Vegetarian Reduced Stock

copyright © 1996 by Tom Dowdy

If you are an experienced cook and often have guests over for dinner, it's only a matter of time before you run into needing to prepare dinner for vegetarian friends. Perhaps they are good friends, and over the years you have "wow"ed them with your Indian Dosas, and your Hunan Stir Fry Vegetables. But then one day your friend says, "Frank mentioned that you are a great gourmet cook. How come you've never cooked anything French for us?" "Sure," you think, "I can do that," and invite them over. It is then that you realize that most French dishes (even those involving vegetables) use reduced meat stocks as part of their ingredients, and your friends are 100% strict vegetarian.

My goal in creating this recipe has been to duplicate the richness of flavor and texture that comes from a demiglace, but without using meat. The result is a healthier sauce, and one that is adaptable to many uses, with less of a chance of clashing with dietary restrictions. In addition, because of the nature of vegetables, this particular approach also works well for creating sauce in a pinch. Total preparation time is on the order of two hours, which is much less than for a traditional demiglace. While I won't pretend that this stock is a one for one substitute, it does now have a place in my kitchen alongside other more traditional stock.

The experiments

My first experiment was to use a standard mixture of carrots, onions, and celery. I kept herbs to a minimum and used red wine for most of the cooking liquid. The result was good, but too much wine threw off the acid balance, and not enough variety of vegetables made the flavor too one dimensional. In addition, I had only sweated the vegetables, which did not provide enough rich color and caramelized flavor to the stock. A reduction from this sauce went well over (of all things) a seared steak. But this was hardly the centerpiece of a vegetarian menu.

The second attempt was much better. A more equal amount of water and wine made up the cooking liquid. Leeks and mushrooms added breadth to the flavor, while a variety of herbs helped to keep interest. Browning the vegetables prior to adding the liquid also helped to give the stock a richer brown color and flavor. I found that browning directly in the pot or in a pan in the oven prior to adding to the pot resulted in the same final flavor. The resulting stock worked well over grilled vegetables, and fish. I knew I was headed in the right direction, but didn't yet have a stock that stood well on its own.

The third attempt let me refine the proportions a bit more, and I found that I'd become adept at judging the color of the initial browning. For this round, I made a double batch, with the addition of parsnips (another traditional ingredient). The resulting stock was what I was after, and I prepared several dishes that contained no meat whatsoever, yet all had a rich flavor and texture to them because of the stock used.

Additional experimentation can be done with other vegetables, if you so desire. Do be aware, however, that the goal here is to make a relatively neutral flavored stock, not one that has a unique taste on its own.

Clarifying the stock

A traditional meat stock is often clarified prior to final reduction. This yields a more clear sauce when the demiglace is used in it. I generally find this unnecessary for sauces that I prepare, but decided to see if the vegetable stock was adversely effected by this step. I clarified the stock using the standard egg-white method. I then prepared a simple reduction sauce from the resulting recipe, and plated it on white china. The sauce was clear, but the flavor was a bit muted ­ this is typical for clarified stocks. The result was not unpleasing, but as with all stocks, avoid clarification unless needed for the final presentation, or if you wish a more delicate sauce. Another consideration here is that use of egg whites in clarification makes this option non-vegan.

Cutting the Vegetables

In recipes with shorter cooking times (as in this one), it is important to cut the dice of the vegetables smaller than when cooking for longer periods. This done to make sure that as much of the flavor as possible is extracted. When making a traditional meat stock, I usually only cut onions in quarters. For the vegetarian stock, I used a 1/4 to 1/2 inch dice.

Browning the Vegetables

As stated above, I tried browning in the vegetables in both the pot and in the oven at 400 degrees. The pot retains the flavors from the browning, but does require a large pot and some form of oil for the browning. The oven provides a more even and controlled browning for large amounts, but you do need to deglaze the pan afterwards to ensure that none of the browned bits are lost. In either case, the flavors that result are almost the same ­ so use whichever preparation method suits your case.

