A friend and I were emailing back and forth about making stock – Be sure that the bones are meaty or add meat. Some advise onion only but I like to add carrot, celery, onions, thyme, parsley and bay. Season at the end but season generously, the most heavy handed salter won't come close to the sodium content in canned stock/broth. And take caution not to overcook the bones, if the stock isn't strong enough – don't keep cooking, strain and reduce.
Reduction, a concentration of flavors by boiling off excess liquid, is a staple in the cook's tool kit. It's a little more nuanced than throwing anything/everything in a pot, covering with water and walking away. Before you can even get to the reduction stage of you have to extract the flavors from your ingredients. And this series of actions isn't being all fussy and French for the sake of showmanship – Bones (to roast or not, that is a question) take longer to cook than veg (with beef reductions, tomato paste, a common ingredient, has already been cooked), dried herbs a little before the initial cooking is complete but fresh ones are added at the very end. Than there is the straining, the return to heat and the idea of when to stop.
Reductions are a type of cooking that is at once largely unsophisticated and requires, if not experience, at least forethought.
As we were hashing technique and ingredients in emails, I was reading passages from Adam Gopnik's The Table Comes First. Like his Paris to the Moon, “Table” is both a joy and joyful, as Mr. Gopnik brings his well-honed skills of thinking and writing to the subject of food. After spending years as an American in France, or as a successful writer/traveler, it would be easy enough for him to pursue the popular line of thinking of food as hedonism. He does acknowledge eating as a pleasure, but not in the chasing down of a little hard to obtain morsel and enjoying more than you or I could. Instead cooking and eating are a cornerstone of past remembrances, but most of all, he presents food as something that is at it's best when it's shared.
The conversation about stock proper, flashed me to an earlier passage in “Table” where Mr. Gopnik quotes Mark Peel who said, “We chefs all lie about our mashed potatoes. We don't tell you we used 1 ½ pounds of butter and cream with 1 ¾ pounds of potatoes. You don't need to know.” I once horrified a dinner guest by throwing a stick of butter in riced potatoes before setting them in the oven to keep warm. “That's indulgent”, she said with the tone of a Lutheran in a North Dakotan winter, a side of her I had never experienced before. “Don't worry, the potatoes will serve 8”, although I was secretly glad she didn't see the cup of cream and the container of sour cream that went in before she arrived.
That quote about potatoes in turn made me wonder about the results 1000s of miles away. The people my friend was cooking for, they will notice her effort. That stock will be in the pot of soup they recollect when they think of soup. That stock will be the reason they want seconds of the braised chicken. They will understand the food is good, better than same dish than the last time it was served. But will they know why: The effort, the thought, the straining, the reduction, the cooking until the stock was just heavy enough to cling to the tasting spoon. Or is that the true joy of cooking, making it all look like magic rather than work. Is it like Mark Peel suggested, we don't need to know or would knowing make us appreciate the effort more?