Let's first off clear up any misconceptions. I am not a chef. Yes I went to culinary school and yes I graduated, but that does not qualify me to be called chef. A chef is one who has earned the title by working in a kitchen and was hired to the job. A chef is affirmed by his/her community. Sous chefs, line chefs, prep chefs, dishwashers, managers, servers call the chef, "Chef." It's those people who actually decide who is deserving of that name. And as it happens, I am not one of them. I may make good food, and can probably chop an onion faster and more neatly than you can, without crying, but trust me on this one, I am no chef.
One of the best cookbooks I own is this one. My sister Katherine gave it to me in 2004, before I knew anything about Top Chef, or celebrity chefs, food writing or even had a glimmer of hope that I would go to culinary school. I was a junior in college with one foot of counter space in my tiny Albany Park-college provided apartment who was sick of Thai, burritos and pizza. Confession: I've never cooked any recipes from this cookbook. But I've thought about the techniques, studies and triads for years.
What is it that makes a good chef, or a good home cook for that matter? To me, one of the most important things is being able to work well with ingredients that are given to you. That's the challenge with cooking seasonally, or the challenge of cooking well with the ingredients that are in your fridge. That's why we are fascinated with shows like Iron Chef. It's the whole, "but how did he just know what to do with that???" I promise you, most chefs don't have a catalog of recipes in their head. And if you really want to be able to do what chefs do, Colicchio's book is a great place to start.
Last weekend, I made some a really killer ribs recipe.* A small note at the bottom read, "to allow for further flavor development, cook the ribs 2 days in advance and reheat for service." Tell you what-- something in these chiles and coffee completely mellowed out and seeped into the meat to hit all of the good fibers of muscle. They were GOOD. After devouring all 6 pounds of ribs, I still had about 2 pounds of bones left over. What to do with bones, neatly seasoned with chipotle, adobo, ancho and coffee? Colicchio (and Chef Pierre from Kendall) would say, make soup!
Into the pot went 1 onion largely chopped, a handful of baby carrots chopped, a handful of celery chopped (this proportion should be 2:1:1 for onion:carrot:celery) and my bones. I sauteed them all together until the onions softened, and then squirted in about 2 T tomato paste. Then added enough water to cover the bones, and plus a little extra to get the most out of my bones and lightly simmered my stock for an hour. Add in a bay leaf and any fresh herbs you have on hand that you like (thyme or oregano) You want a foam to form atop the stock that you can scoop enough, so don't boil so hard that you break up that foam, but simmer enough that small bubbles do rise to the top of your pan. After an hour taste your stock, decide if you want to keep going, or turn it off. Once I made a beef stock but left it on during a football game for three hours and I ended up with the most acidic, tart weird stock that I ended up throwing the whole thing out. But other than doing that, you really can't screw up stock. Typically for brown stocks (lamb, beef) you should roast the bones to add a brown color to your stock, but since my bones were already roasted as full ribs, I skipped that step. Remove your stock from the heat, allow it to cool a bit and then pour it through a colander, into a big bowl with a pour spout. Then pour your stock into 1 quart or smaller freezable containers. Voila. You've done it. You've taken your first step to becoming a chef-quality cook. You can do this with chicken bones, beef bones, fish bones ANYTHING!
I plan to make some kind of mexican flavored soup with my stock, sometime mid-winter and I may even tell you about it. Until then, try it out, and after a time or two, you'll be surprised how your thinking patterns change and how chef-like you're becoming. Step by step.
*Seriously if you're looking for gameday fare (it is autumn after all) and wanted a step up from brats on the grill these ribs are SUPER easy with little upfront prep and great results.