Thursday, March 22, 2012

One mom’s trash…

I remember the look on my mom’s face the first time she saw me throw away a turkey carcass after I hosted Thanksgiving dinner. She was appalled. “You’re not going to make soup?” she asked, aghast. “Nope.” I don’t like turkey soup. I’ve always found it to be one of the least pleasant parts of the post-Thanksgiving turkey fest. The part when you take the leftover meat, throw it into the leftover gravy, and pour it onto open-face sandwiches on white bread… now you’re talking. But soup? Soup comes in a can. And you eat it when you’re camping or when you’re sick or when you’re on Weight Watchers because a can of soup is like 3 points and Weight Watchers doesn’t care if it has a two-day supply of sodium.

Fast forward.

I still hate turkey soup, but now I would totally bag up someone else’s turkey bones and bring them home if they were going to throw them out. Two reasons. One: food snobbery. Homemade stock is better than broth from a can. It’s better. It’s just… better. More flavor, more luscious mouthfeel, better. And two: money. Homemade stock is free. It’s f&$#ing free! You make it with stuff you would throw away. How cool is that? OK, not cool-cool, I know. Cool-cool is going out to eat at trendy places and being a vegetarian and not eating turkey at all. Whatever. Still. It’s free. I’m just sayin’.

OK, now I am going to talk about making chicken/turkey and vegetable stock from scratch. I’m also going to talk briefly about a couple of other ways to save money by saving and using stuff you usually throw in the trash or the compost. Wait, never mind. I can’t really talk about that stuff here. Next thing you know I’ll be making jello molds and wearing a jaunty Christmas sweater un-ironically. Oh god, kill me. I am not that mom, I promise. In my house, the clean laundry usually sits on the ottoman in my bedroom until I just pick stuff out of the clean pile to wear again. I’m just like you. Only probably drunker. This is not a “Look how great I am because I make stock from scratch and also clean under the oven while I’m at it” blog post. No. This is a “We are all trying to find every drop of money in the budget and look, here’s how you can make free stock even if you are a total lazy ass like me” post. OK? If it helps, you can picture me doing all of this stuff in my pajamas with a big glass of box wine and dirty hair. Because that’s probably true.

OK, enough disclaimers about how I am not as Susie Homemaker as I am about to seem. Homemade stock. Here’s what I do. Any time I am making a salad or cooking anything else, I save the discarded bits of things. Celery ends (including leaves), green onion and leek tops and roots, onion skins and ends, herb stems (or extra herbs after a recipe if I know I won’t use them before they go bad), carrot bases and peels, mushroom stems, artichoke stems and outer leaves, squash ends, etc. All of these scraps go in a gallon ziploc bag in the freezer. If you want to make vegetable stock, that’s all you need. You’ll want a good amount of oniony bits, celery, carrots, and hopefully some mushrooms if you’re doing the meat-less version. It’s less important what’s in the bag if you’re making chicken or turkey stock, though onion-like things of some sort are probably necessary.

So after a meal, when you have some poultry bones lying around taunting you with how you’ll never be as good a cook as your mother, you can go ahead and make stock with the bones and those frozen veggies. OR (!!!) if you’re a lazy sack like me and just made the damn dinner and want to sit with your feet up and drink wine because you already cooked once today dammit, you can throw the bones in a ziploc in the freezer and make it when you have time. That’s the key. The freezer. Because especially after you’ve just eaten a chicken or a turkey and are filled with wonderful happy tryptophan, that is the time for rubbing your belly and then taking a nap, not being all productive and making stock from scratch.

OK, so then let’s say it’s a Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks later, and I’m feeling like I have some energy. My hubby let me sleep in, and then I got up and had some bacon, and then started my day of reading smutty novels while the kids played in the back yard. And then lunch and maybe a little mini-nap on the couch. Now it’s 2pm, and I’m feeling well-rested and wicked productive all of a sudden. This is a good time to make some stock.

Throw a bunch of veggies and herb stems and whatever’s in the freezer bag into the bottom of a big soup pot with a little bit of oil. I brown them a bit to get some caramelization going. Since they are frozen, this takes more time than usual. You don't have to do this if you don't feel like it. If you don't care about caramelization, skip the oil. Throw some garlic in—fresh, from a jar, garlic powder, whatever. Black pepper. A bay leaf if you have it. Only if you have it. Don’t buy stuff for this. Once the veggies have some color (or when you’re tired of standing up at the stove), put the chicken or turkey bones in, and fill with enough water to cover the bones. Bring to a boil and then reduce to simmer and simmer all day uncovered until it tastes like broth. For me, that usually takes about 6 hours. It depends on how much water you use. Your house will smell like soup. Be at one with that reality. Your kids will whine that they don’t like the smell and don’t want to eat whatever you’re making. Reassure them that they don’t have to.

If you’re doing a vegetable version, fill your soup pot maybe 1/2 full with veggies. For poultry, maybe 1/4-1/3 full. You know, it’s not an exact science. If you put in too much water, you’ll just have to simmer longer. No big. At the end, when it kind of tastes like broth but not quite right, add some salt. The one thing that’s hard to fix is too much salt, so go easy. Don’t add salt at the beginning because it gets saltier as you simmer and reduce.

