Cooking the Bones: A Broth of Gratitude

Peering into the great, stainless steel pot with its gently bubbling brew of bones and onions, a liquid mosaic of brown and green with wisps of fragrant steam rising from the surface, I wave my hand in a circular clockwise motion over the contents and offer a silent blessing.

Gratitude and love. May all who partake of this receive deepest nourishment.

The smell of roasted beef bones still lingers in the air, a rich and meaty aroma unusual in this mostly vegetarian household, and our two English Whippets repeatedly wander into the kitchen, their dark shiny noses sniffing the air approvingly, eyes hungry and ever hopeful. I, myself, find the vaguely umami scent almost difficult to tolerate, neither appetizing nor pleasant. In an olfactory memory, I’m catapulted back to culinary school in Paris, France (and my subsequent years of cooking professionally) and making fond brun de veau (veal stock); a lengthy process of roasting bones and then slow simmering with aromatics to yield a rich, dark gelatinous broth, a foundation in French cuisine and the basis of demi-glace.

This aroma of bones isn’t quite the same, nor is “bone broth,” as such stock is popularly called, exactly the same as that classic fond, but it carries a similar echo of slow-cooked tradition—the gently simmering sort that our grandmothers knew was innately healing for body and soul.

It’s true that bone broth can be made from poultry or even fish, and I have prepared it in the past using chicken bones saved in the freezer from whenever a fowl has been roasted at our house, and I’ve accumulated enough frozen carcasses (it requires about ten). Yet the marrow from the dense long bones of grazing animals (cow, bison, sheep, goat, etc.) is profoundly more abundant and arguably more restorative to our bodies than that obtained from poultry. And curiously, of these two types, the broth extracted from cow bones feels decidedly more nourishing to my gut, despite that beef, and meat in general, does not feel healing to me. (Admittedly I’ve not made the broth with veal bones because commercial veal is raised unacceptably in America, with inhumane confinement of the young animals so that they fatten and remain tender, knee-deep in their own defecation, rather than allowing them to range freely.)

Thus, with an eye towards deepest healing, I’ve chosen cow bones and all throughout the lengthy process of making such broth, I have repeatedly blessed the gentle, grass-fed bovines who gave their lives—most likely without proper respect, reverence or ceremony at the hands of those who slaughtered them—that we humans might be fed and nourished.

Roasted long bones

I feel neither judgment nor guilt in this exchange, I simply focus upon gratitude as I do in all my cooking, vegetarian or otherwise. Our culture is adept at taking but far less skilled at giving. What do we offer in exchange for what we’ve received? At the very least, we can give thanks daily, and as a cook this is part of my practice: a prayer of gratitude for each ingredient, whether a bunch of pungently fresh cilantro, a dear New Mexico chile, or a chicken’s pale brown egg, as I wash, chop, and prepare whatever has come to me.

While the bones simmer in their slowly darkening broth, occasionally I lift the wide glass lid and once more whisper words of silent appreciation, my hand making another clockwise pass through the vapours, as if scattering magic herbs into the bubbling depths of the pot. Here in the California desert, all the doors are ajar to the bright November sky, a day that is warm enough for shorts and a t-shirt. Even inside the house, I can hear the ever-present hummingbirds zooming loudly to and from the red glass feeder suspended on the rear patio, and occasionally I step outside with bare feet just to observe their acrobatic antics, a smile on my face and glow in my heart.

Ravens laugh throatily in a nearby tall Mexican palm, and my eyes sweep the blue expanse for our resident pair of falcons, hoping to spy or hear them.

If we open our eyes and choose to see it, beauty is everywhere … in everything.

It scarcely feels like the week of Thanksgiving, at least not in the way I have known it in years past when I dwelt in more northern climates of the USA and abroad. Autumn is upon us, the season continuing to shift as daylight weakens and fades, and even here, where most plants are now waking up and growing after the intense UV and heat assault of summer (in a sense, the growing seasons are reversed in the desert), still I can detect the gentle tug of pulling inwards. Like a soft, full breath in the belly, it feels welcome and right. Timely.