This browning step is the most annoying part of the dish, because it is important to yield a rich brown color. It doesn't take too long, but you must watch and stir the vegetables to avoid burning. Those experienced with the preparation of French Onion Soup know that it can be tricky to determine the right heat on the stove and correct amount of cooking time. Only experience will help you here. One way to judge if you achieved the correct browning level is to add the water before the wine and judge the resulting liquid color. It should be the medium brown color of a browned chicken stock.

Testing during preparation

To verify the flavor of the stock, it is best to taste prior to the second reduction. The flavor should be that of a well flavored stock, with no one vegetable standing out too strong. The most typical problem here is with the onions, but the mushrooms as well sometimes make too much of an appearance. The recipe listed below gives measurements that I have found work well, but you may wish to modify them based upon flavors noticed at this point. Remember as well that you are tasting an unsalted stock, and that the flavors will intensify in a final sauce that has salt.

The color of the stock at this point should be a reddish brown. If it is too red or purple in color, this indicates that the vegetables were not browned enough, and the sauce may have a more pronounced wine taste to it. If you find the balance already too acid, you may wish to add additional water. In extreme cases, a small amount of sugar also can help.

Final results

The final reduction from this effort yields an intensely flavored stock, suitable for reduction sauces, or enrichment of existing sauces. The flavor is wide (the variety of vegetables and herbs makes it difficult to pinpoint the flavor source) and deep (intense, lingering flavor on the tongue) ­ this makes an excellent springboard for preparations on top of it. In this way, the sauce is the vegetarian counterpart to a meat based reduction. Nothing is perfect, however. The sauce does not have the rich "mouth feel" that fat in a meat sauce provides, nor does it really have a "meat" flavor. I, for one, actually dislike vegetarian dishes that try too hard to duplicate exactly the flavor or feel of meat. I'd rather enjoy them for what they are, rather than for what they are not.

Just how veggie do you get?

When asking vegetarian friends over, it is a good idea to make sure you understand their particular leanings. Do they limit consumption of meat, eat some fish, eat no meat products of any kind? What about eggs and dairy? For vegans, these are out as well. In addition, people have different reasons for keeping a particular diet ­ sometimes religious or moral, sometimes health, sometimes political. If you know in advance, you can plan a menu that all will enjoy ­ nothing spoils an evening like realizing that your hours of preparation repulse your guests due to including butter.

Master Recipe for Vegetarian Reduced Stock

2.25 C Onions
1T Butter (or vegetable oil)
2C Carrots
2C Celery
1C Leaks
1C Mushrooms
1C parsnips
4 1/2 C Water
2 1/2 C Red Wine

1T peppercorns
1T rosemary (fresh)
1T thyme (fresh)
1T marjoram (fresh)
1 Bay Leaf
1T Parsley (fresh)

In a large stock pot, melt the butter (or vegetable oil for vegan preparation), and saute the vegetables over medium high heat until they begin to brown. Or add previously oven browned vegetables to the heated pot. Add the cooking liquid and herbs. Bring to a simmer, skimming off any scum. Simmer uncovered about an hour, until the liquid appears to be reduced by about half. Strain in fine sieve, clarify if desired, and return liquid to heat. Reduce again by two thirds.

Resulting liquid should be between 1 to 1.5 Cups.

Asparagus with Vegetable Glaze

1/2 C Reduced & Clarified Vegetable Stock
1 bunch Asparagus Spears

In small stock pot reduce vegetable stock to between 1/8 and 1/4 Cup, until it achieves the desired thickness. Salt to taste. Salt and Pepper Spears, steam for 5 minutes until tender. Glaze plate with stock, arrange spears on top.

Wild Mushrooms in Creamy Vegetable Sauce

1 T butter or vegetable oil
1/8 C diced yellow bell pepper
1T diced shallots
1 C wild mushrooms (morels or shitake work well)
1 C Reduced Vegetable Stock
1/4 C white wine
1 shot mederia wine
3 T heavy cream (optional)

In saute pan, saute shallots and bell pepper until they begin to wilt. Add mushrooms and continue cooking until desired level of doneness approaches. Add wine and stock, reduce by half. Salt and pepper to taste. Add cream and reduce again. Serve in bowls with toast points.

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