One of my favorite things to do is chat with chefs and get myself invited into their kitchens to observe the techniques and expertise that result in exceptional dishes and desserts. I just love any and all creative processes, whether with The Arts, writing or food. It’s incredible to see how it all comes together.
During my time researching and documenting historic Aldrich Mansion, now a posh social events venue, I’ve spent some time in the commercial kitchen picking the Chef’s brain and learning what it’s like to feed more than 200 guests—all at once!
First, it’s important to keep in mind that restaurants and banquet facilities are two distinct types of food services with their own unique challenges. When the mansion hosts a large wedding for 230 guests, the Chef has to make sure his entrées are exactly consistent in portion, appearance, flavor and temperature for every single guest, and that everyone is served quickly. If ten guests seated at the table are all eating the same entrée, their dining experience has to be one collective food love fest! No small feat, but this kitchen and wait staff have it all down to a science.
This April will kickoff the Mansion’s 39th social season and Chef Al Langeveld has been here for 25 of them, transforming the venue into the acclaimed culinary success it has become. Born in the Netherlands, Langeveld graduated from Hanze College Zwolle, the Netherland’s Culinary College, with a degree in Culinary Arts and Hotel Management. He also studied under Gerrit Grevelink, Chef to the Queen of Holland, and honed his skills at noted hotels throughout Western Europe, as well as several years on a cruise ship.
The strong aromas escaping from the kitchen the past few days were just too intriguing to ignore, and I couldn’t resist trotting into the inner sanctum to take a peek. Lucky for me, Chef Al was just starting the long process of making brown stock (also called espagnole) from scratch!
According to the deliciously informative home cook and blogger, ‘RG Jones’ (www.http://reluctantgourmet.com), “….A stock is based on bones. A broth (bouillon, in French) is based on meat. While a broth can be very flavorful, a stock delivers a rich mouth feel courtesy of the gelatin that is slowly extracted from the bones. Along with depth of flavor, it is the extraction of gelatin that is the goal of stock making…”
Basically, the process is all about monitoring huge stockpots that boil and simmer for days to create the richly flavorful brown stock, a staple used alone or as a foundation for brown sauce and other recipes. The finished product is chilled into aspic (a jelly made from meat stock, similar to what tops a pâté) that can be frozen and used later. What happens in between the boil and the chill is what gives chefs the edge over the rest of us cooks!
A chef is only as good as his/her stocks and sauces, and all serious cooks always have a cache of these kitchen essentials. In the foodie world, brown stock may become brown sauce, which is one of the five ‘mother sauces,’ the secret ingredients that function as the foundation for many other amazing sauces, gravies and dishes. Brown stock is used to make brown sauce for example.
The five basic sauces, which vary from simple to more complex layers of flavors, are béchamel, velouté (white sauce), espagnole (brown stock), hollandaise and tomato.
Sidebar: There really is only one way to make a brown stock (changes may be to roast vegetables rather than boil), and a very simple recipe and link will follow this post.
When I popped into the kitchen, the Chef’s faithful assistant Jude, was keeping an eye on four ten-gallon stockpots boiling like mad on a dreamy ten-burner Vulcan gas range.
Sidebar: Jude, who is married to a pastry chef, is also a great source of foodie info.
The strong aroma that permeated the mansion was the pounds of veal bones being browned in the several ovens. I have to admit however, that after standing in the kitchen for a few minutes talking to Jude and watching the pots boil (despite what you’ve heard, they never stopped), the smoky aroma clung to my clothes and followed me around all day!
Each pot was filled with browned/roasted veal bones covered with water to the brim, and whole stew vegetables (also called mirepoix): onion, celery, carrots, bay leaves and tomato paste. The pots will be left to boil for hours, with occasional stirring, and then simmered for hours more. The browning is a key step.
Throughout the simmering, fats that rise to the surface are skimmed off.
As Jude explains it, after three days 150 pounds of bones, 40 gallons of water and one gallon of wine will reduce to eight gallons of 100% flavor!
Insider Tip: For very large quantities, it’s important to use whole vegetables—not chopped—so they can withstand the two days of boiling and simmering without disintegrating. The vegetables are boiled for 24 hours to leech out all of the mirepoix flavors into the water, which will result in the rich and flavorful brown stock.
When I stopped in next day, all vegetables and bones had been removed and discarded, and the pots continued to simmer the remaining liquid for another 24 hours until it reduces by half. As the liquid reduces, it will slightly thicken. Apparently, some pots received red wine as well, which also reduces in half.
Insider Tip: Chef Al demonstrated how he checks the reduction progress by dipping in a large spoon and noting how the liquid drips off its back. As the liquid reduces, it thickens and coats the spoon.
Once slightly cooled, the liquid is poured into containers and chilled for 24 hours until it jells into aspic, which must be either used within three days or frozen for several weeks.
Making one’s own stock can be an involved and very expensive proposition for the average gourmand because of the amount of bones, water and ingredients required in the process. There has to be enough liquid (and flavor) to reduce the recipe to the final product.
But fortunately, Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer, et al., and Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1, by Julia Child, et al., provide recipes for smaller portions and simplified steps for making your own brown stock, and subsequent sauces. Julia also explains that she used her recipe as the base for all of the dishes in her volumes that required a stock and sauce. While many of her recipes are daunting, her stock and sauces are not.
