So there was a blizzard on today. The roads were impassable, the wind is still howling and while I will have to plow out the laneway and the school bus turnaround, I’m not doing that until the snow stops. Getting to my place of employment is not an option.
So what do you do on a day fit for nothing more than staying inside and sipping warm drinks by the fire? I make venison stock (technique pictured below).
Go to any fine dining establishment elevate food and you can best that they are using in-house produced stocks to make their soups and sauces – it is these stocks that make fine dining establishments stand out from the chains and diners of the world which primarily use prepackaged stocks and bouillons. Many wild game recipes call for the addition of beef stock somewhere in the process. Beef stock is fine if you have no other options however, it seems only natural that you should be using stock derived from the animal you are cooking, otherwise the dish can be confusing in the flavours it presents. Whereas store-bought beef stocks and broths are weak and watery and tend to depend heavily on salts to provide the flavor, homemade stocks are rich, thick and bursting with flavour – requiring little additional salt and allowing the cook to season the dish at the end as opposed to continually accounting for the salinity of prepackaged ingredients.
Once you’ve made a stock you can do a number things with it. Simply cutting up some vegetables and meat and adding it to the stock with pasta/rice/barley quickly produces a hearty soup. Using it in recipes to replace the water and/or store-bought beef stock called for completely changes the flavors in the dish – and always for the better. You could, like me, slowly reduce the stock down until it is almost syrupy in nature and then freeze the stock in little cubes that I keep in the freezer and toss around like little flavour bombs whenever I feel a soup or sauce needs a meaty punch to liven it up.
When I fry up a deer steak and want a quick pan sauce, a cube of the reduced stock, a splash of red wine, a spoonful of apple jelly and some chopped shallots makes an amazing pan sauce when taken off the heat and finished by swirling in a couple of cubes of ice cold butter. Should I decide to make a quick soup, ten or so cubes reconstituted in a large pot of water makes a flavorful broth that only needs vegetables and some added meat or pasta to round it out. Even if I’m making a recipe that has not called for the addition of broth or stock I will often fire a cube or two of my own stock in to help deepen the flavors. Heavily reduced stocks are also the basis for many of the classic sauces used in French cooking. Espagnole sauce and demi-glace are both made from a basic reduced stock and are the basis for a whole series of other sauces.
Making stock is not hard but it does take time – especially if you are making large amounts of it from the bones of large animals. In our house, making stock is essentially a two, sometimes three, day affair. On the first day we roast the bones and vegetables, add the water and bring it to a simmer on the stove-top. The whole pot is then popped into a low oven for 10 to 12 hours to steep like an extremely meaty tea.
You could use veal or beef bones to make a great stock, however, I tend to use whatever is at hand from the pieces of animals I might have. Duck and pork stocks end up being the basis for a lot of the Asian dishes I cook, while pheasants and grouse stocks work really well when cooking wild rice or risotto to go with these birds. The most common and versatile stocks that I produce however, tend to be venison and/or moose/elk stocks simply because one animal can provide many liters of flavorful liquid.
I save the long bones of nearly every big game animal I get. These bones consist of the shank bones along with the femur and humorous bones. So on Saturday as I was butchering the deer pictured below I carefully saved the leg bones. The young buck had been hanging in the slightly above freezing garage for just over two weeks – about average for hanging time around here when dealing with large game.
The bones were then cracked to expose the marrow inside and then roasted in a hot oven for approximately 45 minutes and turned several times that they were brown all over. Vegetables (carrots, onions and celery are usually the main ones but feel free to do a crisper cleaning and add anything else that may be getting near its best before date — the veg are for flavouring only and are discarded) were added on top and those roasted again for another 20 minutes. The pot was filled with water and brought to a simmer (never boil) and the impurities skimmed off the top as they floated upward. Once the impurities stopped rising the whole pot was slipped into a 250° oven and left to steep all night. This morning when I woke to the news that I wouldn’t be going to work due to weather I popped the pot out of the oven, strained out all the solids and set the remaining liquor onto the deck so that the fat on top could cool and solidify. Once the fat was removed, the stock was again strained through cheese cloth to remove any little bits that might be left behind and I was left with a rich and velvety soup base. It now sits on the stove top on low — slowly reducing down through today with me occasionally skimming off any little impurities that rise to the top.
There are many other methods of making a great stock including using a pressure cooker for small batches (another post). Take the time. Make it from scratch. It is worth it.