it's not always easy (recipe: long-simmered chicken broth)
After my last post I feel compelled to recognize limitations. And privilege. Because I made plenty of cavalier statements in there, about how easy it is to do this and that, and I was disparaging of labor- or time-saving devices, and since then I've thought more about it, and I want to qualify what I said.
I'm paging through a great many cookbooks about meat right now, and one in particular precipitated a bout of ranting and raving. The book is based on braising and roasting and other long, slow methods of cooking meat that produce really delicious meals from cheap cuts -- just like I was discussing yesterday. But this author is very supportive of using prepared ingredients in her recipes (and also refers to grain-fed cows as "pampered," but that's a complaint for another post...). Her very first recipe comes from her grandmother, and she says, "How Grandma Johnson would have loved the labor savers supermarkets now sell: peeled baby carrots and slaw mixes (why core and shred cabbage?)..."
Why core and shred cabbage? Maybe because a head of cabbage only costs a dollar whereas an aseptically sealed plastic container of pre-shredded cabbage that has been dipped in a bleach solution to prevent browning can cost five times as much, and there's a huge loss in volume, and it produces a large amount of non-biodegradable waste, and it won't taste as good, and what's the point of a labor-saver anyway if the "labor" takes less than a minute and the soup braises for a good three hours after that?
That's my natural response. So I said this out loud to Jeremy, who said, "I don't know Grandma Johnson, but probably she'd be skeptical of the value of prepared anything."
And that got me thinking. Honestly, this probably isn't true. Maybe Grandma Johnson has arthritis, and pre-shredded cabbage gives her the chance to continue enjoying her favorite meal how she remembers it. Or maybe she's spent her whole life slaving over a hot stove to feed an ungrateful family and now all she wants to do is sit in her living room enjoying her evening cocktail (I'm thinking of my grandma here, of course). Who am I to deny her that?
I never buy pre-washed, pre-shredded lettuce or spinach in a bag because it's so much more expensive and wasteful. And it's easy for me to feel smug about that. But what if it gets a salad on your table where there might not be one otherwise? I skip canned vegetables and most frozen things because I eat seasonally and prefer fresh food, but what if they get real food on your table (even out-of-season, even non-organic, even "processed") where there might be fast food otherwise? Who am I to deny you this?
I understand the feeling of defeat. My goals for the month of January have included making stock from bones I've been saving from the chickens we bought from a friend. I've stored these bones in my freezer for two months in anticipation of one of the most ancient and well-loved traditional food practices. I might have had a bit invested in the concept of homemade bone broth -- I really wanted to make it work. Supposedly it's easy, y'know? It just takes time.
So I packed these bones into my largest pot. I topped them off with onions, garlic, celery, carrots, bay leaves, and thyme, and then a gallon of cold water. I added a large splash of vinegar and then increased the heat to a low simmer. Then I hung around to "skim off the impurities." That was more difficult than I expected. Now I realize that using a small fine-mesh strainer probably would have worked better, but as it was I inadvertently stirred a lot of the foam back into the stock.
I let that stuff simmer very low for hours and hours. Then I was called out to a party, so I took a risk and left the stove on while I was gone. The house didn't burn down, so I considered that a success and decided to keep on keepin' on all through the night for a total cooking time of 18 hours. (The longer you simmer a broth, the more nutrients you extract and the more flavorful it becomes. That was my excuse, anyway, when I was too tipsy to handle straining and chilling the stuff in the middle of the night. I blame Jeremiah Weed.)
When I went to bed at 1:30 am, the stove was set on its lowest setting and the surface of the broth was just barely moving -- exactly what it's supposed to do. I left the lid on to prevent too much water loss. But when I woke up this morning, I could hear the bubbling from the hallway. About a pint of liquid had cooked off in the night and the loss precipitated an increase in temperature, which caused the broth to boil -- exactly what it's not supposed to do -- and the resulting broth was cloudy -- exactly what you don't want to see.
At that point, I had one of those fleeting moments of wondering, is this worth it? I saved the carcasses from three local, pastured, organic chickens to make this broth. I saved the bones from people's plates to make this broth. I sacrificed whole vegetables to make this broth. Is it unusable because it boiled? I don't think so, but -- I messed it up.
I've been cooking the vast majority of my family's meals for the past eight years. That's three meals a day, 365 days a year, for a grand total of about 8000 meals, give or take a few hundred, and it's rare that I make an evening meal more than once, so many of those meals were, in one way or another, unique, or first attempts. I've had almost limitless opportunities for trial and error, and honestly, there's been a ton of error in there. A ton. Remember, you only see the successes.