That’s it. You strain out the stuff* and you have free f*&#ing broth. People talk about cheesecloth and whatever to make your broth very clear. I don’t have cheesecloth, so I just use a colander. Once I have my fabulous free broth, I use the smallest size plastic food storage container thingies and put 1 cup of broth in each. Freeze it, and then once frozen, you can run hot water on the bottom of the container and pop the frozen broth out. Put the 1-cup portioned broth ice cubes in… you guessed it… a ziploc. That goes back into the freezer to use in recipes. (No, I do not work for or take money from the ziploc people. And I re-use the veggie and broth-ice-cube ziplocs indefinitely because those things are not free. Unlike your broth.)

If you’re like me, you will wind up with more broth than you would normally use. Find a couple of broth-heavy recipes you like for when that happens. My favorites are sausage soup and risotto. My mushroom risotto recipe uses 9 cups of broth. Rice is extremely cheap, so at that point, you’re basically just buying mushrooms and a couple of shallots and dispensing a cup or so of wine from the Big House Unchained Chardonnay box in your fridge. What? You don’t have a box of Unchained in your fridge? Why not? It’s awesome.

Sausage soup… I can give you that recipe right here. My mom got this recipe by asking what was in a soup she liked at an Italian restaurant. They told her. It’s 4 things. And one of those things is your free f*&#ing broth. This recipe is delicious and super easy. Next time Italian sausage is on sale, buy it and make this with your free broth. Cut a package of mild Italian sausage into coins or chunks or whatever. Brown in the bottom of a soup pot until cooked through and very brown all over. Drain the fat, but you don’t have to be super fastidious about it. Sausage fat is yummy. Pour in a bunch of broth (defrost frozen broth in the microwave first). I don’t know how much. A bunch. Enough to cook a pound of pasta in. Scrape up any brown bits to make sure they’re all in the broth. Pour in a pound of pasta. I use rotini. Bring to a boil, and then simmer until the pasta is cooked. When the pasta is ready, stir in a huge amount of raw spinach. Like two bags worth or one of those big tubs. Let it cook a minute or two to wilt the spinach. Serve topped with parmesan cheese. If you have leftovers, the pasta will soak up all of the broth, so you can either eat it as a pasta dish or add more frozen free broth to make it soup again.

So, there you go. Free f*&#ing broth. What else can we do?

Bananas. Did you know you can freeze them when they get too brown? And then thaw them when you’re ready to make banana bread? They look black and gross on the outside and smell like a banana liqueur factory when they thaw, but inside, they are perfect for banana bread. Stone fruit, apples, pears, or berries feeling “less than fresh” (heh)? Cut them up and freeze them, to thaw later for a crisp or crumble.

OK, that’s enough. We’re like a paragraph and a half from my friends starting to ask if I have been taken over by aliens, so I’ll stop. But if you have any money-saving tips for making free or almost-free food** or throwing away less waste, please put them in the comments. If you would like to maintain your (perhaps questionable) street cred, clearly my preferred methods are F-bombs and revealing embarrassing things about yourself. If you would like to do both, please feel free.

*P.S. When straining out the stuff, don’t forget to put a bowl or something under the colander. It seems like a no-brainer, but usually when we use a colander, we want the liquid to go down the drain. You don’t want to pour your broth down the drain. I recommend setting up the bowl and colander on the counter at the beginning of the process, while you are still sober, so you don’t forget. You laugh, but at least one of you would have poured your broth down the drain if I hadn’t said this.

**Regarding almost-free food, one of my good friends has a food blog called The Impoverished Foodie in which she gives recipes and a cost breakdown per serving. She's gluten-free and mostly vegetarian (with some fish), and I completely trust her to make astonishingly good food on a professional musician's budget.


  1. Awesome stuff, Pam! Good tips! Here's my 2 cents for stuff you already do: you can use the free broth (instead of water) to cook really tasty grains (such as rice). You can use the frozen bananas to make yummy healthy ice "cream", by processing them in the food processor, (while still frozen) with some sweetener and cocoa powder or strawberries, or both (try one frozen banana + 2 teaspoons sugar + 2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa and /or a handful of strawberries. Yum! Oh, and you can use any frozen over ripe fruit for smoothies!

  2. No tips, but a true story.

    When Aunt Sonya and I were getting married, she did almost all of the catering for our reception in the back yard -- with the exception of her favorite seafood enchiladas from a local Mexican restaurant. This included a hundred stuffed Cornish Game Hens that she bought and cooked the night before our wedding.

    Her mom, born 1915, had already arrived at our house for the wedding and, during all this preparation, she insisted that Sonya keep the discards for stock. But we were already borrowing refrigerator and freezer space from all of our neighbors. So I took the carcasses and vegetable trimmings to the place that my roommate and I shared.

    Fast forward a year or two. My former roommate calls me out of the blue and tells me he found a big bag of garbage in the freezer. Did I know anything about it? No. Of course not. Why would I put garbage in the free -- oh, yeah. I put it it there. Sorry. Long story. Just toss it. OK?