Taking Stock…

I’m re-reading Tom Vernon’s book Fat Man in the Kitchen, in which he rather takes against stock cubes, suggesting that we are committing some sort of culinary crime by not making our own stock. Which, of course, completely ignores the fact that such a labour-intensive and time-consuming task is generally delegated to a team of minimum-wage-slaves in professional kitchens – a luxury that I, for one, do not have. Nor, I venture to suggest, do you.

So, let me reiterate what I’ve said many times before – there is nothing wrong with stock cubes, stock concentrates or stock powders. The important thing is not to let any single component dominate. And yes, I can hear you thinking “But he always starts with Kallo cubes!”. Which is true, but they are very mild cubes (for example one cube makes roughly half the amount of stock as Knorr cubes), which enhance rather than overwhelm the flavours of whatever you put them with.

I find that lamb, pork, fish, or any other specifically-targeted stock product other than beef, chicken, or vegetable to be a travesty of the real thing, and I much prefer to mix my own. These don’t taste like the real thing either, but they’re not intended to. They do, though, support and enhance the flavours of the main ingredients, and can be tweaked to suit the palate of pretty much anyone. (Tip: In a fish-based dish you don’t need fish stock cubes – the actual fish will provide all the piscine flavour you need).

Beef products are probably the longest-established, but even here there is room for improvement and I’d still start with the Kallo veg base. I’m not averse to using Oxo, with care because it is very assertive. My recent beef-based vegetable soup has more Bovril than Oxo, and it would have had Kallo beef cubes but they’re hard to find.

This is what I use:-

Kallo Organic Vegetable cubes. These yield a very light stock and form the basis of most, if not all, of my stocks, upon which I build using some of the following.

Kallo Beef cubes. More authentically beefy than Oxo and, like the veg cube, quite light. Elusive, though, as are Kallo chicken cubes.

Kallo also come in low salt and yeast-free versions but both suffer from lack of flavour.

Beef Oxo.

Knorr Chicken cubes.

Bovril.

Knorr Touch of Taste concentrates. These come in Beef, Chicken, and Vegetable and are really gravy-makers, but are good for stock too. Use with care – salty. I use these mainly for any final tweaks to the flavour profile.

Marigold Swiss Vegetable Bouillon Powder. Again, a light product, like Kallo, and used for tweaking rather than as a main flavour component. It comes in this standard version or as Vegan or Low Salt varieties. Sadly, those two are also low on flavour.

Marmite. As with many veggies, even part-time ones like me, a jar of this lurks at the back of my cupboard. I can’t remember the last time I used it as it’s simply too aggressive. Like it’s meaty cousin, Oxo, it needs using with great care lest it take over the entire dish. Don’t get me wrong, I like Marmite – try it in a sarnie with peanut butter and alfalfa sprouts – but as an ingredient even the smallest amount will announce its presence stridently.

To sum up, no, cubes and concentrates aren’t as good as professionally-made stock, but for home cooks they provide a more than acceptable alternative to something that simply isn’t possible for the vast majority of us. The quantities given in my recipes suit my tastes, naturally enough, which is why “to taste” appears so frequently as yours doubtless differs from mine.

Keep notes of any changes so you can repeat them if they work, and alter them if they don’t. Which is why, even after cooking for some 60 years, I still take a workbook into the kitchen when working up a new recipe. And so should you, because as sure as god made little green apples, sooner or later you’ll forget something absolutely vital.

I’m not averse to spiking the stocks thus produced with other commercially-available products if I think they can be improved. HP Sauce, or its Fruity sibling, are good additions, as is Branston Sauce (though I find it a tad too sharp for my taste these days). If you want a hit of spicy heat, Lingham’s Ginger, Garlic, and Chilli Sauce is pretty damn good. Treat it with caution unless you’re very fond of chilli heat – it’s a tad warm. In fact, while it’s good with cold food, using it, as I just have, in a casserole, by some strange alchemy it loses the garlic and ginger and just leaves you with the chilli heat – a bit annoying. Adding it on the plate instead gets round the problem, though.

I have, though, little or no taste for cooking with alcohol, especially beer (which I prefer to drink, or did when I was allowed to, which I’m not now, sadly**). Just one exception – I quite like pork, even sausages, bacon, or liver, cooked with a really good cider, and then only a little. You should taste the pig primarily, not the booze. I’ve been known to add a slug of pale cream sherry to some dishes (yep, I know dry is the norm – sweet is what I’ve got, and it works for me), as this, too, allows the ingredients to shine through unobscured.

**I take morphine, lots of morphine, and alcohol ramps up its effects substantially, even going so far as to take a normal dose close to lethal levels. I had to choose between pain and booze – and that really is a no-brainer! I still have an occasional glass of sherry. but the days of a gallon of beer before getting down to the serious drinking (eat yer heart out, William Hague!), are gone forever.

It’s worth pointing out, for those who worry about such things, that cooking drives off the alcohol, so classics like Coq au Vin, or abominations** like beef and ale pie can be eaten with impunity by those who eschew alcohol.

**Because the style and quantity of the beer almost always overwhelms good meat while failing to disguise poor meat.

One last ingredient – soy sauce. I use Kikkoman where I want soy sauce for its own sake, but in a stock I use Sharwood’s Rich Soy Sauce which adds depth and savour without it tasting like a recycled takeaway.

And on that note I shall leave you, and go and doss in the chair. I still have the diarrhoea I developed in hospital (it returned a few hours ago – it’s now 01.18 on Good Friday). and the toilet is too far from my bed for safety! That might well be TMI. Hey, welcome to my world!

I was hoping to be back online for the weekend, forgetting it was Easter which buggered up the delivery of my new router. And it was immensely annoying that not one of my 7 computers will run on 3G nor, as far as I can see, can I buy one that does.** So I’m stuck with my smartphone which does run 3G but is a pain in the butt to type on.

**Wrong! Just bought a Lenovo A8-50 tablet which comes with 3G and WLAN. Data only, not voice, but the 3G will keep me in contact with the rest of the world, in the short term, until my new router comes, and as part of my hospital kit in the long term.

It also means I can stay online at night if I can’t sleep, without having to leave my router running 24/7** which might have contributed to its recent failure.

**April 9 – wrong again – the new router says it’s to be left on permanently, and doesn’t even have an On/Off button.

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