MeatlessBy Miriam Wolf
IT'S DOWN TO the wire now: Thanksgiving is only moments away. Do you have that recipe for vegan gravy on hand? Will your pumpkin pie gel properly without eggs? Cranberry sauce from a can or from scratch?
Actually, I have a confession to make. My family stopped doing Thanksgiving a while ago. There's just three of us here in San Francisco the rest of our families are elsewhere (and flying out to Wyoming or New York for an uncomfortable Thanksgiving with the nonvegetarian relatives isn't particularly appealing). And while we love and value our friends, those group Thanksgiving dinners at their houses can sometimes involve as much baggage as spending the holidays with that family from The Corrections.
So instead of joining in the annual ritual celebration of meat-eating, now we just go to our favorite vegetarian South Indian restaurant in the South Bay. It's not depressing like going to the local diner alone for a hot turkey sandwich on Thanksgiving evening, not stressful like cooking a vegan Thanksgiving for 12 people. It's more like going to Jamaica for Christmas; you know the holiday is happening somewhere, but you're effectively sheltered from it.
Still, even if you escape from Thanksgiving, there are still plenty of holiday dinners and winter soups you'll want to prepare this season, so you'll need to lay in a good supply of vegetable stock. (If we were meat eaters, we'd be able to make a batch of turkey stock this weekend, but as vegetarians, we can't rely on carcasses for our flavor notes.)
A cruise down the aisles of the grocery store reveals a cornucopia of broths and stocks that ranges from canned salt-fests to expensive concentrates to aseptically packaged choices. To confuse the matter further, there's also a raft of powdered and cubed bouillons.
For the most part, the packaged stuff is worth using only in an emergency (like after an earthquake or something) and certainly not when the flavor of the dish relies on its base stock (as with a clear soup). The exceptions are the aseptically packaged broths and stocks, which in general tend to be a little fresher tasting than the canned or concentrated products. And while I still wouldn't want to use the boxed brands every day, there's one I can wholeheartedly recommend: Pacific Organic Mushroom Broth. It has a deep, dark mushroom flavor that makes a great base for mushroom risotto and mushroom barley soup.
But what if you're not making something that calls out for mushroom flavor? Well, in that case, you're going to need to make your own vegetable stock. A few years ago I read a recipe in Cooks Illustrated magazine for "The Ultimate Vegetable Stock." Now, usually I love Cooks Illustrated. This magazine is nutty; its contributors test and retest recipes (often scores of times) using slightly different ingredients and proportions each time until they find the perfect combination that produces, well, the ultimate whatever. (Sadly, often it's the formula with the highest proportion of fats that carries the day, but that's another column.) This recipe was no exception; the writer tried so many combinations she said she "felt as if I had crawled every inch of the produce section on my belly." The Ultimate Vegetable Stock ultimately used about $10 worth of fresh produce including a whole head of cauliflower, four leeks, and a stalk of lemongrass (!) to make a scant quart of stock). I tried it and was underwhelmed, given the price of the ingredients and the fact that a separate shopping trip needed to be made to get them.
Stock shouldn't be that complicated. You can make a very easy, tasty stock that's appropriate to most vegetarian recipes with only a couple of onions (yellow or white, not red), a leek, a carrot or parsnip, a turnip if you've got it, lots of garlic, and herbs. The herbs should include a bay leaf, a few sprigs of fresh thyme or a teaspoon or so of dried, four or five peppercorns, some fresh parsley, and some celery leaves or dill.
Chop up the veggies and put them in a big pot along with seven cups of water and the herbs (you don't need to put the herbs in cheesecloth since you'll be straining them out later anyway). Bring to a gentle simmer and let cook very gently for an hour. Strain out the spent vegetables, salt to taste, et voilà. This is a very mild stock, but it's also extremely adaptable. You can add more flavor by sautéing the veggies in a little bit of olive oil for 15 minutes before adding the water. For an even more caramelized flavor, try roasting the vegetables for 20 minutes or so at 400 degrees. Then move the vegetables into the stockpot and pour a little boiling water into the roasting pan. Swish the water around, scrape up the browned bits, and pour the whole mess into the stockpot.
I've never been the kind of thrifty, think-ahead person who puts their veg
ends and scrapings into the freezer for stock, but you should be. You
can make lovely stocks by adding things like corncobs, asparagus ends,
pea pods, mushroom stems, and peels from organic vegetables. Some cookbooks
suggest staying away from cruciferous vegetables like cabbage unless you
want your house to smell like a 1930s tenement; others recommend them
wholeheartedly. Stock, like jazz, is a matter of improvisation. With enough
time and a little bit of magic, you can turn the dowdiest vegetables into
the richest of ingredients.