And cooking through a pandemic
Words by Zack Grossenbacher
Last spring, as news of the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States started to ring out, the effects were varied and immediate. Toilet paper became a rare commodity, liquor stores saw a run, new phrases such as “PPE” and “Flatten the curve” became part of everyday vocabulary. And just as it seemed everyone became an overnight epidemiologist, it also seemed they became experts in making things go “just a little bit further” in the kitchen.
On YouTube and Facebook, there was an explosion of videos and articles about making sourdough starter. Tips and tricks abounded on everything from how to store and regrow green onions (as if that were the line between starvation and comfort) to what to do with all those dried beans you bought. Yet there seemed to be a missing, and obvious, foodstuff in all this post-lapsarian kitchen wisdom: the stock.
Mere months before lockdown, Jackson, Mississippi, chef Hunter Evans opened Elvie’s, a New Orleans inspired restaurant in the historic Belhaven Neighborhood. Named after his grandmother—Elvaretta May Good—the restaurant bathes itself in the past, boasting a menu marinated in the value of looking back for lessons and inspiration.
I live in Belhaven and was able to take a short walk down the street to meet up with Hunter. It was a beautiful spring day in Mississippi—the heat was just starting to creep in.
He shared with me the difficulty of starting a restaurant so soon before the shutdown. “It was tough,” he said. “We held a staff meeting and told anyone who wanted to leave that it was OK.” He and his business partner also encouraged people to stay though. “I mean, we had just opened this restaurant, thought of every detail. It was a shame to have imported marble countertops and no one to sit at them. But even though [we didn’t] have people in the restaurant doesn’t mean that we had to stop feeding people.”
Evans and the Elvie’s team teamed up with Jackson Public Schools, cooking hundreds of meals for students’ families to pick up. Partnering with Mississippi-based hog farm Home Place Pastures, they produced one thousand meals for Jackson area healthcare workers. They also rolled out a rotating series of “pop-up” menus, including food far from their regular fare, such as burritos, Chinese take-out inspired noodles, and a bucket of “EFC,” or Elvie’s Fried Chicken. The through line of their response to the pandemic is the do-what-you-can-with-what-you-have attitude that marks the making of a good stock.
Stock making is the sort of activity that is more successful when it is integrated holistically into your day-to-day kitchen life. I always keep a gallon freezer bag and fill it with trimmings from onions, celery, carrots, chicken scraps, and anything else that might have flavor left on the bone. For Evans, a version of this practice was drilled into his classes at The Culinary Institute of America in New York. “Culinary school was a closed circuit. You had to take all these
different classes and each had a “budget” of what you could spend,” he said, air quoting the word budget. “Like if you need pork, you had to buy it from the students in the butchery classes, but we could make stocks and sell it to other classes.” So they would take the onions they used to train dicing, or the carrot trimmings from julienne practice, and put them in a pot. The lesson was simple: margins in kitchens can be thin, and waste isn’t something you can allow much of, so find a way to make something valuable at every turn. Not a bad mindset for getting through culinary school—or 2020.
When making a stock, I always try to follow the basic tenets. Start with your heartier ingredients such as chicken bones, then add trimmings, in a pot with cold water. After it’s brought to a simmer, start skimming the top. A lot of gunk will rise to the surface. Later on, add your aromatics, such as whole peppercorns, parsley stalks, thyme, and mirepoix (fancy French cooking lingo for carrots, onions, and celery). This should be done within the last hour of cooking. Strain the stock thoroughly to remove all solid material. Then, at last, add seasoning to bring out the flavors.
Chef Evans recommends a few tips to take your home stocks to the next level. The first is bruleeing your onions, which can be accomplished by halving whole onions and charring them cut-side down in a pan until well darkened. “If you’ve only used dried bay leaves, you should try fresh ones. The flavor is way better,” he said. He also recommends you allow your stock to cook down thoroughly. “I’ll let my chicken stock go way down,” he told me, “to the point that after you let it chill in the fridge, it’s more like a gelatin.” Not only does it take up less space that way, but it also allows for maximum flavor.
As far as uses go, a good stock will make any dish better. Try replacing water with any kind of stock next time you’re cooking rice. Or use a good chicken stock as a base for a homemade chicken soup—that’s one of my favorite things to do. If you’re feeling up to it, you could try some of the dishes you will find on the Elvie’s menu, such as braised osso bucco in chicken stock. Sometimes the simple dishes are the best though. “One of my favorites is egg drop soup,” said Evans. “In college, I always kept stock in the fridge because I could whip up some egg drop soup quickly. Just heat the stock, whisk the eggs, and pour them into the stock.”
As we sat on the porch talking about the year, Evans pointed at the front door of Elvie’s. “Yeah, that door was reclaimed, I think from a restaurant in New Orleans, if I remember correctly. We wanted to reuse things where we could.” Which seemed appropriate for the conversation about stocks. When cooking at home, stock making is one of the best ways to increase your food quality while reducing waste.
Last year was a hell of a time. Sometimes it felt overwhelming. For chef Hunter Evans, it was not only the year he struggled through opening a restaurant in one of the worst years for the industry, but he also had his first child. “We figured if we were going to do it, we would just try to do it all at once.” The year held many challenges for me as well: unemployment, fear, personal loss. I’m sure it was a challenge for you who’s reading this too. But once a month or so, once my freezer bag was full, I would thaw it out, get out my biggest pot, and make some stock. And I would feel, if only for that moment when I tasted it and knew it was finished, like things were going to be OK.