Tools & Techniques

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Essential Kitchen Techniques

Brodo di Pollo

Chicken Broth

There's something very gratifying about making your own broth for soups, risotto, and sauces, rather than relying on the over-salty powders and canned stocks available in markets. It takes much less time than most people think to make broth, and the result is far superior to anything you can buy. A few words of advice before you head into the kitchen to whip up a batch of homemade chicken broth:

  1. Don't think of the stockpot as a bubbling garbage bin. If you put rotting or flavorless ingredients in the stockpot, your broth will taste rotten or flat. Use leftover diced onion, crushed garlic, even a lonely tomato half for the stockpot as long as they're flavorful and fresh; you might want to keep a bag of vegetable trimmings in the refrigerator for use in your next broth, a way of cutting down on waste and making a richer broth.
  2. Don't cook the broth at too high a temperature; once it has reached a boil, lower the heat and let it simmer slowly for a long time (anywhere from 2 to 24 hours). High temperatures cloud the broth.
  3. Remember to skim off surface scum once the broth comes to a boil to avoid making the broth cloudy.
  4. Don't season broth with salt and pepper. You never know how much you'll be reducing it, or in what recipe you'll be using it.
  5. Use the recipe below as mere guidance. If you like the taste of tomatoes in broth and don't like carrot, substitute the one for the other. What counts is balance between the meat base and the aromatic and vegetable flavoring base: a chicken broth should taste like chicken, not carrots or thyme or onions.
  6. When you intend to freeze broth to be used in sauces, reduce the broth to one-tenth of its original volume and pour it, once the fat has been skimmed off, into ice cube trays. Once the broth is frozen, empty the trays into a plastic freezer-safe bag. Whenever you need broth, defrost one or two cubes and dilute with enough water to bring the broth to the right potency.
  • 2 pounds chicken parts (bones with some meat attached) or 2 pounds chicken wings
  • 1 large yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 celery stalk, chopped
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 1 leek, green part only, washed thoroughly and chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 thyme sprig
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • stems from 1 bunch of Italian parsley, washed thoroughly

Place all the ingredients in an 8-quart stockpot, add enough cool water to cover by 2 inches, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium-low and simmer for 2 to 24 hours, skimming the surface with a slotted spoon every 30 minutes or so. The longer you simmer the broth, the more reduced it will become and the more intense its flavor will be; intensely reduced broth is ideal in sauces, but may need to be diluted somewhat for use in soups or risotto.

Strain the broth through a cheesecloth-lined strainer set over a bowl, discarding solids. Refrigerate until cool, skim off the layer of condensed fat, and keep refrigerated for up to 5 days or freeze up to 2 months. Makes 2 to 8 cups depending on how long you simmer the broth

For a recipe for brown chicken stock, see below.

Step-By-Step Recipe

Brodo di Pollo Scuro

Brown Chicken Stock
Step 1: Brown the Chicken Bones

A few months ago, after I posted a recipe for chicken stock on my site, I received so many emails from readers telling me they had tried the recipe and that it was far superior to anything store-bought. There's nothing quite like homemade stock. Below is a different yet equally delicious recipe for chicken stock: a brown chicken stock.

The technique for brown chicken stock is basically the same as that for white (or regular) chicken stock: bones and aromatic vegetables are cooked in water to cover until all the flavor is extracted from them. But there's one key step that makes all the difference between the two recipes: the browning of the bones before any water is added. Browning the bones not only develops a darker color in the stock--it lends it a deeper, earthier flavor.

Because of its deeper flavor, I tend to reserve brown chicken stock for sauces and use white (or regular) chicken stock for soups, risottos, and other dishes. But you can experiment: try brown chicken stock in an onion soup or a sausage risotto, and you will surely enjoy the intense meaty flavor it provides.

