Alex Makes: Homemade Vegetable Stock

Every week Alex Guarnaschelli, host of Alex's Day Off , shares with readers what she's eating -- whether it's from the farmers' market or fresh off the boat, she'll have you craving everything from comfort food to seasonal produce.

Why make vegetable stock? That has been a question I've asked myself for years, until I gave it some thought. I find when I make vegetable soups, I turn to butter or cream for thickness -- I wanted another option. Why not vegetable stock? Unlike meat stocks, they don’t need long-term cooking to bring out their flavors. Vegetable stocks are a cheap date. Here are a few rules I follow:

1. Avoid any really strong herbs (i.e. dill or an abundance of rosemary) or vegetables that may have a bitter skin (i.e. squash or rutabaga). Mushroom scraps are gold to me (don’t forget to wash them first).

2. Strike a balance: If you're mixing a lot of different vegetables, try to balance between inherently sweet vegetables (squash, peas and corn) and slightly bitter (chicory and endive) ones. For a thicker stock, wrap a handful of lentils or dried white beans in cheesecloth and cook in the vegetable stock until tender. Purée the beans and put them back in the stock to thicken.

3. Make sure your vegetables, both whole and scrap, end up cut to a similar size and thickness when they go into the pot. That way, they will cook more evenly and result in a better flavor.

4. Scraps definitely belong here but don’t go overboard. One of my mentors wisely told me, “Stock pots are good for scraps but they are not garbage cans.”

5. How much stock do you really need? Not much. Better to make less stock with more flavor. Be skimpy when adding the water and generous when adding the vegetables. I made a lot of vegetable stock that tasted like dish-water before learning my lesson.

Simple Vegetable Stock
Makes 3-4 cups
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium-size yellow onion, peeled and sliced
1 carrot, peeled and sliced
1 parsnip, peeled and sliced
2 stalks celery, peeled and sliced
1 leek, stemmed, washed and sliced
½ cup white mushroom scraps, washed, if available
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a medium pot, add the olive oil and all of the vegetables. Season with salt and pepper to taste. ‘Sweat” the vegetables for 5-8 minutes, stirring, and then cover with about 1 1/2 quarts cold water. Cold water, as it's true with water boiled for tea, will yield a stock that is less apt to be cloudy.

Bring the water to a gentle boil, skim the fat and reduce the heat so the stock simmers. Cook for 25-30 minutes. Taste it. If weak in flavor, cook a little longer.

Strain, pressing on the vegetables to extract the maximum flavor.

Use immediately or freeze to use at a later date.

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