Although my mother worked at a full-time job, she always had time to make the all-important chicken stock. It was the foundation for all her soups and sauces. The chief ingredient is inexpensive; the stock is light and delicious, and it marries well with other foods, enhancing and sustaining them. The usual Chinese chicken stock is precisely that: the essence of chicken, with complements of ginger and spring onions often added. Combined with the condiments that give Chinese food its distinctive flavour, good stock captures the essential taste of China. Many of the most famous recipes in the repertory require such stock.
Often at family meals and banquets, stock was prepared so that it could also be used as a clear soup. We drank it as a beverage as we sampled all the different dishes. This simple and fairly easy-to-make recipe for stock reflects what I believe works best for any Chinese dish.
There are commercially prepared stock cubes and powders, but many of them are of inferior quality, either too salty or containing additives and colourings that adversely affect your health, as well as the natural taste of good foods. However, I have found store-bought fresh stocks an acceptable, although expensive, convenient substitute. Stock does take time to prepare, but it is not difficult or complex – and it is best when home-made. You can make a big batch and freeze it for your own use when needed. Here are several important points to keep in mind when making stock:
The classic Chinese method to ensure a clear stock is to blanch the meat and bones before simmering. I find this unnecessary. My method of careful skimming achieves the same result with far less work. Remember to save all your uncooked chicken bones and carcasses for stock. They can be frozen until you are ready to prepare it.
Put the chicken bones and chicken pieces into a very large pot. (The bones can be put in either frozen or thawed.) Cover them with the cold water and bring it to a simmer. Meanwhile, cut the ginger into diagonal slices,
Using a large, flat spoon, skim off the scum as it rises from the bones. Watch the heat - the stock should never boil, only simmer. Keep skimming until the stock looks clear. This can take from 20 to 40 minutes. Do not stir or disturb the stock.
Now turn the heat down to a lower simmer. Toss in the ginger, spring onions, garlic cloves, salt and peppercorns. Simmer the stock on a very low heat for 4 hours, skimming any fat off the top at least twice during this time. The stock should be rich and full-bodied; simmering it for such a long time gives it (and any soup you make with it) plenty of taste.
Strain the stock through several layers of dampened muslin or through a very fine-mesh sieve, and then let it cool thoroughly. Refrigerate. Remove any fat that has risen to the top. It is now ready to be used, or transferred to containers and frozen for future use.
© 1998 Ken Hom. All rights reserved.