I sometimes watch The Chew — sick days, sometimes on vacation, and I’ll tape it a bit in the summer when there’s not much else on tv to watch. On one of the episodes I caught in the past year, Clinton Kelly was talking about making stock in the crock-pot. In his description, it was super easy since you didn’t have to tend it. Among the other hosts, they also reasoned that it might not be as cloudy as the stock made on the stove since it would stay mostly below a boil since you’re cooking it on low heat.
I always feel like I’m under utilizing my crock-pot so I was eager to use it for this purpose. I tried this for the first time last year after Thanksgiving. My mom sent me home with the turkey carcass for stock making which is something I like to do and she doesn’t (or usually doesn’t do). Once I got home, I broke it down to make it fit in the crock-pot better and then added in the basics: onion, carrot, celery, bay leaf and pepper corns. Probably also garlic. I had fennel so I added in one bulb of that also cut in half. You barely have to chop since large pieces are the goal. It takes minutes to get going and once the crock-pot is full, you cover it to the top with water, put on the lid, and you’re in business.
You then put it on low for 8 hours, go to bed, and when you wake up in the morning, you have delicious turkey stock ready to be strained and stored (freezer, for me). It helps if you have a digital crock-pot that automatically goes from cooking to just keeping things warm automatically or you’d have to time your wake up call to the finishing time of the stock. The only bad thing is that it was a little intense to be pulling out solids and straining liquid as my first-thing-in-the-morning activity, but the house smelled AMAZING and I had really clear, beautiful and flavorful stock.
And given that most people simply throw the turkey bones and the little bits of meat away, it’s like having a nearly free resource.
I’m always in a war with myself about wasting food. It drives me nuts and the worst offender has been my freezer (followed closely by my pantry). As a recovering freezer abuser (which means out of sight, out of mind and forgotten), I now very compulsively work to keep my freezer under control. I no longer put super perishable things like frozen berries down in the basement freezer to die of freezer burn and neglect. That freezer is now only for meat, jars of stock or sauce, and things that last a long time like big bags of nuts, dried fruit, or chocolate chips. If it’s not one of those, it stays upstairs, but even that freezer was getting out of hand recently. Even though I’m in it every single day to at least get ice, I had lots of “I have no idea what is in here” moments. I knew sometimes things were in there but it was too hard to find them amidst the stacking and pushing of items. Invariably, I’d be looking for A and find precious item B and think, how long has that been in there? Is that from this summer or last summer’s bounty?
The one good thing going for me is I’m not anti leftovers. I will happily eat the same thing over and over again to make sure it doesn’t go to waste and finding a portion of something later in the freezer does make me happy. Beyond that, it was chaos.
I was in Portland for an event so I made a quick stop at an organization store and found some clear plastic containers to create “drawers” in your refrigerator freezer. One has only one “drawer” and and the other has two drawers with a divider in the middle. They barely fit in my tiny freezer but they made a huge difference. I’ve got them side by side and there’s just the smallest bit of space between them which has been a good location for stashing extra boxes of butter, chocolate chips, or similarly thin items. It was revolutionary.
First, I had to take everything out to start. There were some humiliating moments as I had to throw out some lovely items that were long, long, long past being any good. I feel it’s a terrible waste of my money and someone’s time when I have to get rid of meat, fish, or anything else I know I valued at the time…
Second, this gave me the chance to put things that aren’t perishable — like those cold blocks and ice packs that go into coolers and were floating all over my freezer — in one place at the back of the freezer. Why were they given prime real estate over something like Italian sausage that was now very freezer burned and crusty looking? Or parts of a turkey I spatchcocked years ago and had hoped to turn into stock but now were so old and freezer burned that they had to be throw out? Or what was probably a really lovely little piece of smoked fish that was probably several years old and almost petrified? Finally all of those little suckers are in the back. Some are in strange spaces that now exist in the back of the freezer where the drawer doesn’t touch the back wall. Perfect.
In the divided container I organized all of the miscellaneous bags of frozen vegetables, things I had frozen in ziploc bags, and little containers of things like frozen pot stickers. Partially used bags of nuts went in. Everything was super orderly and now I can see what’s in the back by simply pulling out the drawer. I don’t have to dig around like before. Genius — not mine!