And would you like to know why I've been able to practice so extensively? Because I'm privileged. I'm able-bodied, able-minded, and literate, and healthy. Financial stability is less important to me than emotional or familial stability -- not that these are mutually exclusive -- and it's a privilege in and of itself that I can even weigh this -- so for much of the past eight years I've been essentially unemployed -- which gives me almost unlimited time to play in the kitchen. I'm educated -- in nutrition! My children are healthy, able of body and mind, willing to help in the kitchen, or to play quietly while I do the work. My partner is healthy, able of body and mind, similarly willing to participate, or to care for the children while I do the work. I have a partner -- that makes me privileged. A partner who works -- another privilege (especially right now). I've been poor, but I'm also white, from a middle-class background, and perfectly located for low-cost, healthy, whole, local, organic, real food. I have a car. I have access to limitless print and Internet resources -- and I have the time to study them. I have a backyard, and I'm allowed to raise chickens in it. I can garden. I live in a tight-knit community. I know a lot of people who grow vegetables or raise animals and would throw us some bones (maybe literally) if we fell on hard times.
I'm privileged. So who am I to say that you should have the time, physical capacity, desire, accessibility, or money to core and shred your own damned cabbage?
The thing is, I have a very hard time balancing the ideal vs. the real. You know that whole "letting the perfect be the enemy of the good" thing? Yeah, that's me. But I'm learning. Little bit by little bit.
So here's the ideal. Ideally we would all grow all of our own food within small communities where we would trade, to small distances, whatever we cannot produce on our own. Capitalism would be irrelevant. The concept of money would be meaningless. We'd all hold hands and sing kum ba ya around a campfire of sustainably-harvested rapidly-renewable hardwood at night and then proceed to a meal of animals and vegetables and nuts and mead that we'd grown or gathered or caught within our own little town and prepared in warm kitchens while old ladies play the banjo in rocking chairs on the porch. Everyone would have enough. Everyone would be healthy and able, or supported by some long-suffering giver. War would be no more, the sun would always shine, and we'd swim in rivers untouched by petrochemicals.
Here's what's real. Many of us don't have access to the things we need to survive, much less thrive. We are oppressed in a thousand tiny ways. We don't know how to make or preserve anything. We have deeply warped concepts of family, community, money, work, health, food, government, stewardship, and what constitutes "living." It is literally impossible to completely opt out of this system because there is no place on earth that hasn't been infected by it. We can't even swim in rivers, much less eat from them. The poor and the sick die from lack of care, and we call this economy. In this situation, every tiny step toward sufficiency is hard-won.
So if you want to use pre-shredded cabbage, have at it. It's better than buying fast food, definitely. But if you have the time or the ability, buy a head and shred it yourself. If you have the money and the accessibility, buy it local or organic. If you have the information and the creativity, seek out a seasonal alternative. If you have the time and the ability and the money and the accessibility and the information and the creativity, grow it yourself first. Because every tiny step toward sufficiency is hard-won.
Long-Simmered Chicken Broth
1 pastured chicken carcass, or equivalent mixed bones, heads, and feet
1 onion, or a heaping handful of peels
2 carrots, or a bunch of tops and peels, chopped
2 celery stalks, preferably with leaves, or a bunch of tops, chopped
a few bay leaves
a few sprigs of thyme
a spoonful of peppercorns
a generous splash of apple cider vinegar
Put the chicken pieces in the biggest pot you've got and cover with cold water. I used three carcasses and needed a gallon of water, to which I added about two pints during the course of simmering. Throw in the veggies, herbs, and peppercorns, the vinegar, and whatever else you'd like to add (maybe some ginger or lemon?).
Bring the water slowly to a simmer. Do not boil! Reduce heat until the surface of the water is barely moving. During the first hour, occasionally skim off the foam and discard. After that, keep the broth on a very low simmer, without stirring. Add water as needed to keep the bones completely covered.
A minimum of 4 hours of simmering is preferred, but you can keep it going for up to 24 hours if you wish. When it's finished, immediately strain out the solids, pour into glass jars, and rapidly cool it in the refrigerator. This broth can be stored, chilled, for 3-5 days, or frozen for three months. Sterilize your jars for extra protection, as chicken broth is the perfect medium for bacteria. Three carcasses made 4 quarts of broth for me.