It was like the old days, when I was carrying out Taste Tests for G2's food pages. There were seven pots, sachets or containers of chicken stock lined up on the kitchen table, a blank sheet of paper, a pen, and a pure and blameless set of tastebuds.
Stocks really are one of the kitchen's basic elements. I am sorry to say it, because it seems a bit poncy, but it's true. Stock is not the same as gravy, or jus, as every jumped-up restaurant seems to call it now. Gravy is the juice that meat or poultry gives off while cooking. Stock is the liquid you make with leftovers or odd bits of animal or bird for which you can't think of any other use. And once you have a stock, well, your troubles with soups, sauces and stews are pretty much over. A good stock gives every dish in which you use it the best possible start in life.
To be honest, I like to make my own stock. It's a grand way of using up leftovers, which appeals to my (not very great) sense of thrift, and I know what goes into it. But I realise that, frankly, not everyone can be bothered, so I was curious to know how commercial stocks stood up to examination. Had I been wasting my time making my own when there were perfectly decent alternatives to be picked off the shelf? Well, here are the results of my findings:
Duchy Originals Fresh Gravy: Lovely, wobbly stuff; proper neutral depth spoilt by aggressive sage.
Joubert's Chicken Gravy: Utterly bland; might as well have been water.
Joubert's Organic Chicken Stock: Lightweight; another case of sage attack.
Just Bouillon: Indescribably sweet and disgusting.
Knorr Simply Stock Chicken: Decent, clear, lightweight; will take on flavour from whatever you cook in it.
Knorr Touch Of Taste Chicken Stock: My favourite kitchen standby; probably packed with fat, MSG and salt, but really tastes of chicken.
Oxo Real Chicken Stock: Revolting chemical flavour; smells like dog poo.
Sainsbury's 'Taste The Difference' Chicken Stock: Thick, orange liquid with hardly any flavour of chicken and a bitter aftertaste.
Tesco Chicken Stock: Tastes of sick.
To be absolutely honest, none of them was really as good as mine. The Knorr Touch Of Taste, which you have to dilute, gets closest to a decent homemade stock, and Knorr's Simply Stock is also a fair substitute (there is also a pretty fair Simply Stock vegetable version), although, having had most of the fat, salt and MSG taken out of them, they are a bit short on distinctive qualities - or oomph, as the technical experts call it. If Duchy Originals were to modify the sage quotient (preferably by getting rid of it altogether), they'd have a tiptop, if expensive, standby.
But when it comes down to it, a bit of kitchen DIY is best (isn't it always?). And let's face it, it's not that difficult.
Basic meat stock
I once spent three of the most interesting days of my life in the kitchens of Fung Shing, in London's Chinatown. Its presiding spirit was a chef known as Uncle Wu, who was as modest as he was brilliant. Every day provided revelations and delights. One of them is this stock, which Wu used as the base for many dishes. It's fabulously easy to make. It has no vegetables in it. And it produces a stock of mellifluous blandness and depth. Sadly, Wu died a few years after my visit, but I remember him as one of the finest chefs I've seen at work. Makes six litres; boil it down further if you want a stronger stock.
1kg chicken bones and/or meat
1kg pork ribs and/or meat
1kg unsmoked bacon
6 litres water
Place all the ingredients in a big pot. Now, what I do is put the pot into the oven overnight, or for not less than eight hours, on an 'S' for slow setting - about 100C/225F/gas mark . That way, the contents come very slowly to the heat at which the flavours are leached from the meat and bones, so you're left with a naturally clear stock and don't have to do any skimming or clarifying.
Alternatively, bring the pan to the boil, boil vigorously while scum rises to the surface, and then skim it off. When the froth on top is white, turn down the heat to a gentle simmer and let it mutter away for two to three hours. Once strained through a fine-mesh sieve or muslin, it's ready to use.
Basic vegetable stock
Makes one litre; again, for a more powerful end product, boil it down further.
1 large carrot
1 stick celery
2 medium onions
1 leek, white part only
1 bulb fennel
250ml dry white wine
1 litre water
1 bunch parsley
1 tbsp white peppercorns
Wash the carrot and celery. Slice all the vegetables thinly (about 3mm). Bring the water and wine to the boil. Add the vegetables and herbs. Return to the boil. Skim off any grey froth. When the surface is clear, add the peppercorns: if you add them earlier, you'll skim most of them off. Simmer gently for 40 minutes. Strain.
Gurnard with braised lettuce and peas
The idea of using meat or chicken stock to make a sauce for fish may seem a bit odd, but it works a treat. Gurnard is my new best piscine friend: ugly as sin, nicely meaty and, for the moment at least, unthreatened by extinction. It's cheap as chips, too. You can vary the lettuce as much as you like or add sliced garlic as an option. Bacon is more usual than ham, but good ham adds its own salty intensity. You could throw in a glass of wine, but if you do, reduce the amount of stock accordingly. Any good white fish will do: monkfish, say. Serves four.
4 slices good ham
400g frozen petits pois
4 little gems, cut lengthways into eight
115ml meat or chicken stock
Salt and pepper
800g gurnard fillets (ie, allow 200g a person - get your fishmonger to fillet the fish for you)
Finely chop the onion. Slice the ham into matchsticks. Heat the butter in a saucepan, add the onion and fry gently until soft. Add the ham, peas and little gems, pour in the stock and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Season to taste.
Now prepare the fish. Preheat the oven to 240C/475F/gas mark 9 (ie, as high as it will go). Arrange the fillets on a flat tray greased with olive oil, sprinkle with coarse sea salt and roast for six to eight minutes. Stir the celery leaves into the lettuce just before serving, but don't worry if you haven't got any; it will taste grand all the same. Place a mound of lettuce in the centre of the plate, and top with a fillet (or two) of fish.
Zuppa di ceci
Italians would use only water in this soup, but vegetable stock whoops it up just a touch. It's astonishing how delicious so few ingredients and so simple a recipe can be. The secret is in the parsley, which mustn't be added too early or it will lose its freshness. Serves four.
1 clove garlic
1 small hot chilli, fresh or dry
150ml extra-virgin olive oil
1 litre vegetable stock
1 large bunch flat-leaf parsley
Cover the chickpeas with cold water and soak overnight. Discard the water, transfer the chickpeas to a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook for two hours until soft. Drain.
Chop the garlic and chilli. In a second pan, heat the oil until hot. Throw in the garlic and chilli, and cook for a minute or so. Do not let the garlic colour. Add the chickpeas, stir them around until they are well coated in oil, then add the stock. Cook over a gentle flame for 10-15 minutes, then add salt to taste. Just before serving, finely chop the parsley, stir it in and serve at once