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Chefs never fear skeleton and neither should cooks at home


Our grandparents and great-grandparents stared them down as they boiled in the pot.

Perhaps they licked their lips in anticipation.

In time, the boiling parts sacrificed their creamy core. And the pot-watchers would eat their fill, perhaps licking their lips once again, this time in satisfaction.

Have we lost their well-honed taste for bones?

Scott Buer, owner of Bolzano Artisan Meats, which makes dry-cured pork products from heirloom hogs, wonders about our recent tendency to leave the bones alone. He has noticed that "it's almost like people have gotten afraid of bones."

With Halloween upon us, it's a good time to gnaw over this issue of scary bones.

I sometimes encounter otherwise savvy cooks who don't routinely use bones in their kitchens.

. . . Soup is always made out of frightening-looking things." my mom taught me: A good soup always looks like the most horrible parts. It's like a turkey carcass and turnip tops - it's all these things that visually you wouldn't want to eat on their own," Buer says. "But they make awesome soup. . . . "Something I find that people don't really get, but

Certainly chefs aren't afraid of bones, nor do they underestimate the value of bones in cooking. Meat is most flavorful closest to the bone. Cartilage contains gelatin, a natural and effective thickener, and roasted marrow itself is a sort of miracle substance, imparting a highly pleasing velvety, unctuous texture to sauces and soups, according to Brendan Walsh, a chef and associate dean of culinary production at the Culinary Institute of America in New York.

It was a well-known secret among chefs, Walsh says, that if you were roasting bones for soups, stews and sauces, you could sneak a bit of the cooked marrow, spread it on toast and enjoy a rare, tasty treat.

The secret is out now, at least among a select faction of gourmands, and that faction is growing. At the new Rumpus Room in Milwaukee, chef Andrew Ruiz has devised what has proved to be a popular appetizer of braised veal marrow bone, served with a veal sauce, toast points and sweetbreads (another animal part that can inspire fear in some).

"It's a real foodie's food," Ruiz says of the veal marrow, adding that he was not expecting to be overwhelmed with customer orders. But turns out, "we have sold more of them than I thought," Ruiz says. "It's surprising."

On the theory that even choice cuts taste better on the bone, Ruiz serves an entrée bone-in ribeye, which has also proved popular.

Ruiz believes North Americans are starting to catch on to the tradition of using every part of the animal, nose to tail, which is simply the way people have eaten for centuries in Europe and Asia. Indeed, American Indians always cooked that way, too, as did the early North American settlers.

"Honestly, I don't really know why it went away," Ruiz says.

Traveling tip

Walsh says it has to do with mass food production and the advent of national-chain supermarkets. Bone-in meat spoils faster, so it can neither store nor travel over long distances as well as boned meat. And at butcher's counters, frugal shoppers continue to object to the notion of bones counting as a portion of the meat poundage they are buying.

But it behooves us to disabuse ourselves of these notions, Walsh says.

"If you look at this wonderful idea of sustainable, 200 years ago, there would have been no culture that would not have tried to use every part of the animal," Walsh says. "For us, as we go back to this kind of thinking, especially when we're doing things with organics and with sustainable farms, it's extremely important that all parts of the animal get used. So, the bones are part of this process."

Looked at from a certain point of view, nose-to-tail cooking is also more humane because there is far less waste; fewer animals are killed and used only for their choice cuts.

Back in time

It does require reacquainting the public with the tastes of the past - and chefs have to lead the way, creating new dishes out of less choice cuts and bones, Walsh says, if sustainable farmers are to thrive.

"As chefs we need to take those secondary cuts that the farmer can't sell and make money on and we need to be able to use them as chefs and be creative - to come up with ways to be able to sell them," Walsh says. "Because it's very easy to sell a filet mignon, it's very easy to sell a rib-eye. Those things are very recognizable and understandable."

Buer regards it as more frugal to use the bones. Before he began curing and butchering, he would buy heirloom hogs for himself and he was loath to throw out any parts.

" he says. "I didn't want to waste any of it." "I thought, 'I paid for this,'

And it was worth it.

"You get your whole hog from the butcher, and you work your way through the nice tender cuts," Buer says. "And then you have this reward of the bones."

Roasted Marrow Bones

Makes 4 appetizer servings

This recipe for roasted marrow is adapted from several versions available on the Internet. All are based on a master recipe by Fergus Henderson, the chef at London's famed St. John restaurant and the widely acknowledged guru and champion of nose-to-tail cooking. Some specialty groceries are now stocking center-cut beef or veal marrow bones at the meat counter. They also can be ordered in advance from the butcher.

This is best served as an appetizer or unusual lunch. The marrow is very rich-tasting, rather like country butter - a little goes a long way. And be sure to have an alternative dish on hand, as this will not be to everyone's taste.

4 center-cut beef or veal marrow bones (about 3 to 4 inches each)

¼ teaspoon salt, plus more to taste (divided)

¼ teaspoon pepper, plus more to taste (divided)

2 teaspoons butter

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 to 2 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

1 teaspoon capers, well drained

½ to ¾ teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Several crispy toast points for serving

Soak marrow bones in water to cover in fridge overnight for up to 24 hours, changing water 3 or 4 times, to release excess blood from marrow. Drain. Season with about ¼ teaspoon each of salt and pepper.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

If bones are flared at one end, stand them up, wide end down, in a roasting pan. (If they won't stand up, lay them flat.)

Place in preheated oven and roast about 15 minutes. Watch carefully, making sure marrow does not melt too quickly and start to seep out. As marrow starts to bubble, reduce heat to 350 degrees and roast another 10 to 15 minutes, checking often with a thin fondue fork or skewer to see whether marrow is soft all the way through. Marrow is done when it turns golden and separates slightly from the bone.

Meanwhile, as bones cook, melt butter in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and parsley, sautéing until soft, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and stir in capers and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Divide parsley mixture among four serving plates. Place one marrow bone on each plate along with a few toast points. Provide guests with a thin knife or scoop (a thin parfait spoon handle works) to dig out the soft marrow. Serve by spreading toast with marrow and a bit of the parsley mixture.

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