Step 3: Add Parsley, Thyme, Bay Leaves, and Black Peppercorns

When making chicken stock (whether white or brown), prepare large batches, then freeze it in mason jars and defrost as needed. Or reduce your stock until it is thick and syrupy, almost like a glaze, then pour into ice cube trays, freeze until solid, and transfer to freezer-safe bags; the "ice cubes" of stock will need to be diluted with some water if used in soups, risottos, and other delicate dishes.

Step 1

Place 2 pounds chicken wings, necks, and other bones in an 8-quart stockpot. Set pot over medium heat and cook 10 to 20 minutes, stirring once in a while, or until bones have taken on a rich color all over.

Step 2
Step 4: Stir Aromatic Vegetables into Pot and Cook Until Soft

Gather the aromatic vegetables for the stock:

  • 1 leek, green part only, washed thoroughly
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 celery stalks
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled
Step 3

Coarsely chop the leek, carrots, celery, onion, and garlic.

Step 5: Pour in Water to Cover

Add 2 thyme sprigs, 2 Italian parsley sprigs, 2 bay leaves, and 1 teaspoon black peppercorns to the chopped vegetables.

Step 4

Add the prepared vegetables and aromatic herbs from Step 3 above to the browned bones.

Cook 5 more minutes, or until the vegetables soften, stirring often.

Step 5

Pour in enough cold water to cover bones and aromatic ingredients by 2 inches.

Don't pour in too much water or the stock will taste weak and diluted.

Step 7: The Stock is Ready
Step 6

Bring to a gentle boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer the stock, uncovered, for 2 to 24 hours, or until the stock is as reduced as you like it. The longer you cook the stock, the more it will reduce and the deeper the flavor and color will be.

Skim the surface of the stock with a slotted spoon to discard any scum that rises to surface once in a while.

Step 7

The cooked brown stock is ready to be strained.

Step 8

Place a fine mesh strainer over a bowl. Pour the stock and solids into the strainer.

Step 8: Strain Stock, Discard Solids, and Cool in Regrigerator Before Discarding Condensed Fat

To obtain the most intense flavor, press gently on the solids in the strainer with the back of a spoon.

Discard the solids. Cool the stock to room temperature, then refrigerate until the fat solidifies at the top; scoop out the fat using a slotted spoon.

Pour the defatted stock into clean jars and refrigerate up to 5 days or freeze up to 2 months.

Makes 2 to 8 cups of brown stock depending on how much you reduce stock

More tips on making stock here...

Seasoning Like a Professional

There's nothing more important than seasoning food properly if you want to create full-flavored, delicious dishes. Here are the essential things to keep in mind in order to achieve the correct balance of seasoning in your cooking:

  1. Food tastes different depending on when the seasoning is added. Seasoning blends in better when it is added to a simmering dish rather than just sprinkled over a finished dish. In the case of raw foods (salads, dressings, marinades, and so on), toss or stir gently to incorporate the seasoning.
  2. Always season from high up--at least 6 inches above the food. Grab the amount of seasoning you want between your thumb and index finger and let it rain gently down upon the food. Never drop the seasoning right onto the food without distributing it evenly: you will end up with food that tastes salty in spots and bland in others.
  3. Always taste for seasoning just before serving a dish. Adjust if needed, and enjoy.

The Smart Shopping List

A shopping list is key to quick shopping and helps you cut down on frivolous, hunger-driven expenses and minutes spent wandering up and down the aisles scratching your head, trying to recall just what it was you came to buy. Make your shopping list based on what you'll be cooking that week or what you've actually run out of, and you probably won't find yourself throwing away or wasting any food come the end of the week.

When you're writing a shopping list, begin by subdividing it by store. Make one list for the supermarket, another for the butcher, another for the fish store, or for whatever other shop you'll be going to; this way you cut down on the possibility of coming back home without one of the items you had originally set out to buy because you lost track. If you only shop in one store, it's that much easier.

Subdivide each list further by departments within each store. If you usually shop in the same stores, you know them pretty well, and you have a mental image of what the aisles contain and how the food is displayed. You know the dairy case is the first thing you see in the market next door, followed by the vegetables, then the prepared foods and so on. Group the items on your list in the same way they will actually appear in the store, and you'll save time once you're actually in the store.

