Say it three times fast: crockpotstock crockpotstock crockpotstock. It's a tongue twister, for sure.
What are you doing with your vegetable food scraps? You know, the stalky parts of broccoli when you want the florets (or, as I used to call them with my sister, the tree tops), the stems of kale or Swiss chard when you are chopping it finely, the peels of your potatoes, the core of the cabbage head? The leafy parts of celery? You may be composting them, or just pitching them, or running them through the disposal. How about giving those castaways new life as part of a very hands-off vegetable stock?
I stopped buying store-bought stock, even the organic stuff, a while ago, in part because of some really common sense thing Michael Ruhlman said about how making soup with water instead of store-bought stock (assuming nothing homemade is handy) means that you are basically creating your own flavorful stock as you go. It made so much sense I felt like a sucker for buying low sodium organic chicken and veggie stock when I didn't have my own on hand. But stock rocks, and the flavor ante is seriously upped by using it. And it's not wasteful. These ingredients give us so much love when we prep them for a meal, why shouldn't we love them back and extend their lives?
Here's what you do. Start a quart-size freezer bag with veggie scraps tonight, as you prepare dinner. Label the bag's content with a Sharpie and masking tape. Mine started off with "mushroom stems" and ended up with much more than that crammed into the bag. When you have reached critical mass—or it seems time to do a freezer clean out, as it was in my house—it's time to make vegetable stock in your slow cooker.
I had two bags' worth of scraps of mushrooms, cabbage, kale, broccoli, and more. I added some amazing Turkish bay leaves I bought from Penzey's, Kosher salt, peppercorns, and a roughly quartered onion, and water. And then I let it do its thing on low for 8 hours, starting at the inopportune dinner hour. Honest to God, the smell woke me up in the middle of the night, and I realized I should turn it off. (Maybe that's weird to be so in tune with one's kitchen. Whatever, I'll take it.) I shut off the machine and let the earthenware insert sit for a couple hours (I get up early) overnight and then put it away in the morning.
Here's the loose recipe, but use whatever you regularly cook with and it'll be good. A vegetable stock comes in all kinds of handy, and if you tend to work with lots of the same vegetables in your cooking, using the stock will naturally complement whatever soup, stew, risotto, etc. that you regularly make. My one word of caution here is that you don't overdo it on mushroom, unless you are after an umami-rich stock, because mushrooms tend to usurp other flavors. They are both singular and dominant.
Ingredients for Homemade Veggie Crock Pot Stock
- 1-2 Tbsp. olive oil
- 4-5 cups of frozen veggie scraps
- 6-8 cups water
- 2 Tbsp. peppercorns
- 2-3 good pinches of Kosher salt
- 2-3 bay leaves
- 2-3 cloves of garlic
- 1 medium onion, quartered
- Other elements such as potatoes peels, a chopped carrot, and celery rib or two can be added; just use what's on hand and don't overthink it
1. Drizzle the oil over the bottom of your slow cooker. Add all the veggies in no particular order, frozen. Add 6-8 cups of water, depending on your cooker's size and heft and cut of your veggies; my cooker can take 6 quarts. Remember, the veggies will give off some water as they slowly heat up.
2. Turn the cooker to the low setting and let it go for 8-10 hours. I suspect you may even be able to let it go for 12. You may find this is a useful weekend activity, if you get up early and will be around for most of the day or back in time to turn it off. Or maybe you have a machine you can program to turn off; I don't. (Mine's pretty utilitarian.) You may also find this a great thing to do right before bed; turn it on and go to sleep and wake up to a nice batch of stock.
3. You'll know it's ready by the way your house smells. Trust me on this. Turn off the pot, and let it sit for a while to cool before straining out the veggies and transferring the liquid gold to several freezer-safe containers.
Note: I used 8 cups of water and it yielded 12 cups of stock, which are now hanging out in my freezer, waiting for their next assignment.
Inadvertent thanks and inspiration go to my friend Stacey Chevalier Kerr, who years ago told me about how she makes chicken stock in her crock pot and Tamar Adler's book An Everlasting Meal, which I'm currently reading. Adler's writing is spare, beautiful and owes a big ole happy debt to M.F.K. Fisher. She doesn't (as of yet!) specifically discuss making crock pot stock, but her mission is to show you how to economize with your ingredients, especially if they are beautiful, fresh, and organic. Seriously. You don't want stock made with potato peels from conventional potatoes. My farmer friend Eric of Blue Blaze told me they use rat poison in conventional farming to keep away those critters.
Speaking of which, I can't imagine how much fun this is going to be in the summer, with the leftovers of summer produce. It'll be a fight between the Vitamix and the crock pot to see who gets the castaways in June.