Make Bouillon While the Sun Shines

Capture the seasons for your winter pantry

By Carly Leusner | Photograph by Dominic Perri

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Frozen ground and the first snow quiet my squirrely stockpiling instincts and wood-stacking ambitions. Hypnotic snowflake lullabies coax me into my cave for hibernation. This surrendering feels like an arrival. In March, flowing sap tickles my food storage impulses, burying treasures in full crescendo until late October. Then, at some unpredictable moment, the point of no return hits, or so I would like to imagine, where no more work can be done and it’s time to tuck in and pillage the larder.

Sinking into wintertime I ceremoniously crack open the first precious jars of preserves, delicately dip into dried herb stashes for hot tea, and sip on potions from the preceding three seasons. As I feel the loss of the sun’s heat and light, I look to other sources for warmth and nurturance––rich stew, pumpkin pies, body heat, and the jovial spirit of celebratory gatherings. My kitchen becomes a womb of creature comforts cherished most deeply on blustery days.

A new staple in my pantry, homemade vegetable bouillon, keeps a steady dose of the green world coursing through my body in the depths of winter. Nothing penetrates my bones and stokes my fires like a belly of warm broth spiked with this simple condiment. Made with equal parts roots, onions, aromatic herbs, and vegetables, heavily salted in a ratio of 4:1, this recipe is highly versatile and begs for creative custom blends. Like cheese or wine, each jar can capture the essential flavors unique to a specific geography and time.

Also called verdurette in Provence or herbes salées in Quebec, this preservation technique is a slow convenience food. Modernized “bouillon” conjures images of MSG-jacked cubes packaged in neat foil wrappers. Styrofoam-encased instant noodles and corn syrup–laced canned soup are disturbing departures from the traditions of soup making, manipulating our desire for more with cheap tricks with little nutritive value to show for all the want.

Grandma’s soup is still cheap—historically, home cooked soups rely on the odds and ends––but her version of magic requires a bit of patience, building flavors in rounds. What her soup and instant soup have in common is the employment of glutamate for that deeply pleasurable, “I must lick the bowl,” food experience. A mirepoix—the slow softening of onions, carrots, and celery—or the act of browning of bones before a long simmering are traditional techniques that develop the “fifth flavor” umami, meaning “deliciousness” in Japanese. Naturally occurring glutamates found in mushrooms, tomatoes, onions, meat, fish, cheese, and seaweed offer foundational savory strength to soups, stews, and sauces. Michael Pollan, in his book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, describes the action of glutamate in food as “italicizing,” as in the taste of glutamate itself isn’t the central flavor, it’s how glutamate works to support and enhance the expression of the other flavors in a dish. Also present in breast milk, glutamate rich food, like sweetness, seems to deliver a taste of ultimate comfort, reminding us of our first experiences of nourishment.

Making your own vegetable stock concentrate offers a chance to return soup to its slow food roots, while affording us convenience in the modern kitchen. The flavors meld and synergize creating an umami concentrate worthy of a well-made broth. I like to make bone broth in large batches, freeze it by the quart, and pull portions out throughout the month as needed. A tablespoon of verdurette jazzes up the broth and creates a great base for cooking grains, soups, beans, and sauces. A teaspoon can be added to eggs, rice, or casseroles for added vegetal brightness.

The beauty of this recipe is you can either make it all season long, slowly adding to your blend as foods ripen, or you can make the entire recipe in the fall, using what you have on hand—extras from the garden and fields. I enjoy incorporating wild foods in my blends, taking pleasure in knowing my winter soups will be augmented with strong mineral-rich plants flourishing near my home.

Tasting stinging nettles’ vital zing, lamb’s quarters’ wholesomeness, the snap of wild leeks, and the spicy sweetness of wild carrots impregnates my mouth with complexity, mystery, and story. Little gifts from my summer self await me in the pantry, small comforts buffering the blows of bitter winter winds. At the bottom of each soup bowl I find restoration and reverence for the seasons. The explosion of spring, hustle of summer, and contraction of fall meld quietly in glass jars, a green bounty ready to bloom in my next winter meal.

Verdurette can be simply made using this basic prescription: Use 1 ounce salt for every 4 ounces of plants by weight (4 ounces is about 1 cup packed finely chopped vegetables). Any aromatic vegetables, roots, herbs, and alliums (onion family plants) can be added, in countless variations.

I like to add equal parts of the following broader categories:

Alliums: Onions, ramps, shallots, leeks, chives, Egyptian walking onion, garlic scapes

Celery: Celery, lovage, ground elder (a.k.a. Bishop’s Weed, goutweed—a great wild celery flavored plant)

Herbs: Parsley, oregano, sage, rosemary, basil, fennel fronds, wild bergamot, thyme  

Greens: Spinach, nettles, lamb’s quarters, wood sorrel, sheep sorrel, garlic mustard, chickweed

Roots: Carrots, burdock, celeriac, parsnips

Each food gets finely minced with a knife or food processor, then tossed with salt in the appropriate ratio. I prepare each food group separately, making the bouillon starting in the spring with wild leeks, chives, and greens and adding more herbs and greens as the summer progresses, finishing with root crops in the fall.

When I mix all the parts together in the fall, I leave the blend out on the counter for a few days, allowing the flavors to merge, inviting in the subtlest glimmer of fermentation. The completed bouillon can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a year, if it’s not gobbled up first.