Wednesday, March 30, 2011

On Vegetable Broth and Rising Food Costs

It's been an exciting couple of weeks. You may have thought I've been cooking less. Wrong! I've been cooking more and more. (To do: cook, photograph, let photos rot on memory card while I do freelance work that pays by the hour.) I actually have a great handful of recipes and poorly photographed dishes to share with you.

The reason I've been cooking more and more is that I can track an increase of at least 25% in food prices over the last four weeks. Do not tell me this is inflation; I took ECON 2010 and 2020 and am therefore an expert. Aside from the spirited and completely true discussion of how legalizing illegal narcotics will end the drug wars the other thing I remember from class is that inflation takes time. Needless to say, I trek to the store each week with basically the same list and the same $50 and come home with fewer and fewer bags. Which means that my Sunday is then spent making from scratch all the things I couldn't afford to buy. Like taco chips and sandwich bread. I maintain that, though you don't have to make everything from scratch, you need the knowledge and confidence to make these things just in case you see harder times. Thus, may I remind you of two big rules of thumb in this economy:

Rule #1: Expand your culinary abilities. Rule #2: Don't waste anything. (Rule #3: Cheap booze!)
Keeping in mind Rule #2, this last weekend I cleaned up all the produce I bought, made a giant salad and divided it up into lunch portions, made celery and carrot sticks for lunches, washed like two dozen sandwich bags and bread bags and hung them from an ever-evolving and ever-more ridiculous binder clip contraption held in place with various bagged foodstuffs. And in the best interests of frugality, and to stifle the guilt I feel every time I throw away peelings (no, I don't have a compost heap; don't judge), I tried my hand at vegetable broth.

So you must begin with clean peelings. Apparently--and this is reversing a lifelong habit--you are supposed to scrub your carrots first anyways and then peel them, regardless of whether or not you plan to do anything with the peelings. Same with potatoes. The idea behind pre-washing being that you don't want to track any dirt or pesticides or bacteria into the meat of the veggie you plan to eat. The benefit to all this extra work is that then you have a pot of clean garbage.

Stick with me on this.

Into your artful-looking pot of floppy celery stalks, leaves, broccoli stalks, carrot peels, add water to cover, any onion bits you might have, a dozen black peppercorns, a dozen Szechuan peppercorns and a bay leaf. Boil gently for 2-3 hours until the liquid is colored and reduced. I reduce it at this pre-strained step because I don't figure I can do any harm to the vegetables by cooking them more.

Strain the vegetable scraps out. At this point, I am giving both of us permission to not feel bad about not using these for any other food-related purpose. (You may still feel badly about not using them for composting. Don't blame me for your guilt!)

Voila! I keep running out of chicken and beef stock--or worse, I don't let myself use the chicken or beef stock as needed because it's so awesome--so having a nicely-flavored backup in the freezer is perfect. The flavor was earthy, spicy from the peppercorns, and actually quite delicious, even if you don't consider the fact that you made this fantastic broth from what would have been garbage. I am a convert. I expect to use this in a soup, a minestrone perhaps, or the Green Chile Chicken Stew that deserves a recipe revisit.

In summary:
Get in the habit of cleaning your produce before you peel it.
Save your peels in a container in the freezer until you have enough to fill half a pot with.
Boil with your favorite herbs until the broth is richly colored.
Freeze in useful portions.
Hope your parents appreciate that you can set up their Twitter accounts AND be mad frugal like their parents were.

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