In the single drawer I put in jars of things that didn’t fit in the door — broth, bit of soups I’ve made, juiced cucumbers from the summer bounty for making mixed drinks, corn flour, etc. All the little quart and pint jars look neat and tidy and I can see everything by simply pulling out the drawer.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m still piling miscellaneous things on top of the drawers of stuff, but now there’s no risk it’ll push something else valuable to a place I can’t see it. Thin things like bags of frozen basil and other delicate herbs can now rest on top of my jar drawer so they get used quickly. Little partial bags of frozen pasta can go in that odd space in between so I see them every time I open the door. Everything is viewable at any time simply by taking off the few things on top and then pulling out the whole plastic drawer to see what’s there. I’m less apt to buy yet another bag of frozen corn when I can see that I already have two partially used bags happily waiting for me.
When I was taking everything out I found some odd chicken back pieces and the necks from two chickens I bought this summer for the purposes of a fried chicken and onion ring party. I remembered thinking I’d save them for stock making. Finding them again during the clean out process got me motivated to make another batch of crock-pot stock. It doesn’t take a lot of meat to make a chicken stock.
I went ahead and put the frozen chicken bits into the refrigerator to thaw out and then the next day I put together my stock components.
The genius of this recipe is you can use whatever you have. If you had bones from a rotisserie chicken or two, you could use that. If you had leftover pork bones or bits you could use that. Random parts work. Or you could go out and buy a turkey leg or wing or some chicken wings just for the purposes of making stock.
- Two chicken backs and two necks (from whole chickens the butcher had chopped into parts for my frying. The backs were too bony to think about frying since they’d have been a nightmare to eat and nobody I knew said anything about wanting necks).
- One large onion (mine happened to be sweet and organic), chopped into 4-8 parts depending on size.
- Three carrots, chopped into 2-3 pieces each (mine happened to be organic so I didn’t peel but I did cut off the stem end). You only have one carrot? Fine. Nobody says you have to have 3, but it’s what I had and I used them.
- 4 stalks of celery, including leaves (not organic since the organic stuff didn’t have the leaves and I like the extra flavor leaves add to stock and soups in general). Again, how much is up to you. Don’t like celery? Leave it out.
- 3 cloves of garlic — just because three came off when I tried to remove one clove
- A smattering (maybe a teaspoon or so) of whole black peppercorns
- Bay leaves — 3 small because they all came out when I meant to pull out one, but since they were small, I went with it.
- Enough cold water to cover everything
I do remember waking up in the middle of the night to the smell of the broth. I went back to sleep quickly, but there’s nothing bad about that smell filling your house. By morning, the mixture was a brown, roast-y color. Everything is cooked, mellow, and spent with all of its flavor going into the stock.
It takes a little bit of work to pull out and drain all of the solids. I usually use a combination of a 4-cup measuring cup and my small pasta colander. I fill it will ladle after ladle of stock and solids and when the measuring cup is nearly full, I let the solids sit in the colander for a few seconds to keep draining. I then fill quart and pint jars as I go. The solids get discarded. After cooking all night, there’s very little flavor or texture left in the meat or vegetables so there’s not a lot of reason to try to salvage them for eating.
At that point you have to decide what to do with it all. If I were hosting for Thanksgiving, I’d probably have kept them upstairs for almost immediate use. Most of what I produced (nearly 4 quarts) I put into the freezer — some upstairs and some downstairs for use over the next months.
After cleaning out the freezer, I did want to make a pasta dish my Japanese neighbor Atsuko used to make. She had a magazine with Italian recipes and two of them were especially popular with us and I often still make them. In some ways, they make me feel better when I’m missing her or missing Japan.
The concept is simple. You brown bacon in a hot pan and then add in vegetables. Because I had it, I used various small sweet peppers, zucchini, onion, and shallot (not much of each item, but a lot of variety). Once a little soft, you deglaze the pan with white wine to get the brown bits off the bottom and then add about equal parts of chicken stock/broth and canned tomatoes. I had my own tomato/pepper sauce in the freezer so I defrosted it and then used some of my new chicken stock as well. Once the vegetables are nearly tender, you throw in pasta (I used elbow macaroni) and a little bit of kale (I only had 3 “leaves” or stalks). Plus salt and pepper and because I like it, dried thyme and oregano. Once the macaroni has cooked, you serve with Parmesan cheese.
The flavors are a bit similar to minestrone. It’s not quite soup, but it does result in a soup-y pasta. It’s very satisfying, especially since it cleaned out my veggie bins, used up a jar of frozen tomato sauce, and used some of my new stock. Another bonus: only dirties one pot! Small victories!!