The New York Chicken Stock Exchange
The New York Chicken Stock Exchange
I remember spending warm summer days with my Avo. In preparation for weekend family gatherings, she would cut, slice, and par-cook our most beloved family meals. Yet the use of scraps from these special meals was often a more laborious endeavor. Avo would spend hours roasting, boiling, and cooking otherwise unusable food to produce the basis for meals we would eat during the week. Things like stock, soup (caldo), caul fat, and lard were all made from this long simmering and constant refinement.
Using her favorite knife – a 9’’ patinaed butcher’s blade – she would chop chicken, duck, rabbit and pork. She would marinade the succulent and delicate pieces of meat over many nights to develop our favorite meals; unctuous pork chops, sirloin steak in chili oil, and crisped chicken breast.
She was always clear in her actions; after the food for a weekend gathering was prepped, the harder job of dealing with everything else would begin. Pots, pans and knives were strewn across every inch of space, taking over the entire kitchen.
As if an enigmatic choreographer of an orchestrated ballet, Avo’s light slippers danced from one end of her blue tiled kitchen to the other. Never taking a break until every scrap and every pot was filled and ready to simmer into the night.
Everything was used to it’s potential, and the end products were always exceptional. So much so that it seemed like the difficulty and hard work dissipated with the steam rising from the surface of her chicken caldo. The family loved these dishes dearly – hearty soups or fried cod in salty lard – but these dishes were so consistently delicious and so naturally familiar they were treated as ordinary.
Rarely a high profile dish, Avo’s Chicken Consommé (she would say “caldo!”) required an untold amount of work and time. This and other similar dishes like Sopa de Pedras or Caldo Verde were delicious and based from the chicken stock recipes developed over years from her rural Portuguese countryside. These were her weekly pleasantries, familiar, satisfying, delicious.
When we were together it seemed she was always happy taking the extra time to transform the ignored vegetable scraps, off cuts and animal carcasses to feed her family for longer. She never needed to do this, but she insisted it was the way things were, always remarking the time she spent helping her family on their farm in Alcobaça, Portugal as a young child.
Like those memories, I still remember her stockpots, filled to the brim with fragrant vegetable trim and roasted animal pieces, the aroma from these simmerings filling the house. I’ll never forget how those smells developed the context for the meal and evening to come. It was as if the family’s happiness was built upon the simmering stocks Avo would laboriously concoct.
We would enjoy soups and stocks only on weekdays. They were soul satisfying, nutritious and always flavorful. While the family would eagerly await sucking meat from small rabbit bones, and devouring large slices of pork marinated in red wine, garlic, and butter, we would fill up on caldo. It always felt better. After all, the purest flavors came from those slowly roasted bones.
These soups were built upon simple and classic recipes passed down over many generations. These simple peasant foods were made to elongate meals by using every morsel of food, but it took me years to fully appreciate how wholesome food from the brisk Portuguese countryside could be, years to understand how her time, patience, and knowledge could stretch our food and warm our hearts.
When I started cooking for myself as an adult, I figured out how and why Avo’s culinary gifts had the ability to highlight and transform the purest essence and deepest flavors of Portuguese cooking. Though the techniques are simple I always loved Sunday morning as rich and cleansing aromas filled the house. After years of watching her I developed that expert sense, that simple love.
Stocks and broths are the foundation of countless cuisines and foods— ramen, pasta, spaetzle, and dumplings, to name a few, all rely on stocks to balance otherwise bland or overpowering ingredients.
This is the case because cooking with liquid is one of the oldest methods of producing food. For centuries people utilized the thermodynamic convection currents to evenly disperse heat and thoroughly cook whatever was on their plate.
Nowadays, vegetable stock, chicken stock, and beef stock are not only used to cook carbohydrates and proteins but they are also perfect for deglazing pans, cooking grains, and adding body to flat dishes.
As understated as they may be, stocks and broths have been essential in the embodiment of our tastes around the word and over many centuries the variety and nuance of these liquids have only expanded. There are even differences between stocks and broths themselves—a broth is finished and seasoned with salt, like a can of soup and can be consumed alone, but a stock is more nuanced, using scraps, stems, and roasted bones to produce an essential and fragrant liquid.
With all of this in mind, I wanted to explore the understated world of stock and broth. After years of watching my Avo and my experience in professional kitchens I was led down an exciting culinary adventure. I wanted to challenge myself with something that was unassumingly simple and still entirely elusive, generational and culturally ambiguous. My goal was to build the perfect refined stock or consommé.
In order to do this I performed a cross evaluation of three different chicken stocks and utilized two distinct refining practices. In the end, my artifact dish became a beautiful iteration of Avo’s Chicken Caldo.
