Vince Winik, a tall, lanky 23-year-old bass player and music producer, reaches into his refrigerator and pulls out a bowl of amber-colored liquid. “Check it out, dude,” he says.
I dip a spoon in and take a sip. I let the smoky flavor linger on my tongue for a few seconds before saying anything. It takes time to comprehend a revelation.
“Dude,” I say. “That is amazing.”
I’ve known Vince a few years fewer than I have known barbecue. He has been one of my son Sam’s best friends ever since elementary school. Now that Sam lives in New Orleans, Vince and his brother, Hayes, are kind enough to hang out with their buddy’s old man. We watch football, have a meal, drink the occasional whiskey together. They are like a second family to me, especially since their father died when they were boys. In the way of the elder, I have wisdom, they have knowledge.
They show me how to deal with things that I don’t understand, like Facebook and PowerPoint and pretty much anything that requires a keyboard. For my part, I’ve always claimed one piece of expertise over them: the arcane ways of wood-smoking food.
But, now, here I was in Vince’s kitchen, and despite all the years and thought I’ve put into smoking, from types of woods to temperature control to a range of food that stretches from apples and eggplant to fish and fowl, my world, at this moment, is rocked. It had never occurred to me to smoke stock – or, more accurately, to make smoked stock, since the smoking part occurs long before the water goes into the pot.
Smoked chicken stock. How could I have not thought of this myself? The child is indeed father to the man, I suppose.
Vince came to the idea easily, once he and his friends started talking about perfecting their jambalaya recipe. “We wanted to make our own chicken broth,” Vince said, “but the only way we ever cooked a chicken was to smoke it.” On New Year’s Eve, they smoked a couple of chickens and decided to use the carcasses to make stock. “It just kinda happened,” he said.
Since I first tasted it a couple of months ago, I have thrown myself (figuratively speaking) into smoked stock. Sometimes I smoke a chicken. Other times I just buy a smoked chicken from a barbecue restaurant. Either way, the earthy, heady flavor all but transforms some of my all-time favorite dishes.
Making the stock is easy. It is the same as making regular chicken stock, except with smoked bones. You can add smoked meat, too, but I prefer to pull the meat from the bones and use it for chicken salad sandwiches or tacos or add it to a chicken noodle soup.
The stock I save to show off. Its flavor is not deeply chicken-y; I assume that’s because I use mostly bare bones, not the meaty, fatty parts that I use to make regular stock. It is closer in spirit to the type of stock you make from the carcass of an oven-roasted chicken – not as rich or brown in color as that but with a pure, smooth, gently smoky flavor.
But what to make with it? When I first started experimenting, my thoughts turned to a trip to northern Italy my wife and I took years ago. Everywhere we went, she ordered tortellini en brodo, which had the restorative clarity of a good broth, the chewy deliciousness of meat-filled pillows of tightly wrapped pasta and the sprightly addition of a few chopped herbs floating on top.
How might that work if the brodo were smoked, I wondered. I bought some tortellini from an Italian import store, brought the smoked stock to a quick boil and added the little beef-filled, button-size pasta. After the tortellini had floated to the top for a minute or so, I ladled the soup into a bowl and topped it with chopped fresh basil and parsley, crushed red pepper and Romano cheese. A single spoonful told me all I needed to know. The second, third and fourth confirmed it: I may never go back to regular brodo.
I’ve tried it, too, with that chicken noodle soup, using the meat along with the stock for a roundhouse of smoke.
And because Vince’s use of smoked stock in jambalaya struck me as genius (since rice carries the flavor of the liquid it’s cooked in), I followed his lead and made my own version. It’s Cajun style (no tomatoes, serious heat) and harkens back to my 1980s Texas days, when we’d pack up the coolers and drive through bayou country, stopping at a particular butcher shop for andouille, at a specific meat market for tasso and at other chosen places, such as a gas station for boudin, a grocery for stuffed pork chops and, always, Fred’s Lounge on Saturday morning for a spin on the dance floor to a zydeco band.
The andouille-and-chicken jambalaya I make has changed only slightly over the years. But its most drastic modification happened just recently, when I added that smoked stock. The smokiness adds an outdoorsy note to the fiery Louisiana dish.
I devoured the jambalaya, marveling yet again at the notion that there is always something new to learn. Even – perhaps especially – if you think you know it all.