Mouths to Feed: My Broth’s Keeper

It’s often said that cooking takes time. It’s often said by me, because it’s true. 

Or is it? Today, as the spring days stretch with daylight, I’m thinking that the phrase warrants a second look. Because it suggests that time is something we possess and can hold on to, and that cooking takes it like a thief, depriving us of something that is rightfully ours.

The older I get, the more certain I become that time not only doesn’t belong to me, it’s not even necessarily on my side, as it once apparently was for Mick Jagger. 

Simple Chicken BrothFlavored with Ramps and Ginger

Simple Chicken Broth Flavored with Ramps and Ginger

Well, then. Perhaps instead I will say that cooking shapes time. It can make an hour — the final hour before dinner guests arrive, say — feel as jagged as a midtown traffic jam. It can spotlight a moment, such as when you glance down at your cutting board and suddenly notice the breathtaking beauty of the apricots or asparagus laid out upon it. And it can elongate a day, bringing to it a patient, productive sense of happy waiting, as when bread dough is rising, or a pot roast is slow-cooking in the oven.

At the moment, I am in the mood for this third type of alliance between cooking and time — for an afternoon accompanied by the gradual unfolding of something delicious. Which is why I’m in the process of making a simple chicken broth, flavored with ramps and ginger, plus a lot of shredded chicken that can go back into it when the broth is done. 

Broth is often confused with stock. But here’s a nice way to remember the difference: Stock comes from an old Germanic word that means tree trunk, and is so named because it has long been considered the essential foundation of all professional cooking, the basis for all great sauces, soups and concentrates. And since stock is a homonym for “stalk” — which is kind of like the trunk of a celery tree — you can think of stock as the stalk that supports the many leaves and branches of fine cuisine. Broth also has a Germanic origin, one that gave birth to brew and bouillon, and, like a brew, broth is something you consume as is, rather than use as the basis for something else. 

There are as many recipes for broths as there are culinary traditions. Some people suggest simmering a chicken for three hours and then throwing away the chicken, but I can’t bring myself to do that. So instead I poach the chicken for the first 40 minutes of cooking, lift it out and remove most of the meat before returning the skin and meaty bones to the liquid to continue cooking. Chefs, who tend to be quite picky about their methods for making stock, wouldn’t approve. But I’m not aiming for Michelin stars, just a satisfying, golden broth to sip or to spoon up if I add some herbs and vegetables to it. With lots left over for another day. Broth and stock may take time, but they also give you time, because they last for months in the freezer. 

Many years ago, I arrived at my friend Frances’ house on a spring day that had turned suddenly chilly. There was chicken broth on her stove and bread on her table, and when we got hungry we ate bread dipped in broth, and it was perfect; we needed nothing else. 

It’s a sweet memory, the kind that crystallizes a small bubble in time, a moment I hold on to.

Simple Chicken Broth Flavored with Ramps and Ginger

Equipment: Stockpot, cooking (or candy) thermometer, meat thermometer

  • 1 3½- or 4-pound chicken, cut into pieces
  • 1 bunch ramps, cleaned and trimmed (or substitute scallions)
  • 1 medium carrot, whole, skin on if organic
  • 1 pound chicken wings
  • 6 thin slices fresh ginger root, about ½ ounce total
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Fresh herbs, cooked greens and lemon or lime to serve (all optional)

Place the chicken pieces and wings in a stockpot and add 8 quarts very cold water. Transfer to stove and heat over medium-high until not quite simmering (about 190 degrees). Lower heat to low. For the next 15 minutes or so, regularly skim off any foam and scum that rises to the surface of the liquid. Watch the temperature of the broth closely; it should stay around 170 degrees. After 40 minutes, remove a chicken breast or thigh and check the internal temperature; the meat is done when it reaches 165 degrees. (Check several pieces; they will cook at different rates.)

Use tongs to remove the legs, thighs and breasts from the liquid; transfer to a cutting board. When cool enough to handle, remove the skin and pull most — but not all — of the meat from the bones. Transfer the meat to the refrigerator. Return the bones and skin to the stockpot. Add the ramps and ginger and continue cooking at 170 to 180 degrees for at least another hour, and up to three hours (you may want to remove the ramps after two hours). 

Strain the broth through a fine-mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth; do not press on the solids if you want a clear broth. Refrigerate broth overnight. When cool, remove any fat that has formed on the surface. At this point, you can simmer the broth to concentrate it. Add salt and pepper to taste at the very end. 

Serve as is, or poured over the shredded chicken, with herbs, vegetables and a squeeze of citrus if you like. 

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