My husband, Wayne, and I disagree on broth. He claims that the key to excellent broth is long simmered chicken bones and parts. Or those of beef or pork. I’ll admit that plenty of world culinary history backs up his contention. Still, because I don’t eat chicken, beef or pork, I have incentive to prove him wrong. I knew vegetarian soups can be just as fabulous as their meat-based counterparts, even if it’s sometimes hard to get them at restaurants. (Dear well-intentioned waitstaff I have met over the years: vegetables in chicken or beef stock might be called “vegetable soup,” but that doesn’t make it vegetarian.)
I don’t know what seemed so overwhelming about making my own vegetable stock, but I’d been using boxed vegetable broth in all my “homemade” soups. In the back of my mind, that always felt like cheating and made me wonder what was so virtuous about using all those fresh farmer’s market vegetables when half of the volume was taken up by broth made in a factory.
Then again, let’s face it: broth takes a really long time. In the past I’d boiled the aromatic basics of soup—onions, carrots, celery—with water and spices in a stockpot for an hour, and ended up with a very faintly yellow hot water with the barest whisper of vegetable flavor. I realized I might as well use pre-made—or water—if I only had an hour to devote to broth. Besides, the next steps of soup would take me hours in addition. (That’s at least partly because I am world’s slowest cook.) Now that I’m home all day writing and reading for my MFA program, however, I told myself, there are no more excuses.
My first stop was the Saratoga Farmer’s Market. Sure, it costs more than Hannaford or Price Chopper (and is not as convenient) but the Certified Naturally Grown produce is comparable price-wise to the organic produce at the supermarket and “fresh” from the supermarket just does not taste like fresh from the farm. I used to think if I could become clever enough with preparation and sauce, that whatever was under the sauce wouldn’t matter. Not until I started cooking with farmer’s market produce did I realize how different vegetables could taste, even hidden inside a soup.
A brief note about Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) versus USDA Organic: CNG fruits and vegetables, like Organic ones, are not sprayed with synthetic pesticides or raised with artificial fertilizers. The major difference is paperwork, I learned from the helpful folks at the Kilpatrick Family Farm and from the CNG website. In short, when the USDA developed its paperwork-intensive certification process in 2002, small farmers already using these practices who had diverse crops were not able to comply. They created their own alternative system, which relies on peer review instead of government review. The net result for me is that as much as I can, I try to buy CNG produce from the farmer’s market, which is fresher-tasting than trucked-in organics and is still healthy to eat and for the environment. Even better, it supports local farmers.
Thus, the stock happily began with CNG onion, carrot, celery and garlic from Pleasant Valley Farm (which is tied with Kilpatrick Family Farm as my favorite stops for vegetables). By the way, there is a lot of conventionally grown food at the Saratoga Farmer’s Market, and few CNG vendors. Maybe if more customers insisted on CNG produce, others would make the (considerable) investment.
After trolling the internet for vegetable broth options, I had decided to keep it simple; I didn’t want to use soy sauce, miso, or instant coffee, which recipes of varying credibility suggested to make the broth beefy. Because I wanted it to have a dark, mysterious, earthy quality in the French Onion Soup for which it was destined (see next post), however, I did decide to include mushrooms. The temporary absence of New Minglewood Farms from the market this season meant no locally produced mushrooms, so I bought two organic portobello mushroom caps from Hannaford.
At home, I hacked up the onions, carrots, celery, and mushrooms. Soup stock is a good recipe for me since it requires no fussy cutting. (My lack of speed and precision is why I’m pretty sure no one is about to give me my own cooking show unless they were looking for The Mostly Vegetarian, Slow, Inexact and Klutzy Chef. Well, it’s sort of catchy, isn’t it?) I threw in a big clove of garlic, whole peppercorns, a bay leaf, a whole clove, and dried parsley—because those were the seasonings I happened to have. Soup stock is not an exact science, also good for my style of cooking. I filled up my eight-quart stockpot about ¾ full with the vegetables and water, turned it up to high to reach a boil, and then reduced it to a simmer and put a lid on.
An architectural happy accident: If I stand up and turn from my computer in my writing room, I can see the stove through the kitchen window. I could see the pot was not boiling over, and there was no hurry since the onion soup preparation wasn’t even going to begin until the next day, but curiosity kept driving me out of my seat to inspect—and taste—the broth at various intervals.
More than one recipe I found online claims that one can make a vegetable stock in 20 minutes. I wonder if these directions can be attributed to a lack of accountability for recipes posted on certain websites, because after 20 minutes I had blanched vegetables in water. Sure, I could have added soy sauce or other flavor enhancers, but I had faith that eventually those vegetables would yield their own veggie-essences.
Some recipes from reputable sources like the chefs on the Food Network suggested roasting vegetables first. I didn’t try this method for several reasons. 1) I had never roasted vegetables before so I felt uncomfortable with the technique and I can only overcome one mental hurdle at a time; 2) That would mean two steps, the roasting and then the boiling. I only bargained for one step; and 3) I didn’t think I wanted roasted vegetable broth.
At about an hour, predictably, the barely colored liquid tasted essentially like the excess water used to boil vegetables. Another hour later, the broth had turned a subtle tan and had a hint of flavor. It seemed that with some salt this broth might be slightly preferable to diluting one’s soup with plain water, but only slightly. The vegetables themselves were still surprisingly intact and I had a sense they were still withholding most of their true flavors—stubborn vegetables!
Sometime between two and four hours, the vegetables resigned their vegetarian marrow to the broth and the bubbling liquid went from clear subtle broth to opaque stock. There was not a grain of salt, but after four hours of relentless simmering, I had made a flavorful stock. I danced around the house declaring that I’d make a new batch each week as a basis for all my soups. Wayne just raised his eyebrows; one never knows which of my resolutions will stick. I remained triumphant and hopeful. I had entered a whole new phase of cooking. No longer would I have to shake my head at recipes that seemed to imply that I should have some homemade broth just hanging around at my beck and call. Who knows—I may even try a roasted vegetable broth. My next step, however, was to use my broth in the French onion soup, and you can read my next post for the outcome of that experiment.
Flavorful Vegetable Broth
- 5 medium carrots, chopped into large chunks
- 4 stalks celery, cut into large sections
- 2 medium yellow or white onions, coarsely chopped
- 1-2 whole garlic cloves, peeled
- For a darker broth: 2 large Portobello mushroom caps, coarsely chopped
- 1 bay leaf
- 8 whole peppercorns
- several pinches of fresh or dried herbs such as parsley and thyme
- 1 whole clove, if desired
Put all ingredients in a large stockpot and fill ¾ full with water. (I recommend filtered tap water for better taste.) Bring contents to a boil and then reduce heat to a low simmer. Cover loosely and simmer for about four hours for maximum flavor. Strain out vegetables and spices. Add salt and pepper to taste, unless the stock is going into a recipe like French onion soup, in which case you might want to wait and adjust seasonings later.
Store broth tightly covered in the refrigerator for a few days, or in the freezer for up to two months.