Norman Van Aken, a member of The Daily Meal Council, is a Florida-based chef–restaurateur (Norman's at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando), cooking teacher, and author. His most recent book is a memoir, No Experience Necessary: The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken. This is the first in a regular series of Culinary Meditations that Van Aken will be contributing to The Daily Meal. He also writes a regular series of Kitchen Conversations for us.
The world of cookery has its roots. So many times we only look up above the place where a tree stands in an arc of natural and often beautiful transitions… But without the nurturing world that provides succor to that organism we see and enjoy, the world below, this beauty would not occur.
The day begins and I awake from dreams I try, in vain most times, to remember. But the focus of a day’s beginnings is often my "to-do list," just as it is for so many of us, and those dreams recede. I now remember the defrosting bones in the refrigerator. Perhaps not what you might have on your list, but it is on mine and so I am torn between reading the paper and the mail — something that might invade and conquer an easy hour — or I could get the ball rolling with those bones. I choose the bones and gratefully take a gulp of a prepared cold-brewed coffee and my vision clarifies.
I save the bones from whole chickens I butcher myself until I have a good enough batch to make a stock from. For a stock I often have to buy more chicken parts, which I don’t mind at all, but for a broth I can also use the roasted carcasses of birds that we consumed and carved before freezing the structure that once held the flesh. It sounds barbaric and I smile. I have not lost that I am partially primitive still, but I can justify it if my end result is the soft, nurturing, life-enhancing goodness of broths. And essentially broth is very much like a stock… but with more chutzpah and dash! You can feel free to embellish a broth more. Stock’s strength is in its simplicity. If you put your spoon in stock and tasted it, you might be a bit bored. Not so with broth. Stocks are meant to be clear and are prized more highly when so. Broths are allowed to show a cloudier visage and in fact are valued for the quality. There is character in that mist. Each has its own place in cuisine.
Go slow… enjoy the process. And be adaptive. The fairly fast rules of making a stock are loosened when making a broth. I am usually making a smaller quantity of broth than I am when I’m making a full batch of stock. So I don’t think of it as being better to keep a kind of neutrality that I might with the bigger yields. I might only be getting one or two meals out of that broth so if I want to go with the odds and ends of my fridge I sure as hell can. I don’t usually use ginger and scallions in my standard chicken stock. But this is a broth. And this is today. And this is the mood I have woken up in. I want to let the ingredients I have on hand guide me — not a recipe like scripture. The cilantro that I thought we had too much of is now a welcome guest.
The 14 cloves of garlic that have fallen loose from their heads can be justifiably used here too. What else? Ahh! The last remaining quarter bulb of fragrant fennel shall grace our broth. So too will this serrano chile. Seeds and all! It is, however, not about a hodgepodge. It is about letting your mind cut partially loose from the systems of other structures. Cook joyously… based on logical opportunities. It is jazz.
Once I finished glazing some of my chosen vegetables in a mix of olive oil and sweet butter and getting my raw carcasses roasted and then joined with the bird frames of those from the Sunday dinner’s cooked birds all in the pot, I add the water and then a slow dance begins — really slow, at first. To the point where you think it is not even moving, much less dancing. But don’t pad off in morning slippers and pick up the newspaper. God forbid there is a television on, making its phony and dull noise! This is something to savor. I lean over my stovetop and put my face down by that broth and watch it like one would an aquarium. Its fragrance holds me even if the action is not quite vital for a bit.
I smell the ginger and I begin thinking of what meal I might make with this foundation, this broth. But then a bubble comes up from the mosaic of bones, vegetables, skin, herbs, spices, and nearly clear water. It floats up from near the bottom like a long forgotten memory coming from an untroubled day in childhood. It breaks open up on the surface and spreads a sweet nectar into the morning air.
This broth creation is a pond of proteins conjoined with an amalgam of garden… and I am the fisherman and the forager. A papery garlic husk bobs to the surface and bumps into the spiky protuberance of a caramelized chicken wing. The celery announces itself through aromas quite different than those of the onion — vegetal and less sweet. Most compelling to my eyes now, at this point in the dance, are the globules of golden fat that form in various circumferences on the topmost layer of my slowly-heating pot of broth. A puff of steam suddenly animates the world above the liquid. There is now an exchange above the waterline. A signal that through heat, the acts of interchange and exchange are going to render flavors more complex than those sampled from a soup spoon ten minutes earlier. What was essentially water is evolving. And it is magical, glorious, beautiful broth. Mother to soup. Mother to stew. Mother to the meal I have not made yet — but soon will.