheat that filters out the bitter edges of the tomato. I like it.

Anyway, overcome your objections, and stir the broth in slowly. Then add the bread, a few chunks at a time, until the soup is as thick as you like it.

Serve with chiffonade of fresh basil and, if you are lucky, a slice of homemade bread.

Sorry it’s been a while since I’ve posted!

9 thoughts on “The Secret Weapon

  1. I adore your posts, and please don’t ever throw in the towel and declare defeat!

    On Parm Rinds: At the beginning there was very little waste at the restaurant I worked in especially when it came to the expensive items. So since we would buy the ginormous, very expensive wheels of parm reg we would always throw the rinds into a pot with water and make parm stock. The pots were a killer to clean, but the simple product did wonders for cream/cheese sauces and soups.

    On the tomato soup: Please send a container over because it looks delicious…especially in the “duck” weather.

  2. I’m so happy that you posted again. Your recipes are always delicious and I’m excited to see that you’ve been successful with the changes you desired in your lifestyle. The soup looks great. I’ll have to give it a go sometime soon! :)

  3. corn on a cob. genius. never would have thought of it. i did know about the parm rind but i am dairy free so that would have to stay out, which i know, is such a bummer.

    i wondered how your summer was going with the your veggie during the week lifestyle. so glad that it’s been a success!

  4. Lan,

    Flattered as always for the comment.

    The summer has, in general, gone well. I mentioned, maybe in passing, that this thing hasn’t been easy. Calibrating my caloric intake has been challenging, at times… given that I’ve started working out again while simultaneously getting rid of, well, a lot of added energy. I haven’t worked out all the kinks just yet, but I’m comfortable with the idea.

    So much more to say…

  5. Stephanie – if I had any leftovers, I would certainly share! It’s been nasty the past few days, hasn’t it. Raining too hard to ignore, but not QUITE hard enough to deploy the umbrella. I’ve been scowling.

    Appreciate the compliments, I’ve been a fan of your blog for a while!

  6. I’ve always been kinda iffy about vegetable stock. I’ll have to give yours a try. I think the corn on the cob idea is a great one : )

  7. Amy!

    I have a theory that when people say “it tastes like chicken,” its really b/c people are tasting corn. So maybe corn is like methadone?

  8. A stunning post, and so happy to see you back – though how you can retain your blogname without eating bacon is curious: do you think *baconbaconbacon* as you make this wonderful stock? Agree- corncobs and parm rind are so deeply rich and lovely, and you’ve made a beautiful recipe here……..