It's got nothing to do with pot, at least, hey man, not the kind we smoke, and nothing to do with the liquor we like shaken, not stirred.
Pot liquor may not be what you think, but wait before you file that under "B" for boring. In ways that count the most in real life, pot liquor is excellent — it's cheap, it's easy, it's tasty and it's super good for you.
Pot liquor, in the broad sense, is any liquid left over after boiling vegetables or meat or poaching fish in water. Once, stock — the liquid created when you boil meat, fish or fowl — accounted for a good deal of pot liquor. In fact, the two terms, "stock" and "pot liquor", were interchangeable for centuries because boiling meat was so common.
Never mind roasting that big, fat turkey. In Victorian times, they were often boiled, with hens preferred for their smaller size and their whiter, tenderer meat. Put a small turkey in a pot, boil it up for an hour-and-a-half for a small one, an hour and three-quarters for a large one, advises Mrs. Isabella Beeton's Book of Household Management of 1859, noting that the turkey, from the wilds of North America, was quite acclimatized to domesticity in Europe and England by the 18th century. Turkeys made for a lot of good pot liquor.
As did the boiling of hams (again about an hour and a half); ox tails (about two and a half hours); and calves' heads. These were boiled twice; once, quickly, with the skin on, which was subsequently removed, along with the eyeballs and brains. (Note that people were much more down-to-earth about their food sources then; not a one exclaimed eugh! while undertaking these tasks.)
The brains were boiled separately from the head, which, in stage two of the process, was submerged in water with a little salt and boiled for hours. After boiling, the brains would be cooked with melted butter, minced parsley, pepper, salt, lemon juice and cayenne then served with the tongue, sometimes chopped with hard-boiled eggs and a little béchamel sauce. All very civilized and healthy.
Now such "variety meats", as they're called, end up in "luncheon meats" and processed products, although some chefs and consumers are rediscovering them: chefs out of inventiveness; consumers out of need in tough times.
You can see that, for the most part, we've gotten rather proscribed with our ideas of food, and how to prepare it, for now pot liquor usually means the water left from boiling vegetables.
But all of these boiling techniques, whether for meats and all the bones within, or for vegetables and grains or seeds, yielded pots and pots of water laden with flavour and nutrients that were traditionally used in one way or another, often as medicine and tonics. Barley water, for instance, was traditionally made from the water left after boiling barley and, with lemon or a bit of sugar candy added, was used as a health-restoring tonic.
In the States, pot liquor is sometimes known as "potlikker", especially in the South. There it refers specifically to the water left over after boiling collard greens and carries special significance. Potlikker is tied to the history and culture of slavery. The white masters were only interested in the cooked collard greens. But the enslaved cooks, who boiled up the greens, were always looking for ways to keep themselves and their families fed and healthy. The green potllikker water left over from cooking collards was valued for its flavour and nutrition and still is a big part of southern cuisine today.
Collards, from the same wild cabbage ancestor as kale, broccoli and cauliflower, are good sources of minerals and vitamins A, C and B6. All B-group vitamins as well as vitamin C are especially soluble in water.
When we toss out pot liquor we toss out a lot of nutritional goodness. With the latest health research urging us to just say no to vitamin and mineral supplements and rely instead on a good diet to stay healthy, you couldn't have a better argument for pouring your pot liquor into a cup or jar and using it.
True, not many people boil their food any more, other than, say, my eccentric Auntie Clare, who is known equally for boiling virtually everything she cooked as well as her otherwise glamorous lifestyle. (We have photos of her, a striking woman, posing in an outrageous fur coat in front of the Eiffel Tower and Rome's Trevi Fountain on her many trips abroad long before single women did such things.) But if you don't overdo it in the veg department and use just a bit of water to cook them to perfection, and save the stock left from simmering meats or poaching fish, you'll soon amass an excellent collection of pot liquor of varying flavours and intensities.
Sometimes my husband and I will pour off the bit of water we've parboiled fresh farm carrots in and drink it like elixir. Sweeter and more delicious than candy. Pot liquor from boiling fresh or frozen peas is equally tasty in an earthier way.
Just watch your water levels and the amount of salt you add, if any. It doesn't take long to learn whether you want to use a bit of potato pot liquor for deglazing those caramelized golden onions, or some delicious carrot or sweet potato water as the base for a yummy corn chowder.
All of these pot liquors are much tastier than using plain water or commercial stocks, which also can be so high in sodium my poor heart palpitates at the mere thought of them.
Poaching fish in a nice court bouillon often results in stock that's wonderfully tasty and nutritious and half the battle for starting another good meal — homemade fish soup. Be sure to taste your stock bare-naked plain before you use it so you know where you want to go with your seasonings. If you lean towards the tang of lemons or limes and chili peppers, you'll end up with a Mexican-style pescado soup.
Play around and see what you get. Cooking fresh food at home is fun if you look at it as creative science in action. Now you can start amassing your own collection of pot liquor that's equal parts cheap, good and legal.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who has a huge jar of sweet potato liquor in her freezer right now.