When you've finished in one store, check your list for the items you didn't find; put those on the list for the next store, or find a substitute if you think you won't be able to find them.

And finally, you may want to consider keeping a running list of what you have run out of at home--jot down what you need to restock as soon as the need presents itself, and you will rarely find yourself forgetting that essential item the next time you head to the store.

When to Salt Boiling Water

This is a question that generates much impassioned debate in the food world... Here's my point of view.

A lot of people salt water for boiling pasta and vegetables upon putting the water on the heat; there's nothing wrong with that if it makes your life easier or if it prevents you from forgetting to salt the later. I prefer to salt the water when I throw in my pasta or vegetables for three simple reasons:

  1. Salt raises the boiling temperature of water, making it take longer to come to a boil.
  2. I find salted water that has cooked for a long time takes on a mineral-ey taste.
  3. If the boiling salted water reduces and reduces (by evaporation, for instance if you forget the pot on the stove), then it might be too salty by the time you add your pasta or vegetables, and your pasta or vegetables might emerge too salty as a result.

Soffritto

Most Italian recipes begin with a flavoring base called soffritto (roughly the equivalent of France's mirepoix, but far more varied from region to region and town to town).

Literally translated, soffritto means "slowly fried," from the word fritto ("fried"). Soffritti are composed of all sorts of savory ingredients: aromatic vegetables (carrots, onions, leeks, celery, garlic, and others, in varying combinations), as well as fragrant herbs (be it rosemary, parsley, mint, thyme, sage, oregano, basil... the list goes on and on) and flavor boosters (Pancetta, bacon, anchovies, chili peppers, and more).

These ingredients are very finely minced (usually with a half moon-shaped rocking blade called a mezzaluna, or with a simple kitchen knife) before they are cooked to luxurious tenderness.

The skill of the cook and the beauty of Italian cooking lies in the various combinations these ingredients take on; a flavorful soffritto is often the key to a delicious final dish. Soffritti need to be cooked slowly in a bit of hot fat (extra-virgin olive oil, butter, or lard are the three Italian classics) before other ingredients are added, creating a layering of tastes and a complexity of flavors that constitute the true heart of the dish. If you rush the soffritto, you'll end up with a dish that tastes flat; so take your time and let the aromatic ingredients release their essence in the pan.

Here are three recipes that highlight the use of soffritto in Italian cooking. Happy cooking!

Soffritto: Mushroom Calzone

I like to use a combination of chanterelles, morels, and oyster mushrooms to make a robust mushroom and cheese calzone. If you can get your hands on fresh porcini mushrooms, they are divine in this dish.

The soffritto for the mushroom filling combines garlic and parsley, which bring out the best in mushrooms.

Click here for the recipe.

Soffritto: Clams in Light Tomato Sauce

Italians enjoy seafood like clams in bianco (white) or with tomatoes. Either way, a bit of white wine is usually added to lend acidity to the dish, and garlic and parsley frequently make an appearance in the form of a soffritto at the onset of cooking.

Serve the clams below on their own, with grilled bread to mop up the juices; or serve with long pasta as a satisfying first course.

I prefer to use cockles (a New Zealand bivalve) rather than clams since cockles are smaller, sweeter, and more similar to Italian vongole (clams); look for cockles in well-stocked seafood markets or use littleneck clams if unavailable.

Click here for the recipe.

Soffritto: Step-by-Step Ravioli in Duck Ragu

A few years ago, when my husband and I were in Tuscany, we stopped for lunch at an unassuming roadside trattoria near Lucca. There was no menu: only the owner, making his way from table to table, enticing diners with descriptions of the day's offerings while his wife and mother cooked in the tiny kitchen. Among the homemade pastas, we ordered cheese ravioli in duck ragu... one of the best primi I have ever sampled.

