by Sarah West
Brodo is the Italian word for broth—o’s that roll over their d like water over stones in a mountain stream. Its sound moves through the mouth more like broth than does our own word, one that fades abruptly into fuzz, tasting like fur next to satiny brodo. I am not an advocate of cultural self-loathing, but some words just don’t fit. Brodo does.
In certain Italian dishes, brodo is allowed to take the lead, poured in its understated elegance over a simple pasta preparation—a few handmade tortellini or cappelletti—and that’s it. Indeed, broth, under various titles, is a foundational element of nearly every cuisine, not just Italian. Think pho, matzah, miso, ramen, caldo Gallego, ham and pea, cocky leeky, consommé, and the proverbial chicken noodle soup.
To clarify, I am not referring to anything you have ever poured out of a can or carton, nor those salty bouillon cubes dissolved in hot water or concentrates dolloped into the pot. On the road to true broth, there are no shortcuts. While there may be a place for these stand-ins amidst our crowded contemporary lives, that choice is up to you.
When I speak of broth, it is of that rich, impossibly simple liquid that enthralls our senses with the same charisma as a steak. It is peasant food in one of its most compelling forms: sustenance drawn from leftover bits, technique that relies on diligence and time more than prowess or expense, humble food fit for kings.
I avoided making broth for a long time because it seemed like too much work, too much fuss for soup base. Something distant haunted me, however, in my dismissal of this ingredient’s worth: a soup my mother often made soon after Thanksgiving that we would relish for a week or so each year.
Once the carcass was cleaned of sandwich meat, it was (so it seemed to me) magically transformed into a tub of broth to which she would add bits of turkey meat and, not long before serving, strips of napa cabbage and soy sauce for seasoning. I loved this soup more than the entire Thanksgiving feast, and since a turkey carcass only came around once or twice a year, it was a rare delicacy.
One of the things I have come to appreciate about growing and cooking my own food, or just paying closer attention to the role of food in my life than I did a decade ago (I am no saint), are the subtle impulses that emerge. Paying attention is the most basic form of magic. What rises to mind on a cold November afternoon percolates out of the cells’ deep memory, drifts alongside the steam from a bowl set before a version of me that has long vanished.
Last November, my family spent Thanksgiving at my sister’s. Once the hoopla was over and just she and I were left craving quieter and simpler meals, I remembered our mother’s turkey soup. My sister had already made the stock, and that crisp afternoon we strolled through a winter farmers’ market to pick up a head of frost-sweetened savoy cabbage. We were nourished and transported and from that familiar ground I resolved to bring authentic broth into my kitchen more often.
Broth is deceptive. Masquerading as a liquid, we expect thinness from it—light and delicate, we paint it with a touch of frivolity. But in that simmering stockpot, joints and bones, marrow and connective tissues release their molecular components into the water—invisible nutrients in a form our bodies can readily absorb. And when we drink broth, its nourishment passes easily into this cellular realm, nudging warmly against our spirits, soothing, it seems, our most unfathomable depths.
Start by saving the bones from dinner. Accumulate them in the freezer if you only generate a few at a time. Keep beef with beef, poultry with poultry, etc. or break the rules. Make broth with vegetables. With fish. Don’t worry about mistakes and follow the simplest method you can find.
Mine goes: cover the bones with cold water, bring to a simmer and then place the whole pot (cover and all) in a 180-degree oven. Forget about it for a day. For two. Make it conform to your schedule. When you’re ready for it to be done, strain out the large bits in a colander and the small bits by pouring it through a clean towel (or cheesecloth). Cool it in the refrigerator and scoop off the solidified fat (save the fat to cook with, or discard). I am no expert—this is not a recipe for elite broth; it’s a place to start. Maybe you’ll go back to the cans or maybe, at the beckoning of your own bones, you’ll keep practicing until you can’t live without it.