In Ayurveda, the 5000-year old healing science of India, the seasonal junctions mark a time for diligence and self-care, as whatever element (Earth, Water, Fire, etc.) is dominant in our body decreases in its influence and the next element cycles forward to prominence. Even in the desert, summer’s Fire has waned while the elements of Air and Ether—dry, light, cold, rough, moving—become heightened. I feel Vata dosha returning to dominance in my constitution, and despite the mildness of autumn here, it feels balancing to rest and contemplate, or putter contentedly in the kitchen, making good and nourishing things to eat and drink.

A feast at Thanksgiving, perhaps. Or simply the tonic of a healing broth made from long-simmered bones, steeped in gratitude for the sweetness of life.

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Bringing bones and water to the boil

During the years of writing my weekly Soul Artist Journal, I penned dozens of posts centered on food or being in the kitchen, a repeated call to savouring through dilated senses and heart, as well as gratitude. An early SAJ piece, “The Soulful Kitchen, Part 2” (2013), invited readers into my kitchen with its small altar and candles, sharing cooking as a sort of sensory meditation; the opportunity to be fully present with our intent to create something healing that nourishes body and soul.

Cooking is a dance, I think. On one hand, we face a daily task to simply get food into hungry stomachs, a basic matter of necessity; on the other end of the spectrum we embrace cooking as ritual and celebration, even alone or just feeding ourselves. Yet understanding that what we create has the potential power to heal, or that we’re engaging in a sensory, tactile communion with earth, elevates the mundane to the sacred.

Are we present and paying attention? Or scattered and distracted, either by our thoughts or external influences such as family members, television, radio, and whatnot …?

As a healer, I’ve long been deeply invested in the subtle bioenergy (prana, chi, qi, mana, ‘life-force’, etc.) of ingredients while also aware of the other energies that influence our meals. Two decades ago, one of my first Ayurvedic cooking teachers instructed us to prepare food only when we can put loving kindness and gratitude into the process—because the cuisine absorbs our thoughts and feelings, and so in turn do those who consume it. From my own experience over the years, I know this to be true, and I simply will not cook on those occasions when I feel angry, distressed or upset.

Consider if the kitchen were sacred space, surely the food, our daily lives, and spirit would all benefit.

Kitchen candle aglow

In past SAJ offerings, I’ve raised the question(s) of how our food is cultivated and raised, and whether it is in a fashion that honours animal, vegetable, soil, air, water, etcetera. In terms of mainstream agriculture and America’s deeply flawed, modern food production system, “organic” is a good place to start; it’s the base line really for food with prana and integrity. Yet much of what is produced is simply a commodity that has traveled thousands of miles to reach us. Better by far is food sourced locally (which means it is naturally in season), whether in a home garden or obtained from a farmer’s market, co-op, or CSA (community supported agriculture). I’ve often said that apart from tending and harvesting our own vegetable plot, little could be more gratifying than pressing one’s dollars into the hands of those who actually grew the food we eat, knowing their faces and sharing a smile. Personally, I feel the highest level of food integrity is probably “biodynamic,” an organic-based approach guided by the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, which embraces spiritual and esoteric concepts as well as an astrological element of sowing and planting.

Alas, as a wandering nomad for too many years, bereft of a proper garden, biodynamic is difficult to come by, and I’m deeply grateful for farmer’s markets and the level of goodness and integrity they offer. Given the curious twist that leads me to now reside in the desert—where nearly all mainstay food comes from a distance and our local farmer’s market is a small, humble affair—it seems even more essential to focus upon gratitude and blessing the organic produce I’m able to procure. (Thankfully, I am learning more and more about the desert’s edible bounty, and my modest foraging yields new additions to the kitchen such as prickly pear cactus—both the nopales/pads and tunas/fruits—and Peruvian apple cactus, barrel cactus, and hardy purslane, and I’m looking forward to gathering mesquite pods, cholla buds, ocotillo blossoms, and more.)

