I’m on the couch for the day, steeped in blankets and books and more than anything, I want to read Jonathan Lethem’s latest collection of writings on contemporary culture, The Ecstasy of Influence, from cover to cover until I drift off into the alluring constellation of his mind. The book is as much of a portrait of the writer as it is a novelist’s take on essays and the larger questions in life.
I do want to tell you about this homemade vegetable stock as well, but first I need to finish gushing about Lethem’s writing for a bit.
Have you read any of his work? If so, what do you think of it?
I’ve read two of his novels Motherless Brooklyn and Chronic City, listened to the audio version of his short story collection, Men and Cartoons, and read his essays and writings in Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. Lethem has an exquisite mind, the kind I thoroughly want to romp around and sit down to coffee with. The writings in this collection are downright funny and direct. He is the sort of writer I haven’t gotten around to being but thought perhaps, I would someday become. Not in terms of sharing a similar writing style, rather as one who thinks freely and wholly on the page with every twist of tedium and ecstasy along the writer’s language, unraveling.
“However appalling to consider, however tedious to enact, every novel requires furniture, whether it is to be named or unnamed, for the characters will be unable to remain in standing positions for the whole duration of the story.”
Lethem goes on to write, “Furniture may be explicit or implicit, visible or invisible; may bear the duty of conveying social and economic detail or be merely cursorily functional; may be stolen or purchased, borrowed, destroyed, replaced; may be sprinkled with crumbs of food or splashed with drink; may remain immaculate; may be transformed into artworks by aspiring bohemians; may be inherited by characters from uncles who die before the action of the novel begins; may reward careful inspection of the cushions and seams for loose change that has fallen from pockets; may be collapsible, portable; may even be dragged into the house from the beach where it properly belongs—but, in any event, it must absolutely exist. Anything less is cruelty.” —Jonathan Lethem, Furniture, from The Novelists Lexicon, 2000
In this excerpt, I feel like he’s not merely commenting on the novelist’s job, but our human propensity to set the stage for living. The same is true of this interstitial virtual space, we need a couch to lie on and unpack our lives, routines, memories.
Now about that vegetable stock…
I hesitate to include a recipe here. Stock, after all, is a relaxed improvisational affair and this should be read more like a guideline. To start, a good base begins with sauteing onion, carrots, and celery for a few minutes. Add fresh herbs, garlic, black peppercorns, potatoes, and salt, let the flavors mix and the vegetables brown a bit. Add water then simmer for an hour. Swap parsnips for carrots, or add fresh mushrooms and leeks. Then leave the stock to simmer. Within an hour’s time, the vegetables and their trimmings become the very comfort we all crave. These ten or so ingredients simmered on the stove punctuate the air like heavy red curtains drawn at the end of a play, dramatic, enticing, expectant.
With room for more. Furniture and vegetable trimmings.
Before we get started, I should tell you this. Stock is not the place to toss old or questionable vegetables. When I made this video, I prepped vegetables both for stock and a carrot fennel soup (more on that next week) so I peeled all the vegetables. You can use trimmings and peels if you like, although I stay away from using onion skins when making stock. I prefer not to use the onion skins in my stock. It’s a matter of personal taste but by all means, do whatever suits you. Throw these and other peels right in with the water—it all gets strained and the peels add another layer of depth to the stock. Be sure to wash and scrub all the vegetables first and use the freshest available. I like to make a double batch so that I have extra to freeze.
Makes about 1 1/2 quarts
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 carrot, coarsely chopped
2 celery ribs, coarsely chopped
1 potato, cut into chunks
6 or more garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh thyme
10 parsley stems and leaves
2 teaspoons sea salt
a few black peppercorns
8 cups cold water
Heat the oil in a stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the onion, carrot, and celery ribs, stirring often, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the potato, garlic, bay leaves, thyme, parsley, salt, and black peppercorns. Cook for another 5 minutes. Add the water, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 1 hour. Strain the vegetables, pressing down on them with the back of a wooden spoon to get the liquids out. Store the stock in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days or freeze for several months (storage tip: freeze stock in ice cube trays then transfer them to plastic freezer bags to easily add them to sauces, soups, risottos, etc).