It’s New Year’s Eve, which means it’s the night I throw a posh dinner party and serve French onion soup. We’re talking the from-scratch kind, that starts with good beef stock. Now I should tell you, making homemade beef stock is not for those who are looking for the short cut in life. You have to really want to produce a superior product to the canned stuff. It requires, first of all, the purchase of quality ingredients two days prior. Beef bones, like shank and oxtail and those white knobby hunks you really don’t want to analyze too carefully. In addition, you’ll need some fresh thyme. Marjoram. Don’t forget onions, carrots and celery. That evening, set up for the oven portion. Use a big pan—a cookie sheet or an oversized cake tin does the job in a pinch—and arrange the bones and intersperse with the aforementioned herbs and vegetables, chopped into big hunks. Brown in the oven at 425 degrees for roughly an hour. This will soon smell good, beyond good, but it’s a tease, because you won’t be consuming any of it for a long while. When the bones are golden, transfer all this hot, clunky stuff into a very big pot, the biggest one you’ve got in the house. Add enough water to cover the bones. Stick it in the fridge. The next morning, pull it out around 9am. On the stove, bring it to a gentle boil before reducing heat, covering it halfway with a lid. Then step back and let it simmer for a long time. Say, eight to ten hours. Stir from time to time so all parts get their share of time in liquid, releasing their marrow, their gelatin, producing that ineffable something that turns “just beef broth” into “omigod, what is this exquisite stuff?”
That night you drain the broth and throw away the bones and vegetables, which is to say almost everything. Which seems wrong. Wasteful. But it’s not; you’ve retained the best. Chill the broth overnight. As you sleep, the fat will rise to the top of the pot and can be easily skimmed off the next morning. Now start simmering again. Simmer that liquid so it reduces, reduces, but never disappears. Forty-ish hours into the process (more if you count the grocery store trip), you have a quart of liquid gold. This gives you the base for Classical Girl’s phenomenal New Year’s Eve French onion soup, which will require another two hours on your part to make. Or you can reduce the liquid even further, down to a cup, say, for a sauce that you might combine with some Madeira or cabernet sauvignon, along with butter, shallots and sliced wild mushrooms, to blanket a filet mignon or chicken breast. A distilled masterpiece.
One cup of sauce, representing all that work. Was it worth it? Is the flavor that much improved over a more expedient process?
Like you can’t imagine.
The French onion soup? Ditto.
You might be asking yourself why this food recipe is appearing on a blog about ballet and violin and classical music. Well, let’s change the variables…
Making music on the violin is not for those who are looking for the short cut in life. You have to really want to produce a superior product to the canned stuff. It requires, first of all, the purchase of quality ingredients a few years and/or decades days prior. A superior violin. A bow that draws the most exquisite tones from aforementioned violin. A wise, supportive and experienced teacher. Lots of books. In addition, you’ll need plenty of time. Patience. Don’t forget rosin, strings and a metronome. The next morning, and every morning thereafter, get up and turn on the mind, the ears. Use a big music stand—a cookie sheet or an oversized cake tin does the job in a pinch—and arrange the books and metronome and apply shoulder rest accordingly. Warm up in scales, arpeggios and etudes for roughly an hour. This may soon sound good, beyond good, but it’s a tease, because you won’t be performing for a long while. When fingers and mind are nimble and golden, transfer all this into a very big concerto, the biggest one you’ve got in the house. Add enough time to cover the bare bones, bring the practice to boil, then simmer. For a long time. Say, eight to ten hours. Or years. Mix things up from time to time so all parts get their share of time in practice, releasing their marrow, their gelatin, producing that ineffable something that turns “just a little tune” into “omigod, what is that exquisite music?”
That night you consider everything acquired from the day and you throw most of it away. Which seems wrong. Wasteful. But it’s not; you’ve retained the best. As you sleep, thoughts of bad habits, ungainly passages, a less than economical use of the bow, will rise to the top and can be easily skimmed off the next morning. Now start simmering again. Simmer those musical phrases, thoughts of the composer’s intentions, so they reduce, reduce, but never disappear. Forty-ish days/weeks into the process (more if you count the purchasing trip), you have twenty minutes of aural gold. This gives you the base for a phenomenal violin concerto performance with orchestra, which will require another two years/decades on your part to make happen. Or you can reduce the musical perfection even further, down to a movement, performed in a recital, that you might combine with some Mozart or Bartók. A distilled masterpiece.
It’s a night of music that your audience enjoys. Really enjoys. “Oh my,” one woman says to you, “that was wonderful. You must have put some real work into that.”
They’re thinking several weeks’ worth. Months’ worth. How about years, decades? And what they don’t see is what you’ve discarded along the way—much like the bones and limp vegetables that fill my trash after my stock is made. Goodbye the excess fat, the too-sentimental phrasing, the wrong type of vibrato, and in its place is the exquisite, the organic, the ineffable. This small serving of peerless classical musical expression, that is your art, your craft, at its finest.
Was it worth it? Is the music that much improved over a more expedient process?
I think we all know the answer to that one.
May your 2014 be filled with excellent stock experiences and loving hours devoted to endeavors that nourish you.