There really is no secret to creating great-tasting dishes; if you use good-quality ingredients and cook them well, then finish with a sympathetic garnish, you are already 80% of the way there. To raise a dish from the great to the fantastic you will need to find the final 20% though, and that’s where getting the basics right really counts.
If you start your dish with a great home-made tomato sauce or stock the results can be unbelievable. Suddenly, restaurant-quality food will start to emerge from your kitchen. There is a reason that professional chefs of any quality never use stock cubes or powders and it is for this reason that this, of all the recipes I will ever publish, is without a doubt the most useful and most important.
Sure, it takes a little time to make a great stock, but apart from the five minutes it takes to roughly chop the ingredients you can spend all that time doing something else – like sitting down with a cuppa and reading a book.
Try and find some dried limes in the international section of your local supermarket, they are as cheap as chips and add another dimension entirely. Drop them in whole or crumble them in your hands.
I make two versions of this stock, a dark stock for use with heavier, darker stews and soups, and a light version for use making soups such as minestrone and tomato, and risottos, where a dark coloured stock would adversely affect the look of the finished dish. To make the lighter version simply omit the mushrooms and make sure you remove the skin from the onion.
RECIPE – makes approximately 1.5 litres
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried thyme
2 bay leaves
1 large onion, unpeeled, roughly chopped
1 leek, well rinsed, chopped
5 medium organic carrots, unpeeled, chopped
1 large orange sweet potato, unpeeled, roughly chopped
3 celery stalks, chopped
5 dried shiitake mushrooms
3 litres water
1 tbsp fish sauce (nam pla)
2 dried limes (optional, but awesome)
Heat the oil in a large stock pot and add the dried herbs and bay leaves while you start chopping the veg. As you chop each ingredient, toss it straight into the pot and agitate it to get the oil and herbs coating everything. Add the shiitake mushrooms whole, then cover the whole thing with a cartouche and cook over a gentle heat for twenty minutes.
The smaller you chop your vegetables the more flavour you will generally be able to extract; don’t overdo it though, root vegetables only need to go as small as 1/2 cm cubes while the leek, onion and celery only need to be 5mm thick at a minimum. Take as long as you have, and if you’re in a hurry don’t worry about it.
|*Tip: Sweating vegetables under a piece of parchment is known as using a cartouche. It is a way of cooking that simultaneously sweats and steams the vegetables, extracting maximum flavour in minimum time.
Cut a square of baking parchment that is slightly larger than the surface area of your pan, push it down so it sits on top of your sweating vegetables and then tuck the sides down so the vegetables are completely covered. Keep the heat low and after a few minutes check to see that nothing is catching on the bottom of the pan, then re-cover and continue to sweat them until they are as soft as you need them to be and the aroma is filling your kitchen.
After twenty minutes remove the cartouche, add the water and fish sauce and bring to the boil, then simmer very gently for between 60 and 90 minutes. The long, slow cooking is crucial to extract maximum flavour and nutrients from the vegetables.
Strain and remove all the vegetable matter and you now have a basic vegetable stock; the real test is that it should make a delicious broth when seasoned with salt – good enough to drink out of a mug and leave you wanting more. At this point you can use it as it is in any recipe that calls for stock, or you can reduce it further, concentrating the flavour and storing it in the fridge for later use.