By using different parts of the bird, my primary goal was to create the most essential chicken flavor possible, while still retaining a refined finish. To do this I needed to standardize everything in the process.
I began with a simple mirepoix, an aromatic French medley of sweet, savory and earthy vegetables. Traditionally, it is two parts onion, one part celery, and one part carrot that add depth to the stock. Although basic ingredients alone, they produce a universal aromatic profile when working together. Mirepoix is also called sofrito in Italy and Portugal and used in Latin America with tomato paste to braise meats. For my stocks each batch used the same ratio of mirepoix per weight of chicken.
With that settled I had to understand the science behind how different chicken parts produced flavor in the first place. I learned roasted chicken bones and/or simmering meat infuse boiling water intensely because as internal temperature increases, complex organic molecules like myosin and connective tissue denature and liquefy. Similarly, fatty acids locked deep within bones and gelatin in mobile joints thicken the liquid, giving it a richer feel. It is these different compounds that epitomize chicken ‘flavor’, and it is through roasting and simmering that we can highlight it. More specifically I found different pieces of meat and bones produced different kinds of stocks.
In my stock-fueled experimentation I decided to keep all flavor and aromatic variables the same and only change different parts of chicken. I started with 1kg of blended lean breast, then 1kg or dark leg and thigh meat, and finally 1kg of roasted bones and wing tips.
As a cooking note, roasting meat usually removes flavor through evaporation because flavor is generally water-bound. Roasting bones on the other hand allows for softening and penetrates deeper within the carcass.
My first stock used blended chicken breast. After 5 hours this stock was tremendously translucent, almost clear, and smelled deeply of steamed or grilled chicken. This stock, however, lacked body. It didn’t have that mouthwatering back-of-mouth richness needed to produce my ideal consommé.
The darker meat stock by comparison was very cloudy and brown in color; it was visibly much fattier. Large fat dics accumulated on its surface, which meant full but not thoroughly incorporated, in other words the fat and liquid were still partially separated, signifying a lack of emulsification. This stock tasted less of chicken and more of infused oil; it had an intense coating palate quality.
The roasted bones stock was by far the most familiar and delicious. After 5 hours, it developed a slight brownish tinge with a robust and earthy aroma. This stock had a delicate balance of rich fattiness and clean chicken flavor. It was emulsified, silky and exquisitely light. This was by far the best stock recipe.
In order to produce a true consommé though this stock needed to be refined and purified. In professional kitchens, an egg white raft is used to do that. After the egg whites are added to the hot stock the proteins coagulate to produce a stringy mass that floats to the surface. This raft is made up of interlocking networks of absorbent proteins perfect for trapping impurities. Consommé utilizes this technique to slowly purify and refine a cloudier liquid. A ladle is used to burrow a hole in the center of the raft, and it is up to the chef to consistently agitate and pour liquid from the hole over the raft. Over time the stock becomes clear and refined.
My Avo would refine her stock using a more old fashioned technique. While watching her telenovelas she would slowly ladle the stock’s impurities that would bubble to the top of her pots, her keen eye and persistence was often more effective than a raft.
Even still, I utilized an entirely different method. I used Methylcellulose F50, a unique hydrocolloid that is a gelling agent that coagulates much like an egg protein. After straining the stock of larger pieces of bone and vegetable, I simmered the stock on low heat for 10 minutes slowly mixing in Methylcellulose F50. This process achieves the same clarity in a fraction of the time.
All in all, this consommé held up to my expectation. It was clear, flavorful, and delicate, ideal for making noodle soup or deglazing a hot pan. My artifact dish used this consommé as a foundation. I also added smooth udon noodles, a variety of fresh mushrooms, charred broccoli ‘dust’ and a green onion garnish.
This dish is reminiscent of the way my Avo’s caldo stock would taste in canja, a chicken based soup with liver, and thin noodles. Except in my version I added a soy and miso mixture to give umami rich flavor to the liquid, not to different from Avo’s combination of anchovies and salted lard (she still uses that on everything).
After all of my experimentation, I recalled a small hidden memory. Floating delicately on the surface of my artifact dish were these tiny shimmering fat droplets. These little bubbles visually reminded me of Avo’s soups. Growing up it seemed like the last seal of approval, the final touch on a loving delicious gift. I remember, as I’d wait for our food to cool, I would imagine strange and fantastic worlds that existed underneath the surface of the soup. The droplets were like a frozen lake protecting the mass of veggies and meat in a magical underwater world.
The fat bubbles on the surface are the last thing Avo saw as she plated our meal, and yet they were the first thing I’d see before diving in. I am proud I was able to recreate such a warm detail. Being able to reproduce a timeless memory in something so familiar and unassumingly simple (but as I’ve learned, it’s a little more complicated) is a blessing, and as I remember the smaller the fat bubbles, the more delicious the soup.
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