Last year, I learned an important lesson in the kitchen when making a simple dish - chicken soup with root vegetables (a delicious soup, by the way). The lesson is this - homemade stock or broth makes a world of difference in your cooking. Yes, I know it seems like a time consuming, unnecessary production, but if you get a system going for making stock or broth, it can be relatively easy and you'll just have it on hand the next time you need it.
First, both stock and broth start with the same basic foundation: water, onions, celery, carrots, black peppercorns and a bouquet garni, which is a fancy French term for parsley, thyme, and a bay leaf. If you are making a meat broth, it is enriched with the meat of whatever animal you are using (e.g., chicken, turkey, beef). The mixture is simmered and strained (and the chicken or meat can be used for something else such as enchiladas, salad, etc.). It should be light with a clean and clear flavor. If you are making a stock, you start with the same ingredients, but rather than adding the meat of the animal, the stock is made with the bones (and as many of them as you have). You can roast the bones and vegetables in the oven first and then add them to the stock pot to create a deeper flavor.
To clarify (or perhaps confuse), since the meat vs. bones distinction doesn't apply to vegetable stock vs. broth, Fine Cooking offers this clarification "Vegetable broth and vegetable stock are the same thing. If the focus of the end preparation is mostly the liquid in question, call it broth. If the focus of the end preparation is something significantly more complicated, like a sauce or a more involved soup, then call it stock."
I was first inspired to make my own stock by a Barefoot Contessa episode in which homemade chicken stock is made and this post from Alexandra Cooks. If you watch Ali's video, you'll see what your end result should be when you make stock. The best part of making stock or broth is that you can freeze the ingredients as you have them and make the stock some day when you are already planning to cook. It requires little to no attention and just simmers away on the stove while you go about your business. After it is ready, you can freeze it for future use. Stock can be made from vegetable scraps so I keep a Ziploc freezer bag in the freezer in which I put herbs, celery, carrots, onions, etc. when I have random pieces of celery, carrots, onions, etc. or said veggies are a day beyond what I consider usable - not bad, but slightly wilted. In terms of meat, I'll just freeze an entire chicken carcass after we have a roast chicken and use it when I need to make more stock. When the bag is full and I am planning on cooking or baking, I'll throw the vegetables (and meat or bones, if relevant) in a pot, adding anything else that I need, and a few hours later I have stock!
This isn't a recipe that requires you to follow it precisely, so just use it as a guide. If you don't have leeks, for example, toss in an extra onion or two... and if you don't have fresh herbs, dry will suffice. One important note - you'll be tempted to add more salt to your stock/broth. Don't. The beauty of the stock/broth is that you can add it to any number of dishes and you'll inevitably want a different level of saltiness for those dishes... so, add additional salt when you use the stock/broth later, not when you are making it.
The recipe below comes from Gwenyth Paltrow's new cookbook. I improvised and used what was in the Ziploc in my freezer (pictured - note I didn't cut the veggies. Bad Darcy.) and now I have a nice stash of vegetable stock in my freezer.
from My Father's Daughter
Yield = 3 quarts
1 large yellow onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
1 stalk celery, roughly chopped
1 large leek, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed with the back of your knife
4 sprigs fresh parsley
4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 sprigs fresh tarragon
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
3 quarts cold water
1. Combine everything in a pot. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for 45 minutes.
2. Let stock cool and strain into clean containers.
Stock keeps in the refrigerator for 1-2 weeks and in in the freezer for up to 6 months.