This week has been rather uneventful, what with me struggling to get over my recent bout of ickiness and my husband traveling quite a lot. Partly out of boredom and partly because I’m sure you’re obsessed with the minutiae of my cooking life, I added a new page to my blog listing all of my cookbooks and other books in my cook’s library. I actually love book lists of all kinds. Whenever I see one, I immediately compare the contents to my library and add several items to my Amazon.com wishlist, which is almost — but not quite — as satisfying as actually buying them. Of course, if I bought every book on my wishlist, our house would be overflowing with them, and I’m sure I’d never get around to reading or cooking out of them all.
In keeping with my personal challenge to make one fun theme menu per week, last night we celebrated the Chinese Lantern Festival. This was a very inspiring day of celebration for me. The Chinese Lantern Festival marks the end of the Chinese New Year with the lighting of thousands of brightly colored lanterns. The festival always falls on a full moon and is marked by eating dumplings made with rice flour and glutinous rice that evoke the moon. To commemorate the festival and the full moon, I wanted to make a menu of Chinese-inspired foods that reminded me of the moon:
- Sweet & Sour Cucumbers have a cooling yin energy and are a refreshing starter
- Steamed Pearl Rice Balls physically resemble the full moon and evoke the traditional rice dumplings without having to actually make dumplings
- Chicken Soup with Chicken Wontons again evokes the dumplings and seemed a balancing way to end the meal
I have made the Sweet & Sour Cucumbers many times, so I knew that recipe would be a success. New for me was the Steamed Pearl Rice Balls (recipe from A Spoonful of Ginger). I omitted the tofu that the recipe called for and made them with two kinds of rehydrated dried mushrooms instead. While they were good, I thought they lacked flavor and had trouble remaining cohesive. I am sure they would have been much better with a ground pork filling, which is traditional.
The Chicken Soup with Chicken Wontons (recipe from Simple to Spectacular) was extremely simple yet wonderfully delicious, and the wontons were surprisingly easy to make, considering past fiascos with potstickers and the like. This recipe also forced me to make, for the first time in my life (I’m almost ashamed to admit it), chicken stock! My excuse is that I was a vegetarian for many years and have only recently rediscovered the joys of cooking with meat stocks. I have been buying chicken broth in the belief that making my own stock would be way too time-consuming. But the recipe I discovered in Simple to Spectacular for One-Hour Chicken Stock puts the lie to that, and now there is no excuse for not making homemade chicken stock every other Sunday or so. Recipes like this simple wonton soup rely on the full fatty flavor of a homemade stock; broth just can’t substitute.
By the way, what is the difference between broth and stock? Well, broth is made with meat and/or vegetables, while stock is always made with bones plus meat and vegetables. Thus, stock benefits from the additional gelatin released from simmering the bones and has a richer, more satisfying flavor as a result.
One-Hour Chicken Stock
Yields: 6 cups
Time to make: ~1 hour
Keeps: 4-5 days in the refrigerator or 6 months in the freezer
What you need:
- 2 lbs. chicken wings or other chicken pieces, cut into smallish pieces
- 6 cups cold water
- various aromatics, chopped coarsely, such as 4 cloves garlic, ½ onion, 1 leek, 1 carrot and 1 celery stalk, but let your refrigerator be your guide
- 10 or so whole peppercorns
- 1 bay leaf
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme
- Bring all the ingredients just to a boil in a tall, narrow stockpot
- Reduce the heat to a simmer, and simmer for about an hour, skimming off any fat that rises to the surface
- Strain, pressing down on the vegetables and chicken to drain as much liquid as possible
- Use immediately or transfer to the refrigerator and chill; skim off the layer of fat that congeals on the surface
- Bring to a boil before using
Bringing stock to a boil before using will not only ensure it’s safe but will also cut about 15 minutes off the cooking time of a soup or stew.
Do not salt stock while it’s cooking. Stock is an ingredient and as such, should only be salted when it is added to the final dish.
To bring out more flavor, add 1 cup white wine to the simmering stock.
If you really don’t have time to make homemade stock, you can improve the flavor of store-bought broth immeasurably by simmering it with the same mix of aromatics, spices, herbs and wine for 15 minutes and then straining before using it.