Chef X held the strainer over the bain marie, (doesn’t a long, cylindrical, metal container sound so much better by it’s French name…evoking a woman in a Parisian salle de bain luxuriating in a claw-foot tub, soaking in bubbles, humming a vague tune…) while I, gripping my steaming stockpot with two towels, slowly poured one of the results of tonight’s class, a golden chicken stock, past his discerning eye.
“Ah, look at that color. See how clear it is. Dat is perfect. Good job.”
This, my first feedback from our Chef on anything I cooked, sets the bar, hones the target for what I know I will be obsessing over in the coming months…GETTING IT PERFECT! I have now found my culinary school persona: Quietly Perfection Driven, Subtly Brown Nosing, Wryly Knowing, Seriously Attentive, Consistently Achieving.
I know, I know. Longing for or even working toward perfection is a slippery slope. It can lead to chronic disappointment, self-flagellation, terrors about the slightest errors, anxiety dreams and even insanity in a medium such as cooking there are so many variables and so much can go wrong and everything is subjective. I don’t care. I really, really, really want to get it right.
I have my long walks back to my car after class is over and the long drive home to think about these things. I want my experience at FCI to be like the veal, chicken, fish and vegetable stocks we made gallons and gallons of tonight in class. I want my education here to be a highly concentrated distillation of quality ingredients. I want to come away with a rich, flavor-dense foundation for whatever I want to do next. A good veal stock is best when it simmers for up to 12 hours—the water added to the bones and vegetables extracting every last cell of nuance and flavor to be had from them. I want to be that water, soaking up everything, grabbing every bit of this experience and holding on to it and becoming that beautiful, clear, expertly executed stock that can lead to the next beautiful creation…a sauce, a soup, a glaze….a life as a skilled chef.
I want to become an expert. I want to feel like I really know what I’m doing. I want to produce gorgeous results, and be acknowledged and receive accolades for it. I think I’ve just described the underlying, driving force of my entire attention-and-love-seeking life. (see: acting career, writing career, relationships, caretaking, enabling, parenting, various business ventures, etc.) But this time, I mean it! (Are you listening, Oh Mighty Organizer of the Universe?)
I’m not trying to disparage all the other paths I’ve taken in life, or pursuits I’ve undertaken, but the truth is I may have fudged my efforts and expertise along the way. I’ve done a lot of things, even impressed many with all I’ve done, but I don’t have a sense that I’ve done many things at the highest level I could. For whatever reason: fears, insecurities, insurmountable circumstances, or just plain laziness I have not always reaped the results that I’d hoped for. With this, I think I have what it takes to give something my full attention and all my best efforts. I have the maturity, the losses, the 20/20 of hindsight, the patience and the humility to do it.
Recently, I came across a piece of paper printed with a quote I used have pinned up on the bulletin board in my office, but at some point it slipped to the floor and got lodged behind a big hutch. It’s by Marianne Williamson and it starts out We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? and continues, “our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that frightens us.”
I stopped making goals a few years back after a particularly nasty series of disappointments and financial losses. I was done believing I could shine and I was a bit embarrassed too—what did I have to show for all of my risk-taking and goal setting, after all? Williamson goes on to say, “Actually, who are you NOT to be? Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightening about shrinking so other people won’t feel unsure around you.” If I’m not mistaken it was this quote that had me take on the Mrs. Fabulous moniker to begin with.
So here I am “playing big” and setting a goal: I will graduate FCI first in my class. When I do, I will know I have extracted every possible molecule and every penny’s worth of expertise I possibly could from the experience. I don’t see this as a competition between me and my fellow students, but more as a long, solitary marathon I’m running hoping to improve upon my own last best effort. Besides, Williams also points out, “As we let our own Light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated…our presence automatically liberates others.” So maybe I’ll inspire and liberate while I’m at it, and cook some really goddamn perfect food.
Make this Fabulous, Gorgeous, Brilliant chicken stock and keep it in your freezer. You’ll never have to waste good money on store-bought stocks that tend to have stale or too heavy flavors and way too much sodium. Freeze for up to 3 months in 8 or 16 oz plastic containers, or spray a jumbo-muffin pan to make frozen “stock muffins” that you can transfer to freezer bags and use when needed. Remember: do not salt a stock. It becomes more and more concentrated as it cooks down and you are trying to create a neutral but flavorful foundation for other dishes, sauces, etc. that you will season appropriately later.
WHITE CHICKEN STOCK – FOND DE VOLAILLE BLANC
• 4 pounds chicken wings, necks and backs
• 1 large onion, quartered
• 4 carrots, peeled and cut in 1/2
• 4 ribs celery, cut in 1/2
• 1 leek, white part only, cut in 1/2 lengthwise
• 8 sprigs fresh thyme
• 8 sprigs fresh parsley with stems
• 2 bay leaves
• 8 to 10 peppercorns
• 2 whole cloves garlic, peeled
• 2 gallons cold water
Place chicken, vegetables, and herbs and spices in 12-quart stockpot. Cook on high heat (but not so high that meat or vegetables sitting on the bottom of the pan will burn) until you begin to see bubbles break through the surface of the liquid. Turn heat down to medium low so that stock maintains low, gentle simmer. Using a slotted spoon, or more finely meshed skimmer, skim the debris and foam from the stock with a spoon or fine mesh strainer every 10 to 15 minutes for the first hour of cooking and twice each hour for the next 2 hours. Add hot water as needed to keep bones and vegetables submerged. Simmer uncovered for 4 to 6 hours.
Strain stock through a fine mesh strainer into another large stockpot or heatproof (not plastic) container discarding the solids. (I will use these solids actually…I salvage as much meat and vegetables as I can, toss the bones, and make a mush of it in the food processor. Then I add this mixture to my dogs’ food. They love it and it’s good for them. No waste, which is the classic French tradition.) Cool stock to 70 degrees by submerging the pot or container in large cooler of ice or a sink full of ice water to below 40 degrees. Once it reaches 70 degrees or in cool in the center to the touch, place in refrigerator overnight. Remove solidified fat from surface of liquid and store in container with lid in refrigerator for 2 to 3 days or in freezer for up to 3 months. Prior to use, bring to boil for 2 minutes. (Don’t throw it frozen into a dish in progress.) Use as a base for soups and sauces. (Tip: spray container or muffin tins you use for freezing with a little natural, unflavored non-stick spray before filling with stock. It will slide out easier.)