I have been fiercely holding onto these last glorious days of warmth and sunshine, with the hope that somehow, my devotion to the summer might keep fall on hold for a bit – just delay its arrival for a few more weeks of summary bliss. But this morning, as I stepped outside and felt that unmistakable chill in the air – something deep within me shifted. My heart – ever so fickle when it comes to the seasons, had changed its tune and was now amorously dreaming of crisp blue days filled with the scent of wood smoke and the crunch of leaves underfoot – just as it had so eagerly embraced the virescent explosion and bounty of summer. “Time to get out the stock pot,” I thought.
While summer for me holds the pleasures of fresh salads heaped with the garden’s bounty and ripe juicy fruits, I have come to associate fall with the pleasure of the delicious, earthy fragrance of stock simmering happily away on the stove. It fills my kitchen and entire house with a sense of warmth and comfort that is so perfectly satisfying on a blustery autumn day. I find that it embodies the very spirit of fall – the slower pace and inward moving, root nourishing energy. It also seems the perfect way to honor the harvest – when our gardens are blessing us with the final gift of abundance before they settle into slumber for the winter.
Stock making is an ancient tradition. It recalls the days when everything – from bone to eyeball to carrot tops – was considered too valuable to waste and invariably ended up in the stock pot. In our modern society where meat is bought boneless and skinless in neatly wrapped packages and we rarely have to consider what might have happened to the rest of the animal (dogfood?) – it may be hard to imagine the fundamental necessity that stock making served, and continues to serve, for most cultures. Why throw away your bones and carrot peelings when you can make something delicious and deeply nourishing, after all? Though it saddens me, it makes sense that this art which is still such a vital component in cuisines all over the world – should be entirely absent from the fast-paced, disposable culture of Americans.
But, there is more to soup stock then just a sense of thriftiness. For starters, soup stock is an extremely delicious melding of flavors that will greatly enhance the quality of any recipe you use it in. Just imagine the richness and complexity for a moment of a slow simmered liquid enriched with herbs, wine, onions, root vegetables, and celery, the savory flavor of meat and bone, the earthy taste of mushrooms – this is the secret ingredient of any good chef. Make your own stock, and you will quickly understand why it is such an indispensable ingredient to so many cuisines.
Soup stock is also a highly nutritious preparation that blurs that ambiguous line between food and medicine – as your Mother rightly told you! When bones, leaves, fibrous roots and mushrooms are simmered slowly over many hours, the normally rigid cells are able to be broken down and spill the bounty of their nutrition into the simmering water. With the addition of a little vinegar or lemon juice, minerals – particularly calcium, magnesium and potassium (which are largely deficient in the American diet) as well as sulfur and trace minerals – are extracted into the broth as electrolytes which are easily assimilated by our digestive tracts. But minerals are just the tip of the iceberg when singing the nutritional praises of stock. Below is a listing of the various soup stock ingredients, and the nutritional contributions they make:
Sulfur containing vegetables – Alliums (onions, leeks, shallots and garlic) and brassicas (cabbage, kale, broccoli, brussel sprouts and mustard greens) are both potent sources of sulfur compounds such as isothiocyanates. These compounds play a role in a processes including collagen formation and cellular respiration – but most importantly support a variety of detoxification pathways in the body.
Orange colored vegetables – Carrots and other orange colored vegetables such as sweet potatoes and squash are rich in carotenoids, including beta-carotene which is converted to vitamin A in the body. These nutrients support the health of skin and mucous membranes of the respiratory and digestive tracts, support vision, and enhance immune function.
Mushrooms – Shiitakes, maitakes, oyster mushrooms, chantrelles and other mushrooms all provide polysaccharides such as beta-glucans which dramatically improve immune function and have strong anti-cancer properties. It is worth noting that button mushrooms contain the lowest amounts of these health promoting compounds – and are often saturated with the harmful chemicals they were grown in. Stick to wild harvested or organically grown mushrooms if possible.
Bones – Bones are a panacea in and of themselves. They contain a variety of medicinal and highly nutritious compounds including:
- Marrow: a source of healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids and fat soluble vitamins.
- Minerals: such as calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, sodium, potassium and silica.
- Cartilage: contains glucosamine and other glycosaminoglycans (GAGs), chondroitin sulphate, and hyaluronic acid, which collectively help to repair and rebuild damaged connective tissue within our bodies – particularly in our joints, blood vessels and digestive tracts. Cartilage also stimulate immune cells (including lymphocytes and macrophages) and contains chemicals known as anti-angiogenesis factors (AAFs) that inhibit angiogenesis (blood vessel formation) into cancer cells.
- Collagen: necessary in the repair of cartilage, soft tissue, and bone. Collagen also helps to heal damaged or inflamed mucosa in the digestive tract and enhances the digestibility of many proteins.
- Amino acids: glycine, proline and lysine, which support energy production, red blood cell formation, detoxification, and blood sugar balance.
