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WRITTEN AND PHOTOGRAPHED BY JACQUELINE KOCH
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Deconstructing Demi-glace
Patience is the secret ingredient in this seductive sauce
 
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Good vegetables and bones with lots of marrow are vital to a successful demi-glace, says chef Susan Vanderbeek at The Oystercatcher restaurant on Whidbey Island.
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IT'S THIS SIMPLE: I can never say no to demi-glace. When I see it on a menu I become utterly myopic, my spine softens and I can't entertain trivial thoughts of ordering anything else. I must have the demi-glace.

Sure, demi-glace is a defining element of haute cuisine and Old World tradition — a rich, brown sauce that is as complex and mysterious as it is succulent and seductive. But that doesn't entirely explain the intense allure.

Why is it so compelling?

I decided to explore the question and settle it once and for all.

To begin: It's hard to use the word "basic" in describing what demi-glace is, but basically it starts with a meat and vegetable stock known as espagnole sauce. That stock is combined with more meat stock, along with Madeira or sherry, and the whole melange is cooked slowly until it's reduced by half and reaches the consistency of a glaze thick enough to coat a spoon.

OK, that's a start, but I wanted more than "demi-glace for dummies," so I looked up my friend Susan Vanderbeek. The former chef of Seattle's estimable Campagne now runs her own place, The Oystercatcher, in my neck of the woods over here on Whidbey Island. She knows demi-glace.

Call it fate, but the day I walked into her kitchen, she had just set her latest demi-glace project on the stove. (The reason I call it a project will soon become evident.) It was a 20-quart pot, brimming with roasted beef bones, sprigs of emerald green parsley, leeks, shallots and carrots, all simmering together with two bottles of pinot noir.

Pointing to the future batch of demi-glace, Vanderbeek first explains why she so cherishes it for her menus.

"I really believe in it," she says with unwavering conviction. Vanderbeek sticks with the traditional varieties: beef, chicken and duck. "It makes the food taste different and gives more layers of flavor." She points out that demi-glace gives a dish flavor that's sublime yet difficult to pinpoint.

The combination of ingredients is straightforward enough. But it's crucial to get good bones, Vanderbeek reminds me. For a good beef demi-glace, find bones with lots of marrow. The marrow makes a sauce that is richer and will set more quickly. This is a gentle reminder that demi-glace is rooted deep in a culinary era when cooks used every bit of the beast.

Vanderbeek points to the pot again and offers another reminder: Don't forget, those 20 quarts must cook down to half. Slowly. Very slowly.

Because demi-glace is a meat stock rendered to its near-essence, it requires hours of gentle simmering. After cooking her mixture all day, Vanderbeek will strain it, then chill it to remove the fat. Then a new round of fresh bones, roasted vegetables and a splash of brandy will be added. Vanderbeek estimates another four to five hours to cook it waaaay down. Turning up the heat may seem like the key to speeding things along. Wrong. "You have to cook it slowly; boiling emulsifies the fat and gives you a cloudy stock," Vanderbeek warns.

So while recipes may vary, the real secret to this savory sauce is patience. And plenty of it.

To be honest, patience is an ingredient that leaves me conflicted. Before forging ahead to make my own demi-glace I have to pause and consider a couple of key questions: First, do I really have enough time in the kitchen to watch liquid evaporate? And, is this really what they mean by "The Joy of Cooking"?

For Vanderbeek, these trifling considerations aren't going to get in the way of cooking up delicious food. If she didn't have her own restaurant, she'd still make her own stocks. But she does appreciate the need for greater expediency among those of us who aren't in the biz.

"It's all about doing it ahead of time," she concedes. And if you can't do that, she says, "Just buy it!"

True enough, demi-glace is readily available in gourmet shops, upscale markets, even on the Web — pre-made, prepackaged, instructions included.

I found those tiny one-serving tubs one day while cruising the aisles of a favorite cooking store. But it only confused the issue more. On one hand, here was my shortcut to instant gratification, demi-glace for dinner tonight. On the other hand, this sacrilegious plastic tub had all the charm of a tube of toothpaste, selling out the soul of a centuries-old tradition for the sake of convenience. I couldn't bring myself to cough up the five dollars just to try it.

I went home empty-handed but made a bargain with myself. If I really wanted demi-glace I wouldn't cut corners. So I went to the kitchen and got busy. I picked up the phone and made reservations.

Jacqueline Koch is a writer and photographer living on Whidbey Island.


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