Regaining your kitchen mojo: the chicken stock method
This week, my dear friend Ms Manners remarked rather sadly that it seemed she never cooked anymore.
She works incredibly hard at a stressful job, her partner is a good cook and happy to do it. But these weren’t the only reasons she had virtually abandoned the pots and pans, she said wistfully. The major problem was that, despite being an excellent cook at various times of her life, it seemed now she had simply lost the zest for it, and didn’t know how to get it back. She’s lost her kitchen mojo.
We all know how this feels, right? The day you try to come up with an idea for dinner and decide that, think as hard as you might, there are only two possibilities, grilled chicken drumsticks or pesto, and you’ve had them both already this week. It’s not that you don’t want to cook other dishes – it’s that you simply can’t imagine what other stuff there might be to cook. The books on your shelves, full of recipes and ideas, are like holiday brochures: full of gorgeous places you might like to visit one day, but simply too distant, too exotic, too out of reach for now.
This is a very common syndrome, known as Culinarus Mojous Interruptus. It is characterised by a light melancholy and an overwhelming fatigue whenever the sufferer glances at the cook top. It can last for years, and the same cure doesn’t work for everyone. Fortunately though, there are a few remedies that, taken as directed, can slowly but surely restore the sufferer’s confidence and enthusiasm for cookery.
The other night I found myself in the throes of a syndrome at the complete opposite end of the spectrum; an episode of Culinarus Hyperstimulatus which manifested in waking at 3AM, insomniac with excitement about a bag of chook bones in the fridge.
This was partly inspired by my cooky brother-in-law (one of several!) marvelling recently over why people pay good money for tetra-paks of stock full of salt and perservatives when chicken stock was quick and so simple to make. I confessed I was one of these ninnies; I had not made stock for months, and I often use those cartons (my view remains that using packaged stock is pretty far down the list of culinary sins, so I have no problem with it).
But of course he’s right about it being so easy to make, and cheap. You can buy a bag of chook bones from chicken shops for around a dollar, but since I pledged allegiance to free-range or organic chook only, don’t eat all that much chicken anyway and often buy boneless thigh fillets, my supply of bones has diminished. Until this week, when I came to my senses and asked the lovely peeps at Feather And Bone to sell me some carcasses along with the whole chooks I ordered this week. A bountiful bag of four beautiful, fresh, meaty, free range chook skeletons arrived on my doorstep for the princely sum of $5.
As I flung these into two big stock pots along with the other bits and bobs, it occurred to me that maybe making a pot of chicken stock could be a first step towards regaining one’s vanished culinary mojo.
First, there’s no pressure to actually complete a whole dish, and surely there is no less stressful task than hacking up a carrot, an onion, a celery stick and a tomato and tossing it into a pot with a couple of herbs (bay leaf, thyme, parsley, whatever), the chook carcass and some water.
Second, the sensory delight of this little job is immense. For one thing, there’s the luscious smell - our front door was open to the street when I made mine, and I actually saw passers-by stop and peer into my hallway, provoked by the cooking aroma. Then there’s the visual beauty of it – the glistening little baubles of fat separating and rejoining, the gentle steam, the gradual transformation of your wan bunch of ingredients into a potful of golden goodness.
But most of all, I reckon making chicken stock provides one with an instant and very rewarding Real Cook glow.
Partly it’s to do with the busy productivity of the water toiling and simmering away (while you get to read the paper and drink coffee). Partly it’s to do with the virtue factor involved in making wholesome good use of otherwise wasted vegetable crisper odds and ends – all those tough bits of leek, nubs of carrots, limp herbs and otherwise useless parsley stalks, mushroom trimmings and overripe tomatoes. And partly, of course, it’s the incredible usefulness of the result: a splash or a litre of gorgeous home-made chicken stock can enrich anything from a risotto to pasta sauce to tagine to poaching broth to bouillabaisse to minestrone.
I have mostly made stock by bunging the leftover bones from dinner into a little saucepan with the veg trimmings before the dishwasher is stacked, then simply turned off the heat before going to bed. Recipes are everywhere and recommended simmering times vary anywhere from twenty minutes to four hours, so it’s pretty much a no-brainer, deadset simple thing to do. But I have to say there is a leisurely pleasure in the long-simmered type that doesn’t really shine through so much in the quick apres-dinner simmer. For me, anyway – I welcome dissent on this!
The other virtue of this stock remedy for getting your mojo back is that you can enter into the kitchen spirit without having to make it a performance – there’s no tricky timing to worry about, no dinner party stress, not even anxiety about a raised eyebrow from your partner, housemate or cat!
So, there’s my first tip for reviving Ms Manners’ enthusiasm for the rounds of the kitchen. Some others I’ve thought of while writing this post include:
- Have a well stocked pantry & freezer. That way, when inspiration strikes there’s no dreary going to the shops involved. Let’s face it – supermarkets drain the life force out of the most committed cooks, so you don’t want that giant obstacle in your way. My pantry essentials are mostly listed here (and lots of good advice in the comments too), but of course there are much more obvious things – salt & pepper, spices, canned tomatoes, olives, anchovies, pine nuts, etc. For the freezer, my essentials are butter, couple of bits of chicken, some chorizo sausage, a couple of other good sausages, and loads of nuts.
- Start small, start simple! Don’t try to cook a special dinner for eight until you’re really firing on all burners – you need to rebuild your confidence cooking simple but interesting things. Even if it’s just sparking up a salad with a few nuts or some lentils & goat’s cheese, start small and get the mini-buzz first.
- Go to a grower’s market or a really good fruit & veg grocer, sniff the air and get inspired (I love Addison Road Sunday market at Marrickville for its lack of pretension, cruisy vibe and good veg stalls).
- Use good equipment. No need for loads of gadgets, and nothing need be really expensive – but decent saucepans, at least one sharp chef’s knife and a sturdy food processor make otherwise tiresome chores easy and pleasurable. Would love your ideas on the basic essentials.
- Watch a bit of Jamie Oliver. He has naysayers aplenty, but I love his exuberance and egalitarian insistence that anyone can cook good food. We have two of his books and they’re both great, and I am a huge fan of the 30-minute meals show that screened here recently. Always felt the urge to cook after watching.
Okay, enough from me; it’s your turn. How do you get your mojo back back after a holiday from the hob?