Sea vegetables – kelp, wakame, dulse and others provide ample amounts of iodine, necessary for thyroid function and protecting the body against the effects of radioactive iodine. They also contain vitamins and high amounts of other minerals, particularly trace minerals which are largely deficient in our depleted soils. The phycocolloids such as carageenan and algin can trap heavy metals in the digestive tract and carry them out with the stool.
Parsley and Celery – These carrot relatives contain volatile oils such as apigenin that posses anti-cancer, antioxidant and cardio-protective effects.
As you can rightly see, our Mothers were on to something when they gave us chicken soup when we were sick in bed. Not only is it warming and nourishing, but it actually enhances immunity and provides the nutrients necessary to repair and heal from illness. But it’s benefits don’t end there – along with being a standard remedy for preventing and soothing colds and flus, stock can supply building blocks for repairing damaged joints and blood vessels, help to heal inflamed mucosa in the digestive tract, speed recovery from soft tissue injuries and broken bones, supply minerals necessary in building and maintaining strong bones, and, by improving detoxification processes and protecting the body from free radical damage, may play an important role in cancer prevention.
Soup is also the perfect medium with which to incorporate tonic, strengthening and immune buildings herbs into your daily diet. In China, herbs such as astragalus, ginseng and dong quai are frequently added to soups as a way to build vitality and improve longevity. There are also many herbs right out the back door, such as burdock and dandelion, which make happy additions to any stock pot. Below are my favorite stock pot herbs and their medicinal effects: (Many of these can be found at your local co-op or health food store or can be ordered online at retailers such as mountainroseherbs.com)
- Astragalus – a sweet, tonifying root used in Chinese medicine that is said to “reinforce the body’s resistance to external evils.” It enhances immune function and strengthens the lungs and heart.
- Dong quai – a warming, sweet and spicy root from the carrot family that is said to build and invigorate the blood in Chinese medicine. It increases production of red blood cells and is useful for anemia, fatigue and general depletion. I just love it’s spicy sweetness.
- Eleuthero – formally known as Siberian Ginseng, this sweet and building root enhances immune function and builds the body’s ability to resist and handle stress. Good for times when you feel run down and fatigued.
- Dandelion – sweet and bitter, dandelion root is forever the star tonic in my mind. It strengthens digestion and improves liver function, helping the body better utilize and assimilate nutrients while clearing excess heat and inflammation from the system.
- Burdock – another backyard remedy, burdock is both strengthening and cleansing to the blood, liver and lymphatics – greatly improving the process of waste excretion from the body.
- Nettle – a source of vitamin C and A, silica, calcium, magnesium, potassium and trace minerals, nettle is highly nourishing addition to the diet. It also soothes and enhances kidney function.
So, now to the recipe. Below is the basic recipe I follow when preparing stock. I prefer to leave the ingredient options open based on what I have around. Don’t forget – the stock pot is the perfect place for things you might normally throw in the compost – carrot and potato peels, carrot tops, bones, discolored or tough cabbage leaves, etc – so don’t forget to save them!
- 2 onions, quartered w/ peels left on
- 2-4 garlic cloves, pressed w/ skins left on
- 2 tbl apple cider vinegar
- 3 qrts water
- Extra-virgin olive oil or Butter (pasture raised is best)
- Vegetables of choice:
- chopped carrots + tops
- potato peels
- cabbage leaves
- 8 large shiitake mushrooms or other mushroom of choice (chantrelle, oyster, maitake, reishi, etc)
- 2-4 larger pieces of seaweed (dulse, arame, kelp, wakame, etc)
- Bones from beef, chicken, venison or lamb
- 1 oz astragalus root, or 4-6 astragalus slices
- Herbs of choice:
- 2 oz dandelion root
- 2 oz burdock root
- 1 oz Eleuthero root
- 1 oz dong quai
- 1 oz nettle leaves
- 1 tbl freshly grated ginger root
- Spices of choice:
- In a large pot, heat enough olive oil or butter to coat the bottom of the pan. Add onions, garlic, and other vegetables and sauté several minutes.
- Add water and bring to a boil.
- Add mushrooms, seaweed, bones and herbs, turn the heat to low, and simmer for several hours.
- When the roots are tender, turn the heat off and strain out the stock from the herbs and vegetables.
- After the stock cools in the fridge, you can skim the fat which rises to the top and give it to your favorite pet.
- Freeze what you won’t immediately use into quart sized ziploc bags or mason jars. The rest will last in the fridge from 5-6 days.
Use your stock to make soups and stews (they will taste better than any soup you’ve made before), or to make sauces such as gravies and reductions. I also like to enjoy my stock as a nourishing daily tonic, heated and combined with a handful of chopped scallions and a tablespoon of miso. I sip it slowly in the morning, basking in its warmth, and savoring the slowness and stillness of a crisp fall day.
Hopefully, this will become an autumn tradition in your home as it has in mine and will contribute to the greater health and well-being of yourself and your family. If you are interested in more stock ideas, check out Sally Fallon’s book, Nourishing Traditions.