Worth It: The Ingredient That Makes A Cook's Life Much Easier

Much unlike many a magazine editor who recommends you buy all sorts of crap that they most likely got for free, your Jezebel staff doesn't get jack shit (other than books, unsolicited). And that's how it should be. But on our own time, in our personal lives, we still buy stuff. So this is Worth It, our daily recommendation of random things that we've actually spent our own money on. These are the things we buy regularly or really like, things we'd actually tell our friends about. And now we're telling you.

It can be hard to cook for one (or even for two) in a world where supermarkets, judging by the size of their many Valu-Packs, cater to the needs of your average all-American 18-rugrat nuclear family. My appetite for oatmeal and hot cocoa being slim, I often fail to get through a carton of milk before it spoils. When you need, like, one carrot — maybe two — for your single meal that you plan to eat alone, you still have to buy the whole bunch. What are the chances you're going to be able to use them all before they start to go bad? Not high, if you're me, and you don't feel like making the next week's menu a variation on the carrot theme. And while we're at it, I only need one stalk of celery for this ragu, thank you, not a whole plant. Ditto mushrooms. I do not in fact need an entire pound of mushrooms when all I want to do is grill a couple for a single, solitary serving of a side dish! Frozen vegetables would solve this problem, but frozen vegetables don't taste the same — and they're not always suitable for all recipes. Basically all the fresh produce that isn't more or less shelf-stable — everything except for onions and potatoes, which come in bulk but keep — is packaged and sold in such a way that it is highly likely to out-quantify my appetite.

This leads to waste, which offends my sense of thrift and makes me feel like a failure at life. In years of traveling and taking care of my alimentary needs alone, I got pretty good at taking tiny portions out of outrageously generous supermarket-packaged goods, assembling delicious foods, and making the rest last. This isn't rocket science — the old "make a big pot of something, nibble at it for as many days as you feel like, and freeze the rest in portions" strategy is often a winner — and some vegetables that are on the verge of going bad can always be blanched and frozen as a last resort. Tomatoes, too, can be frozen in their skins, so long as you cut the tops off — they obviously don't defrost in salad condition, but they go into a pasta sauce or a stew just fine. (I learned this when a foodie neighbor took home a box of imperfect, slightly squishy, and very cheap end-of-season tomatoes from a farmer's market and froze the lot. That kept him in pasta sauce for the whole winter.) But what has perhaps brought me more peace of mind than anything else has been perhaps the simplest "trick" of all: keeping a stock bag in my freezer.

There is possibly nothing more delicious — and no better foundation for a wider variety of equally delicious foods — than homemade stock. Bouillon, please. Stock is dead easy to make, keeps more or less indefinitely once frozen, and improves almost any savory recipe when you use it instead of the called-for water. When I have reached the end of my carrot-and-celery tether, or that leek in the back of the fridge is starting to look really dodgy, I no longer have to throw it out: all I do is wash the thing, chop it up, and throw it into the Ziploc I keep in my freezer. Now, we're talking liminal veggies here, not things that are actually rotting — carrots that are too soft to eat or cook with will be great for stock. Carrots that are moldy will most definitely not be. But that still permits a lot. And this method solves the problem of feeling like you have to make stock immediately following a big meal (say, a roast chicken) — that carcass will keep in the freezer until you're good and ready. Into the stock bag can go:

  • Bones
  • Clam shells, lobster shells, and prawn exoskeletons (although it is wise to use a separate bag, since seafood stocks are so strongly flavored)
  • Chicken feet and heads, if you are lucky enough to have a meat purveyor who allows you to keep such parts (the feet in particular are great for stock because they contain a lot of gelatin)
  • Wilted parsley and other herbs, to taste
  • Carrot greens (ask at the market if you can have any extra carrot greens — a lot of people cut them off, which kinda makes me want to cry)
  • Carrot tops, tips, and peelings from the carrots you did manage to use by deadline; soft, whole carrots that you didn't
  • Parmesan rinds, or whole pieces of parmesan that hardened in your fridge because you couldn't eat it quickly enough (even though you made sure to buy the absolute smallest piece of parmesan your supermarket had available)
  • Cleaned onion tops and bottoms
  • Celery leaves
  • Basically anything else you have leftover or going bad too quickly for you to eat that is not a cruciferous vegetable (in a stock, those stink)

Don't put red beets in your stock bag, unless you want a pink stock. Then, when the bag is full, dump the frozen block into a pot, add enough water to cover, bring it to the boil, and simmer. Throw in a couple bay leaves if you've got them. Adding a tablespoon of distilled white vinegar to your stock, if you are making a meat stock, will help coax all of the available gelatin out of the bones. After a few hours, let cool, strain your stock and season it with salt. And you're done. (If you wanna be Julia Child-fancy about it, you can clarify a stock by beating egg white into it over heat; as the egg white cooks, it traps fine particles that the strainer can miss, leaving you with crystal-clear stock. But that step is for real overachievers only.) Start refilling the stock bag next time you cook.

Ziploc gallon freezer bags, 30 count, $7 at Amazon

Worth It only features things we paid for ourselves and actually like. Don't send us stuff.