There are other options for the home cook than roasting, boiling, simmering and skimming. I have tried stock pastes and demi-glace for stews and soups, which added a layer of flavor to the pot, but I’ve yet to find an aspic.
The catalog Joie de Vivre carries several stocks and sauces, but I’ve never tried them. http://www.frenchselections.com/store/search.php.
It is also possible to purchase such stocks and sauces from very reputable food shops; perhaps a chef at your favorite restaurant or a local culinary school or gourmet club can provide suggestions for locating a food shop in your area.
Sidebar: Speaking of Julia—and I always do!—if you haven’t read any of the books about her (loved My Life in France and Julia’s Cats) or the movies Julie & Julia and My Life in France (loved ‘em both), run out and do so. I’m still working my way through the ever-growing list of books dedicated to Julia Child. She seems more popular now than ever—and to think, I grew up just a few miles from her famous kitchen and show! http://www.amazon.com/France-Movie-Tie-In-Edition-Random/dp/B006G89IOO. BTW: her TV programs are available online and have come in handy for quick lessons!
My taste of the good life
Hanging around the kitchen does have its rewards. It’s a treat for me to have the vantage point of seeing what goes on behind the scenes in a busy kitchen with the planning and the preparations that make a well planned menu come together. It’s an even bigger treat when I get to taste what I see! Chef Al dished up a luncheon feast of beef drizzled with his brown stock, topped with sautéed mushrooms and onion, served with mashed potatoes and my favorite roasted brussel sprouts! America, rest at ease. The brown stock received my enthusiastic seal of approval.
Brown Stock Recipe
All brown stock (and sauce) recipes are the same, but this one seemed to be explained particularly well. This is a very good website to check out. BTW: Chef Al’s recipe is the same: http://reluctantgourmet.com/cooking-techniques/sauces/item/1116-how-to-make-beef-stock-for-brown-sauce
How to Make Brown Stock (which can be used to make brown sauce to make demi glace)
- 8 lbs. beef or veal bones
- Vegetable oil, as needed
- 6 quarts cold water
- 8 oz. onion, roughly chopped
- 4 oz. carrot, roughly chopped
- 4 oz. celery, roughly chopped
- 4 whole garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 sachet d’epices (a small bundle of thyme leaves, parsley sprigs, 2-3 bay leaves, and 10 whole peppercorns, give or take, wrapped in cheesecloth and tied with kitchen twine to form a bundle.)
Stock is the fluid that results from simmering bones, aromatic vegetables and herbs for a protracted period of time. Bones, as opposed to meat, are employed because they are rich in the protein collagen. Veal bones are preferred over beef because they contain more collagen. Collagen denatures into the viscous protein called gelatin which adds body to the stock.
Meat can be used instead of bones but there’s a catch. Meat imbibes the stock with more flavor but not viscosity, which is the goal in making stock. Stocks made from meat and not bones are called broths.
To augment the flavor of a stock and deepen its color, the bones are first roasted in an oven. They are then placed in a large stockpot with the water, vegetables, and herbs and simmered. Depending on the particular chef or culinary text, there are three procedural options in terms of the vegetables:
- 1) The vegetables can also be roasted, along with the bones. The argument here is that like the bones, roasting the vegetables will enhance their flavor, and hence the resulting stock.
- 2) Roasting of the vegetables is omitted. Instead they are simply added raw to the stockpot after the bones have cooked.
- 3) Roasting of the vegetables is omitted and they, (along with the herbs), are not added to the stockpot at the beginning, (as in step 2), but an hour before the stock is done. The reasoning here is that extended simmering of the vegetables and herbs causes their flavor to degrade and dissipate. Adding them an hour before the end of the cooking is sufficient time to extract their essence without rendering them insipid.
Some chefs will fiercely cling to their specific methodology but I have to tell you, I’ve made stock countless times, with all three variations and have never seen a marked difference in the final product. I favor the third alternative mostly because it is easier to skim the stock without the vegetables and herbs in the way. Skimming must be done periodically throughout the cooking to remove excess fat and the scum which floats to the surface.
There are a few other aspects to be mindful of when making stock. Begin with cold water, (which will extract the bone’s proteins more efficiently), use a pot that is taller than it is wide, (to ease the rapidity of evaporation), and cook it at a VERY GENTLE simmer. The bubbles should only be lazily breaking the surface. OK, with all those permutations and guidelines in mind here are the directions for making stock:
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Add six quarts of water to a stockpot.
Lightly oil a large, heavy gauge steel roasting pan. Add the bones and roast them until browned, turning them as necessary.
Add the bones to the stockpot. Drain all the fat from the roasting pan. Place the pan on top of the stove on high heat. Add some water, stock, or wine, and deglaze the bottom, scraping off the browned bits. Add the dissolved solids and fluid to the stockpot.
Bring the stock to a boil. As soon as it hits a boil reduce the heat until a very gentle simmer is produced. Skim the surface of the stock as necessary.
Simmer for at least five hours. Then add the vegetables and sachet d’espice. Simmer for one more hour.
Strain the stock through a colander into another pot discarding all the solids. Strain again through cheesecloth. To de-fat the stock either 1) allow it to cool and skim the surface with a large spoon, use a fat separator, or refrigerate and remove the coagulated fat on the surface a few hours later.