Ultimately, well-made stock is the ingredient that definitively separates home cooking from the cooking of a professional.
A couple of weeks ago, inspired by Mr. Henry, I ordered a copy of Michael Ruhlman's The Elements of Cooking, a simple book on cooking basics that is loosely based on the structure of Strunk & White (which I loooove - though I know that's not always obvious in my writing).
The very first chapter in Ruhlman's book is about stock - something that (as embarrassing as it is to admit) I'd never made. I decided it was time to remedy that.
So last Friday night, I roasted a chicken, and saved the carcass in preparation. Yesterday, I put my chicken bones, along with some celery, onions, carrots and parsley, to work. Then, to test my work, I made French onion soup for dinner. I use Jacques Pepin's recipe. It's stock-heavy and I make it frequently, so I figured that Cooper and I would be able to really get a good idea of how the homemade stock differed from store-bought (as a point of reference, I usually buy either Nature's Promise from Giant, Kitchen Basics, or the Trader Joe's organic brand).
Making the stock wasn't difficult at all - the only tough part was that it needs to cook for a long time, so we were stuck at home for a big chunk of the day. Ruhlman doesn't provide an exact recipe, but I drew from his advice and from the Julia Child recipe in The Way to Cook - the recipe my mom uses.
Tasting the stock just after I strained it, I realized it was much, much more delicate than anything that comes in a box. Its flavor was subtle, but certainly apparent. I was excited to see how that would translate to the onion soup.
Now, I sometimes mix beef and chicken stock for my onion soup, but that wasn't going to work out this time, if we were going to evaluate the homemade stuff. Because of that, I also stuck with vermouth, over red wine, for my deglazing.
I worried a bit that it might be hard to detect anything new about the homemade stock, since melty gruyere is pretty intense. I shouldn't have, though. The delicate flavor and sort of lighter feel of yesterday's stock was apparent, even under a bubbly crust of cheese. All of a sudden, my old, store-bought stock-made onion soup felt like a salty TGI Friday's version of the dish.
Which is gratifying, I guess - it's nice to know that if you spend three and a half hours cooking something, it was worth it. At the same time, this makes it that much harder to think about using store-bought stock next time.
I mean, I'm sure I'll get over it, next time I want some onion soup but I don't have a) a half-day and b) a chicken in my fridge. But still, I'll know what I'm missing.