After wrapping up a multi-month writing project at work, I recently found myself in the mood to cook again. I wanted to make something that would test my skills as a cook and found just the challenge I was looking for in James Peterson’s terrific article about veal demi-glace in the December issue of Saveur.
I've been interested in the art of classic French sauces for some time and am particularly interested in shift from the 17th century method of using roux to thicken sauces to the 1970s nouvelle cuisine trend of thickening sauces by reducing them for longer periods of time.
Demi-glace, meaning “half glaze,” is the foundation of all classic brown sauces. Fantastically meaty, salty, and savory, this thousand-times-reduced mother sauce is made from roasting, then simmering veal bones, carrots, and onions at an insanely particular rate of one bubble per second for 20 or more hours.
In a professional kitchen with a team of well-caffeinated and trained cooks, I imagine this would be a breeze. For this untrained cook in her galley-sized kitchen with a hodge podge of cookware, it was a major undertaking.
I knew that the 10 pounds of veal bones the Saveur recipe required to make a precious two cups of demi-glace would not be available at my grocery store so I called my farmer’s market meat vendor in advance of market day and asked them to bring the bones from their Virginia farm.
When I arrived at the market, a tall bearded guy bundled in multiple layers to guard against the 20-degree chill pulled a bulky bag of frozen, individually-wrapped bones from the back of the truck. "How much are these?" he asked his buddy, who shot back a puzzled look. "Not sure," he said, fumbling for a list of prices. Clearly, this was not a common order. The entire bag set me back about $40. To complete my list of needed items, I found a 15-quart pot, large enough to hold the bones, at my local hardware store.
The bag of bones ended up including more veal tail than veal bone, which may have resulted in a more gelatinous final product. However, 30 hours after I had roasted and simmered and reduced and strained and then reduced again, I finally had two cups of thick, dark brown demi-glace. I also had an apartment that reeked of veal. But no matter -- the unctuous sauce was everything Peterson said it would be – complex, meaty, and full of flavor. It was easy to see how this mother sauce could survive centuries and still be considered a centerpiece recipe in French cooking schools.
When Paul and I tasted it again in the Bordelaise sauce I poured over New York strip steak a few days later, we both marveled at how the demi-glace lifted an otherwise ordinary sauce into the category of haute cuisine. We recognized the distinctly veal flavor instantly; we had had it 100 times in French restaurants but just never knew what it was.
Adapted from Saveur
10 pounds veal bones
3 carrots, roughly chopped
2 onions, roughly chopped
1 white part of the leek, roughly chopped
1 bouquet garni
1 6-oz. can tomato paste
2 outer green leek leaves
15 flat leaf parsely stems
2 fresh thyme stems or sprigs
2 dried bay leaves
Heat oven to 500 degrees and, if you live in an apartment building or condo, turn OFF your fire alarm. Spread the bones evenly in one layer in a roasting pan (unless you have an industrial size pan and oven, you will probably need two roasting pans for this many bones).
Roast until brown about 1 hour. Add the vegetables to the pan and spread them evenly around the bones and roast until the vegetables are deeply browned, about 45 minutes more.
Meanwhile, make the bouquet garni by using the green outer leaves from the leek as a wrapper and inserting the parsley, thyme sprigs, and bay leaves in the center. Tie with kitchen twine.
Transfer the bones and vegetables to a 15-20 quart stockpot.
Place the roasting pan over two burners on stove over medium heat. Add 3 cups water to the pan and scrape up any browned bits with a wooden spoon. Simmer for 3 minutes; transfer liquid to the pot of bones. Add bouquet garni and tomato paste to the pot. Cover the bones with 6 – 8 quarts of water. Starting with cold water, set the pot over medium-high heat.
When the first bubbles begin to appear on the surface of the liquid, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer at a rate of one bubble per second for 20 hours. You're supposed to check the stock every few hours and add more cold water if necessary. And while that's possible during the day, it's not practical during the night unless you're willing to get up several times to check it, so you just need to make sure there is enough water to keep the bones covered throughout the night.
Skim the fat from the surface of the stock with a ladle every 5-10 minutes during the first hour of cooking to prevent it from clouding the stock. After the first hour, skim the fat from the stock periodically (the recipe calls for this every half hour but again, this just wasn't practical so do the best you can).
When the stock is ready, strain through a chinois into a clean, 8-quart pot. The bones can be re-used to make a lighter, secondary stock with fresh vegetables and aromatics, called remouillage. (Re-using the bones for this purpose was hugely rewarding and made me feel very French).
Simmer stock for demi-glace over medium-high heat, skimming off the fat occasionally, for 4-5 hours until reduced to 2 cups.
Turn your fire alarm back ON. Refrigerate for up to two weeks or freeze for up to 6 months.