from The French Laundry Cookbook

Thomas Keller, of the French Laundry and Per Se, can do very little that is wrong, in my opinion. Yes, the ambience of the French Laundry in Napa resembles a little too closely the reverential hush of a church. There’s no question that the price of a dinner will equal what a well-to-do shopper spends on groceries in a month. And it’s not just that we ought to have a place in world for experiences like dining in one of his establishments (even if we wish more people could partake of them just once).

I mean, Keller knows how to cook better than anyone whose food I’ve ever tasted and he knows how to teach. Contrary to my expectations, his heavy, forbidding cookbooks contain much more than unrealistic recipes for home-cooking. Let’s face it, I will never make “Oysters and Pearls” well enough to justify plunking out that big a chunk of my weekly budget. His recipes make for entertaining reading, like travel writing about destinations I know I’ll never visit. I let Keller be my culinary sherpa and try to apply his technique on familiar terrain closer to home.

I’ve learned more about cooking from about ten pages in The French Laundry Cookbook and his other book, Bouchon, than from any other book or source. Want to know how to braise? You’ll absorb all you ever need to know about braising on page 186 of TFL Cookbook. Would you like to roast a chicken to crackily, juicy perfection? Read page xii in Bouchon. Read his guiding principles at the head of each section and you will learn techniques that will transform your cooking.

What Keller has to say about chicken stock changed forever the way I make broth. I only make it in my modified Keller-way, trying to be true to his principles but ruefully aware that I will always fall short of perfection.

Note: I take on faith Keller’s assertion that reducing carrots, leeks, and onions to small dice (mirepoix) maximizes the vegetable’s flavor by exposing the maximum amount of cell surface to the water.

Here’s what he writes:

5 pounds chicken bones, necks, and backs
1 pound chicken feet (optional)
4 quarts cold water
2 quarts ice cubes

1 3/4 (8 oz) carrots cut into 1-inch mirepoix
2 heaping (8 oz) leeks cut into 1-inch mirepoix (white and some light green parts only)
1 1/2 cups (8 oz) onions cut into 1-inch mirepoix
1 bay leaf

Rinse the bones, necks, backs, and optional chicken feet thoroughly under cold water to remove all the visible blood. Remove any organs that may still be attached to the bones. (The rinsing of bones and removal of any organs is an essential first step in the clarification of the stock, as blood proteins are removed that would coagulate when heated and there will therefore be less chance that impurities will cloud your stock.)

Place all the bones and the feet, if using, in a 14- to 16-quart stockpot. Cover with the cold water. Slowly bring the liquid to a simmer, beginning to skim as soon as any impurities rise to the top. (It is important to keep skimming, because as the stock comes to a simmer, impurities could otherwise be pulled back into the liquid and emulsify and cloud the finished stock.

Once the liquid is at a simmer, add the ice and then remove the fat. (The ice will chill and thicken the fat and turn it opaque, making it easier to remove.) Skim off as much of the impurities as possible. (Once the vegetables are added, skimming will be more difficult.)

Add the aromatics and slowly bring the liquid back to a simmer, skimming frequently. Simmer for another 30 to 40 mins, skimming often. Turn off the heat and allow the stock to rest for 10 mins; this allows any particles left in the stock to settle at the bottom of the pot.

Set a chinois or fine-mesh strainer over a container large enough to hold at least 6 quarts. Use a ladle to remove the stock from the pot and strain it into the container. (It is important to ladle the stock rather than pouring it, as the force of pouring it out all at once would force impurities through the strainer.) Discard any stock toward the bottom of the pot that is cloudy with impurities.

Fill a sink with ice water and place the container in it to cook the stock rapidly. Stir occasionally until there are no traces of steam. Refrigerate for 1 to 2 days, or freeze in several containers for longer storage.
Makes about 6 quarts.

Here’s how I make it:

1 4- to 5-lb organic chicken
1 3/4 cups (8 oz) carrots, cut into 1-inch mirepoix
2 heaping cups (8 oz) leeks cut into 1-inch mirepoix (white and some light green parts only)
1 1/2 cups (8 oz) onions cut into 1-inch mirepoix
1 bay leaf

Chop up all the aromatics (vegetables and bay leaf), place in a bowl, and have them at hand.

Rinse the chicken inside and out under cold running water. Put in a big stockpot and cover with 4 quarts water. Turn the heat to medium high; the point is to slow down the process of bringing the water to a boil so that you may remove as much of the impurities beforehand. As the water heats, keep an eye on the surface of the water. As foam and particles appear on the surface, skim them off. The ratio is simple: the more you skim, the cleaner the taste. Stay within range of the pot. Continue to skim.

When the water finally boils, pour in the aromatics. If you’ve a slacker in the skimming, you’ll still see brownish foam — although the vegetables, too, give off impurities. Skim as well as you can without scooping up the aromatics. Simmer the stock for 40 mins.

Let the stock settle and cool. Strain the soup through a very-finely meshed sieve or a not-so-finely meshed sieve lined with either a paper towel or cheese cloth. Place in refrigerator until fat solidifies on the surface. Remove before using or freezing.

Last Thoughts:

Even though Keller’s frequently use of “impurities” smacks of “our precious bodily fluids,” his point is palpable: the flavor of well-skimmed stocks and well-strained sauces is more vibrant than otherwise. The two friends of mine who followed these directions agreed. I used to make chicken stock from roasted chicken, but now I have come to agree with Marcella Hazan, who notices a bitter taste in heavier stocks. A light stock like this has a clear, chicken flavor and is more suitable for the wide range of uses to which I put my stock. This one, for instance, is perfect for risotti. Standing by the pot certainly is more labor intensive but the the entire process takes less time than many other stocks.