During the cold months, everyone who needs to get dinner on the table in a hurry should have a freezer bag of chicken stock squares. It is definitely a requirement if you are cooking for one and it is even more definitely a requirement if, like me, you always seem to have a refrigerator full of Tupperware containers holding dribs and drabs of leftover meat and vegetables. With the possible exception of beets and cabbage, I can’t think of many vegetables that can’t be turned into really good soup the second time around.
Stock is a bit time consuming but so very easy, and the actual prep is minimal. You can space it out over three evenings if you must. All you need is a large pot and a chicken carcass. The remains of a supermarket rotisserie chicken are perfect for this just as long it is not barbecue or teriyaki flavored.
Scrape as much fat off the chicken as you can and put it in the kettle. Break the carcass in half if you must to get it to fit. Add an onion, peeled and cut in half, a teaspoonful of black peppercorns, a teaspoonful of whole cloves, and a bay leaf. The spices are of course optional but I think they add a certain depth to the flavor of the stock.
If you have some celery, particularly the tops, throw that in. Cover the chicken carcass with cold water by about two inches and bring to a boil. Cover and turn your burner as low as it will go, and use a flame tamer if you have one. Cook very gently for four or five hours. Do not add salt yet.
You can do this after dinner and let the stock simmer until bedtime. Turn it off, strain it, and put the pot, covered, in the fridge. Discard the solids. If you are really frugal you can strip the carcass of the last little bits of meat and keep it to add to the soup, but after all that additional cooking time it will be pretty mushy.
Next day skim off the layer of fat that will have congealed on the surface of the stock, and put the kettle back on the stove. Simmer until it cooks down by about half and add salt to taste. Strain again if you need to. Allow it to cool and pour it into a 9x13 cake pan (It will be cloudy and a little gelatinous). Carefully—very carefully—slide the cake pan into the freezer.
Once the stock is frozen solid, take the pan out of the freezer, and cut it into twelve squares. A pizza cutter is ideal for this. Bag your frozen stock and return it to the freezer, keeping out two squares with which you will make this soup.
(Note: if you are freezer-space-challenged, give half of these to a similarly-situated friend. Six frozen blocks of chicken stock take up about as much room as a pint of ice cream).
Frozen spinach, canned beans, and egg noodles are things I always have on hand, as well as onions and garlic. I cut the package of spinach in four parts while it is still frozen and freezer-bag it for other soups or for omelettes.
20-Minute Pantry Soup
1 small onion, peeled and sliced thinly
1 clove of garlic, peeled and smashed
8 cups of water
2 frozen chicken stock squares
1 can of great Northern beans, rinsed and drained
¼ package of frozen spinach
1 cup of egg noodles
Sauté the onion in a small amount of oil or butter over low heat until it is limp. Add the garlic, the water, the frozen chicken stock, the beans, and the spinach, and bring to a boil. Add the noodles and simmer for eight to ten minutes until the noodles are tender. Remove the garlic clove and serve.
This makes six helpings of soup. If you thought ahead and set up your bread maker to deliver a hot loaf of bread about the time you start cooking the soup, all you need is a bag of lettuce and a bottle of Pinot Grigio and dinner is served.
You can throw in 2 cups of leftover diced chicken or some thawed, cut up chicken tenders. If the chicken is raw, allow a few extra minutes for it to sauté with the onion. A teaspoonful of good vinegar or sherry added to the soup bowl really lifts this soup out of the ordinary, as does a sprinkling of grated Parmesan cheese.
Use the general proportions of 4 cups of water per frozen stock square for any number of soups.
Tomatoes, cannellini beans, onion, garlic, and some cubed winter squash (uncooked, not leftover, or it will dissolve in the broth). This sounds weird but is actually a traditional Italian soup whose name I can’t think of it at the moment.
An onion, garlic, a cup of milk, leftover corn, leftover boiled potatoes, leftover ham, and you have a great corn chowder.
Frozen Italian style meatballs, dry white wine, chickpeas, tomatoes and ditalini.
Cubed leftover roast pork or turkey, pinto beans, onion, small can of diced mild green chiles and a tablespoon of Tony Chachere’s seasoning.
Or, as I did this week, an onion, green beans, tomatoes, kidney beans, some noodles and the remains of Thursday night’s ham.