Because vegetable stock is pareve or neutral (that is, it contains neither meat nor dairy), according to the dietary laws, it may be eaten with either. But meat dishes generally rely on meat stocks; in Jewish cooking, it is foods glossed with butter or topped with cream that give vegetable stock its reason for being. Only vegetable stock can jazz up a plain pilaf destined to partner a butter-gilded fish. It is the sole stock base for a soup that will be enriched with sour cream or yogurt. And kasha, often insipid when prepared with plain water, turns inspired with a stock that permits generous lacings of genuine sweet butter instead of margarine.
You can purchase acceptable ready-made versions of chicken and beef stock that will do nicely in a pinch for sauces, stews, and so on, but good-quality vegetable stocks are harder to find. Fortunately, they are much quicker to make than the meat-based kind (in fact, lengthy cooking will ruin, not improve, a vegetable stock).
This is one of those recipes for which I am reluctant to provide exact ingredients and measures because it can be varied endlessly according to availability of produce and how the stock will ultimately be used. So think of this recipe as a guide.
Some of the optional ingredients here will give you bigger flavors. Use them when you desire a stronger, darker stock. Tomatoes make everything sing, but with a rather full-throated voice. Soy sauce and the liquid from soaking dried mushrooms can be insistent, too. You may want to start with smaller quantities of these ingredients, and keep tasting as you go along, adding more as necessary. If you have the corncobs left over after scraping the kernels for another use, they will provide an earthy sweetness.
And by all means, add other vegetables: anything in the onion family, a little sweet red pepper, more fresh mushrooms (parings are fine), fennel, pea pods, a small potato, celery root, fresh herbs. Aim for balance and complexity—no one ingredient should overwhelm the others. And avoid strong or bitter-tasting vegetables, like broccoli, members of the cabbage family, eggplant, and pungent greens.
If you are using the tomato, char it to give it some character and to remove the peel easily: rinse and pat it dry. Spear it through the stem end with a long-handled fork and lightly blacken the skin on all sides over a gas burner, as you would roast a pepper. Let it cool until you can handle it, then pull off the peel with your fingers. Cut the tomato in half, scoop out and discard the seeds and core. Chop the pulp coarsely and set it aside.
Add the carrots, celery, parsnip, and turnip, and cook until the edges of the vegetables are tinged with brown. Add the fresh mushrooms and garlic, and cook until the mushrooms give up their liquid. Sprinkle with the soy sauce, if using, and the thyme, peppercorns, and salt. Add the tomato, if using, and sauté for 5 minutes. Add the parsley, bay leaf, celery leaves or seeds, the zucchini, squash, and/or chard, if using, and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the corncobs, soaked dried mushrooms, and/or the mushroom soaking liquid, if using. Add the water. Bring to a gentle boil, so the bubbles just begin to break along the edges, then reduce to a simmer. Cook for 45 to 60 minutes, partially covered, until the vegetables are very soft.
Strain immediately through a wire-mesh sieve or a colander fitted with paper towels, pressing hard against the solids with the back of a wooden spoon to extract all of the flavorful liquids. Taste and adjust the seasonings. If the stock lacks character, concentrate the flavors by reducing the liquid slightly. (Don’t reduce this stock too much—it will turn bitter.)
Let cool completely, uncovered, then cover and refrigerate. The stock will keep up to 5 days refrigerated, or up to 3 months frozen.
© 2008 Jayne Cohen. All rights reserved.