Some years ago, a Japanese scientist named Masaru Emoto wrote a revolutionary book titled The Hidden Messages in Water, in which he documented how our thoughts, words and feelings affect molecules of water. Using high-speed photography, he discovered that crystals formed in frozen water reveal changes when specific, concentrated thoughts are directed toward them. Water from clear springs, as well as tap water that has been exposed to loving words (“gratitude,” “peace,” “love,” etc.), forms brilliant, complex, and colourful snowflake patterns; in contrast, polluted water, or water exposed to negative thoughts, shows incomplete, asymmetrical patterns with dull colours. In essence, Dr. Emoto demonstrated what healers have always known and what scientists are now beginning to validate: our thoughts affect the very nature of the world we come in contact with. The book became a New York Times bestseller, while the implications of his research reveal the power of our awareness and intention, especially when we turn such energies toward healing.

Frozen purity

Doctors and psychoneuroimmunologists realize that our bodies respond to our thoughts, whether positive or negative, and surely food, like water, does the same. All the more important then to send conscious energies of gratitude into what we prepare in the kitchen, silently or audibly blessing and giving thanks for each ingredient, while inviting ourselves into a healing ritual of communion with Earth and her generous abundance.

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As a French-trained cook, I possess a nearly religious appreciation for good food. Yet I’m also a healer with little interest in making (or eating) anything unhealthy, for I know that food is arguably our best medicine. Sometimes I think that if I were to place a mantra or philosophy on the wall in our kitchen, it would likely be, “May all who eat this food be deeply nourished in body and soul.”

Or perhaps, even simpler, give thanks.

The modern world has become increasingly artificial, disconnected, and unnatural; yet in terms of the soul and well-being, natural is better. One of the most vital things for health is to maintain the integrity of our bioenergetic field—really the “blueprint” or matrix for our material body. As our external environments become ever more polluted both physically and electromagnetically, ingesting prana through honest food and water, clean air, immersion in nature and daily “earthing” (spending time barefoot), along with minimizing the disruption to our field from AC/DC current, cell phones and WiFi, becomes essential for rebuilding and maintaining wellness.

What we eat matters. Deeply. For ages, Eastern medicine has advocated that the digestive system upholds all the other systems of the body; if we improve and optimize digestion, we can transform nearly everything else. Finally following suit, Western medicine is discovering that building and maintaining a healthy gut microbiome, those beneficial microbes (probiotics) in our intestinal tract, is imperative not only for overall well-being but even proper brain chemistry (read “Soul, Biochemistry, and the Song of the World“).

Onions, garlic, ginger, salt, bones, water

As with nearly everything I create in the kitchen, bone broth is “honest” food: simple fare that remembers its roots and season. Based upon a few ingredients of utmost quality, and ideally sourced as close to home as possible, honest food nourishes the bodysoul because it is high in prana. If made with loving intent, so much the better! From a healer’s perspective, minimally processed and prepared fresh is always preferable, while also avoiding “leftovers” because life-force diminishes rapidly (that said, recent leftovers of homemade, honest food are vastly better than anything commercially prepared and packaged).

Enter, bone broth and the deep-rooted, healing wisdom of our grandparents’ generation who really did know best, at least when it came to the value and nurturing qualities of slow-cooked foods. Recently, among health-focused individuals and healers, bone broth has surged forward with its great tide of health benefits, riding such a wave of popularity that it can now be found bottled at better grocery stores. (Yet as outlined already, a tremendous difference exists between the inherently healing qualities of that which is homemade and honest versus something anonymously mass produced, packaged, and shipped across the country.)

Beyond positive energy, prana, or loving intention, why is such broth so beneficial?