The duck was absolutely tender, not at all fatty, with a hint of fennel seeds that brightened the dish. Unlike many duck ragus I have eaten over the years, this one was barely red--only enough tomatoes to give the sauce body and sweetness, not so much as to mask the taste of the meat. A delicate dusting of sharp Pecorino rounded out the flavors.

Although I wasn't able to get a precise recipe from the chef that day, I swore I would try to replicate the ragu at home in New York City. After a few tries, I finally got just the right balance of flavors. My duck ragu was as good as the one we had enjoyed in Tuscany--well, almost! I love the ragu tossed with Ricotta-filled ravioli, but it is also delicious with a simple fresh egg pasta; pappardelle or tagliatelle are perfect. I suggest you make a double or triple batch and freeze some so you can enjoy it later.

Invite your most discerning guests to dinner, open a bottle of Rosso di Montalcino, and indulge in a taste of Tuscany without ever leaving home.

The soffritto for this heavenly ragu features onion, carrot, celery, Pancetta, bay leaf, parsley, thyme, and basil.

Click here for the recipe.

Farrotto con Mais e Mozzarella Affumicata

Barley Risotto with Corn and Smoked Mozzarella

Barley (farro in Italian) is a staple in central and northern Italian tables, often cooked into creamy risotto-style first courses. The trick is long, slow cooking, constant stirring, and the gradual addition of hot stock to the barley as it cooks... exactly the same as for risotto.

  • 10 cups chicken broth
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 small leeks, white part only, thinly sliced
  • 1 and ½ cups pearl barley
  • 1 tablespoon minced thyme
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • Kernels from 1 ear fresh corn (scraped with a sharp knife), or 1 and ½ cups frozen corn, thawed
  • ½ cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano
  • ½ pound smoked Mozzarella, cut into 1/8-inch cubes

Make the risotto: Heat the broth in a stockpot and keep it hot.

Heat the olive oil in a wide, shallow pan. Cook the leeks until soft and translucent, stirring often with a wooden spoon, about 5 minutes.

Stir in the barley and thyme, and season with the salt and pepper; cook 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Deglaze with the wine and let it evaporate, stirring, about 3 minutes.

Begin adding the heated broth by the cup, stirring constantly; add more broth only when the barley has absorbed most (but not all) of the broth in the pan. Cook the barley in this manner, adding broth as needed, for 40 minutes, or until it is al dente; you may not need to add all of the broth. Fold in the corn kernels and Pecorino, and adjust the seasoning as needed.

Serve hot, topped with the smoked Mozzarella. Serves 8

Pollo al Cartoccio con Erbe Aromatiche

Grilled Chicken in Foil Packets with Many Herbs

Grilling food in foil seals in moisture and intensifies flavor; it also looks spectacular on the table. You can substitute lamb chops, veal chops, or fish steaks for the chicken breasts if you like.

  • 16 cherry tomatoes, quartered
  • 1/4 cup capers, drained
  • 1/4 cup black olives, pitted and chopped
  • 6 garlic cloves, quartered
  • 2 shallots, thinly sliced
  • 8 rosemary sprigs
  • 8 thyme sprigs
  • 8 sage leaves
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 boneless and skinless chicken breast halves, scored diagonally several times
  • 4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons dry white wine

Preheat a grill to a high flame; if you don't have an outdoor grill, use a grill pan instead.

Combine the cherry tomatoes, capers, olives, garlic, shallots, rosemary, thyme, sage leaves, salt, and pepper in a bowl.

Cut sturdy aluminum foil into four large squares. Place a chicken breast half in the center of each aluminum foil square, top each with one-quarter of the cherry tomato mixture, and splash each with one-quarter of the olive oil and wine. Close the packets tightly. (This can be done up to 2 hours ahead; refrigerate until needed.)

Place the foil packets on the grill and cook 10 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked all the way through (it should be firm when touched). Place each packet on a plate and serve hot, opening the packets at the table and adjusting the salt if needed. Serves 4