Chicken stock is an all-purpose base for soups and sauces. Its chief ingredient is inexpensive, it is light and delicious and it marries well with other foods, enhancing and sustaining them. Small wonder, then that from the Imperial kitchens to the most humble food stalls, good stock is a basic ingredient. 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 Chinese repertoire require stock. There are two basic types. One is a clear stock made from chicken bones and meat; the other is a richer stock that uses ham and pork bones as well. Different recipes call for one or other of these stocks but both types make a solid base for soups and sauces.
During the Qing dynasty, the last Imperial dynasty (1644-1911), Chinese cuisine reached its peak of classic perfection. One of the most highly prized dishes featured in the Imperial banquets was a bowl of clear soup, a consommé of chicken stock, much appreciated for its subtle, light, flavourful elegance.
This serves as a reminder that stock can also be used as a clear soup. I find that the richer stocks made with ham or pork bones are heavier and not quite suited to my tastes. The following simple recipe for stock therefore reflects what I believe works best for any Chinese dish.
There are commercially prepared tinned or cubed (dried) stocks but many of them are of inferior quality, being either too salty or containing additives and colourings that adversely affect your health as well as the natural taste of good foods. Stock does take time to prepare but it is easy to make your own – and when home-made, it is the best. I prefer to make large quantities of it at a time and freeze it. Once you have a supply of stock available you will be able to prepare any number of soups or sauces very quickly. Here are several important points to keep in mind when making stock:
The classic Chinese method for ensuring 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 make it. You can halve the quantities given in the recipes f it makes too much for your needs.
Put the chicken bones and chicken pieces into a very large pan. (The bones can be put in either frozen or defrosted.) 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 as the stock should never boil. Keep skimming until the stock looks clear. This can take from 20-40 minutes. Do not stir or disturb the stock.
Now turn the heat down to a low simmer. Add the ginger, spring onions, garlic cloves, salt and peppercorns. Simmer the stock on a very low heat for 2-4 hours, skimming any fat off the top at least twice during this time. The stock should be rich and full-bodied which is why it needs to be simmered for such a long time. This way the stock (and any dishes you make with it) will have plenty of flavour.
Strain the stock through several layers of dampened muslin or through a very fine meshed sieve, then let it cool thoroughly. Remove any fat which has risen to the top. It is now ready to be used or transferred to containers and frozen for future use.
© 1996 Ken Hom. All rights reserved.