The latest research in medicine and psychology points to a disrupted GI tract, or what is called ‘leaky gut’, as the root of many modern ailments and diseases. Western medicine now affirms that most autoimmune conditions come as a result of inflammatory conditions caused by proteins that have sneaked into the bloodstream because of a leaky gut. Autoimmune conditions (allergies, thyroid and skin imbalances, infertility, and a myriad of common digestive disorders, such as IBS, colitis, and gastritis) have all been effectively treated with programs that involve bone broth. Collagen in the bones, concentrated in the cartilage and connective tissues, is transformed into gelatin in the simmering process of making broth. The gelatin in the broth, in turn, becomes a healing aid in restoring the health of the gastrointestinal lining. Consequently, as the lining of the gut is restored, symptoms are reduced and the condition improves.” (from Bone Deep Broth, by Taylor Chen and Lay Mojica)

Making the broth does require time; 12 to 24 hours of simmering for beef bones in order to fully extract the marrow that contains collagen, which then transforms to gelatin, as well as beneficial amino acids (including proline, glycine, and the very important glutamine, needed in a host of metabolic functions and the production of important neurotransmitters) and minerals (iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, boron). And yet as with ALL honest food, there is intrinsic value in something that asks some effort, long hours, and care to produce.

Indeed, we might say the same for our physical/personal/spiritual transformation, or even such pursuits as higher learning and art: there are no real shortcuts.

These days in our house, my mate is more an omnivore but I’m essentially vegetarian. I feel that the energy of most animal foods, nutrient-dense as they may be, no longer supports my utmost health or, to be a bit woo-woo, the highest vibration of the various energetic “layers” or bodies (etheric, emotional, mental, astral, etheric template, etc.). And yet something about bone broth remains deeply nourishing to my body, enhancing overall digestion and sense of well-being rather than disrupting or compromising it.

I find this particularly true after performing healing work, participating in “medicine journeys” and initiations—the rigorous, ceremonial practice of working with shamanic plants in a visionary, healing state—or emerging from fasting.

Be the light

Thus, every couple of weeks, or whenever we consume the last of the previous batch, I begin the long hours of brewing this profoundly healing tonic; the 16-quart (15-liter) pot just barely simmering on the stove, tiny bubbles appearing and disappearing, while the clear broth slowly transmutes overnight to liquid amber.

I have friends who make bone broth in an electric slow-cooker. Certainly it can be done that way, with the obvious benefit of being able to leave home or go to sleep without an open flame burning on the stove. However, like with our awareness and choosing ingredients of integrity as outlined a few paragraphs earlier, the energetics of how we cook food are equally important (i.e. the source of heat, along with the vessels used). Heat generated with electricity means that a constant voltage/vibration is present and passing through the pan, subtly altering the original matrix of the ingredients being prepared—thus why I won’t use an electric kettle to boil water for my tea. Granted, for most people such a factor is insignificant because they cannot detect any difference, yet for this healer the elemental energy of fire is preferable, less disruptive of original integrity and prana. Further, I believe that food cooked over flame simply tastes better.

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At an indeterminate point somewhere between 12 and 24 hours after the broth began simmering, when I decide that the savoury, honey-hued elixir is finished, I switch the burner off and allow the pot to slowly cool to room temperature. Bones will be removed and the liquid poured through a chinois (a mesh strainer works fine) into another receptacle, then chilled in the refrigerator so that the fat congeals on top and can be easily skimmed off. I will then transfer the thickened, gelatin-rich stock into glass, quart-sized canning jars for storage (I’m not keen on freezing anything, but the time involved in bone broth mandates making it in a quantity greater than what I can use before it goes “off”).

First jar ready for freezing

In days ahead, the healing broth will find its way into mugs to be sipped warm out of hand, simple and nourishing; it will subtly star in various soups and stews, the weekly risotto, or any number of dishes that normally call for stock. And each usage will be blessed with a silent prayer as I cook, enacting a ritual of presence and gratitude for all that has been gathered and given its life to share.

