One of my regular tasks at the Inn is making the demi-glace, which is one of our “mother sauces,” providing a base for a number of our dishes. Our version is not exactly the old school French cuisine version, but it tastes good and it takes a long time to make. On Monday mornings, I begin by putting fifty pounds of veal bones onto baking sheets and roasting them for three or four hours. In the mean time, I rough cut ten pounds each of celery, carrots, and onions, which all go in the big fifty gallon kettle, along with all the herbs I can find, a big can of tomato paste, extreme amounts of red wine, and water. When the bones are done, I deglaze the pans with red wine and all of it goes in the kettle. By about four o’clock, I set it to simmering and I leave it cooking until I come back on Wednesday morning. By then, the liquid has reduced by about a third to a half.
I drain and strain what is now a rich brown liquid and put it in the square skillet, adding some more water and red wine and then I bring it to a boil and let it reduce by a little over half. By mid-afternoon on Wednesday, I’m ready to strain the sauce one more time and put it in containers to cool. What started as almost fifty gallons of water and eighty pounds of ingredients reduces down to eight to ten gallons of demi, which will last three or four days. On Saturday I will start the process again to finish on Monday. We always need more.
As I was working this afternoon, I heard an interview on NPR with Dennis Ziegler from Tulsa who owns a company that supplies ashes to churches. He described how they took the palm fronds (what a cool word) and dried them and then burned them to make the ashes. He said two thousand pounds of palm fronds (just had to write it one more time) reduced to forty or fifty pounds of ashes.
I’ve held the ashes of both Hannah and Phoebe, two of our beloved Schnauzers, after they died. What was left of our dear little dogs could be held in one hand. In both cases, Ginger and I took their ashes down to the beach at low tide and scattered them across the water in the moonlight. In those moments, I was reduced to tears.
In the kitchen, we reduce sauces to intensify both substance and flavor. When we get ready to plate an order, we put a ladle full of sauce in a sauté pan and let it simmer on the burner until it’s thick enough to grab the steak and hold on as we pour. The flavor becomes rich and intense. If we didn’t take time to reduce the sauce, the whole dish would be something other than what we intended. It takes time and patience to reduce everything to its essence. Of course, we have to pay attention. There is a point where the sauce can move rather quickly from reduced to burned. No one is interested in those ashes.
As a part of our Ash Wednesday service tonight, we moved from taking Communion (by intinction) to being marked with the ashes from fronds of our own. As I dipped my bread in the cup, Dana, one of our seminarians, said, “From ashes you came and to ashes you will return.” As Ginger marked me, she said, “You are wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God.” In that moment, my faith was reduced to an intensity of both body and flavor. The service congealed both truths into one: I am a fleeting image of God. It’s not about being eternal, it’s about being right now.
Monday nights are my night to run the kitchen, which means I get to come up with the special for dinner. Since it is the first night of the week (and after the weekend), I have to make a special out of what we have. What I ended up serving was an eight-ounce sirloin steak (with a caramelized red onion teriyaki demi-glace – reduced, of course) and two crab stuffed shrimp (with a lemon thyme beurre blanc) served with a warm fingerling potato salad and fried green tomatoes (I married a girl from Irondale, Alabama; you don’t think I know how to make those?). The plate was beautiful and it tasted good, as well. And, for at least one night, a few folks in New England learned that fried green tomatoes are something other than the name of a movie. But cooking is a temporary art form. My creation stayed intact only as long as it took to get it to the table. When we closed the kitchen Monday night, that was the end of that special. My calling is not to make pretty plates for a display case or for posterity, but to make food for folks who are hungry right now. And then it’s time to do it again.
No matter how many times I make demi-glace, it’s always time to do it again.
No matter how many meals I make, there will always be another ticket.
No matter how many times I hear I’m created in God’s image (even if I’m a firefly in the universe), I will always need someone to tell me again.
When we reduce existence to it’s essence, we come down to daily living. I quoted it yesterday and we read it tonight: “Consider the lilies,” Jesus said. He went on to say we need not worry about anything other than today. One of my favorite benedictions in church is “The Lord bless you in your going out and your coming in.” When you think about it, that’s pretty much what we do on a daily basis: we go out and we come in. Either way, we’re blessed. I like the image of God in that blessing because God’s presence is infused into every small and seemingly insignificant move we make filling our lives with the substance and flavor of Love, over and over and over again.