Just as words and sound hold living power that emerges from our inner experience, the same is true for cooking—or any act of creation, transformation and manifestation.

Gratitude may be the most profound spiritual practice of all.

Friend, the blessings in life are so abundant as to be countless, yet too few of us offer heartfelt appreciation for the simple gifts we receive daily. As another Thanksgiving holiday slips into the mists of memory, I urge you to make every day and each meal a celebration of thanks. For the moment you start acting like life is a blessing, it begins to feel like one.

Right down to the bone marrow.

Blessed be.

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For further information on the benefits of bone broth, including detailed instructions for making various types (beef, pork, poultry, fish) and appetizing recipes for using the stock, I recommend Bone Deep Broth: Healing Recipes with Bone Broth, by Taylor Chen and Lay Mojica


Basic Recipe for Beef (or Bison) Bone Broth

(adapted from Bone Deep Broth: Healing Recipes with Bone Broth, by Taylor Chen and Lay Mojica)

Equipment:

16-18 quart stock pot, stainless steel or cast iron (not aluminum)

Ingredients:

10-12 pounds beef or bison bones (free-range or grass fed is important), preferably long bones/marrow bones rather than knuckle bones

Water, preferably filtered

Optional:

1 bunch scallions (aka green or ‘spring’ onions)

1 large onion, quartered

1 head garlic

1 thumb-sized piece of ginger root, sliced

1/4 (60 ml) cup apple cider vinegar (acidulated water helps extract more minerals from the bones)

4 teaspoons unrefined salt, such as Celtic, Himalayan, or Maldon flakes

Method: 

  1. Roast the bones; this imparts depth of flavour and colour to the broth (it will also prevent your final broth from developing an off taste from using unboiled or non-roasted bones). Set the oven to 400°F (200°C), place the bones in a roasting tin or pan, and then cook for 45-60 minutes until golden brown. Turn them once during the cook time. Remove from oven and discard the fat released.
  2. Place the roasted bones in a large stock pot and cover with cold water, just submerging the bones. Bring to the boil and reduce heat immediately (any prolonged boil will cause the proteins and rendered fat to emulsify and make the broth cloudy), as low as possible to maintain a simmer with tiny bubbles rising through the liquid. Add the optional ingredients, if using. If you have a wire or mesh skimmer, remove any scum that may float to the surface during initial cooking.
  3. Cover the pot partially. Allow the broth to simmer at least 12 hours and up to 24 hours; the longer it simmers, the more nutrition will be extracted from the bones. Check the pot every now and again to make sure the low temperature remains constant and the water level still covers the bones. Add more water if needed.
  4. When the broth is ready, turn off the heat and allow the liquid to cool to room temperature before removing the bones. Depending on the size pot, a few hours may be needed for the broth to cool sufficiently.
  5. Remove the bones and set them aside. Strain and transfer the broth to a large container to refrigerate before final skimming. Chill the liquid for a few hours until it thickens somewhat and all the fat congeals on top.
  6. Pull any salvageable meat from what was strained from the broth and discard the other ingredients; use the meat, along with any pulled from the roasted bones, as desired (I give it to the dogs for a special treat). If you find there is a bit of marrow left in some of the bones, tap them in a bowl to release the nutrient-rich gelatin, or use a small spoon to scoop it out. The marrow can be added to your broth or to soups, spread on toast, or eaten on its own.
  7. Remove the layer of fat from the chilled broth. This is easiest by simply cutting into it with a knife, lifting it, and picking it up gingerly with your hands or a skimmer. Discard the fat unless you’re saving it for another purpose such as tallow. Transfer the skimmed broth to individual containers for storage. Sealed, it will last a week in the fridge, six months in the freezer.
  8. Enjoy for a happy gut and good health!