I enjoy eating marrowbones in restaurants. There’s something sensual about dipping your spoon in your bone, spreading it on toast, with a bit of Chablis. Also, hopefully you are surrounded by good looking people, preferably slim, dressed in dark colors.
Honestly, I love them less when I don’t have an audience, but I believe the same rule applies to any indulgent food that requires ritual and the use of one’s fingers. You like having other people watch you eat.
Still, marrowbones are surprisingly easy to make, and sometimes a butcher will give them to you for free. (If not, they are still $2.99 a pound at Stop & Shop.) They are impressive fare at a dinner party and still satisfyingly sinful – even without an audience – when you eat them late at night tucked in your bed. (I have done this.)
Douse four to eight marrowbones (ask your butcher) liberally with olive oil (about ¼ of a cup), and caramelize in a pan over high heat until well browned – about ten minutes. Douse with sherry and wrap each bone tightly in foil, and roast at 400 degrees for approximately thirty minutes. Sprinkle with sea salt, freshly cracked black pepper, and crusty bread.
As my brother would say, the parsley is very optional, but it does help cut the richness. Toss together one bunch of parsley, coarsely chopped, the zest of one lemon, two finely minced shallots, two finely minced anchovies, and the juice of two lemons, and a ¼ cup of olive oil. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt and serve.
If you have implements small enough to stick in the center of your bone, by all means use them; I do not have a “marrow spoon” but I find lobster forks handy, as I do those two tined prongs that were so popular fifteen years ago to serve corn in the cob. I have never seen the point of those prongs vis-à-vis corn, but for getting the meat out of lobster claws or the marrow out of a marrow bone, they are genius.
As a child I loved watching zucchini grow, because they would burgeon to such an unbelievable size well after the end of summer. They were for novelty only, because their flesh was woody and unappetizing.
The marrow squash is a feature in the Paddington Bear stories – and because of its name, I had pictured it soft, buttery, and the opposite of green. Imagine my disappointment when I realized it was just an overgrown zucchini.
It was when my young cousin Kelley presented me two marrows the length of my arm, that I decided to try to cook them in earnest. And when stuffed with veal, lavished with wine, and hacked to fit inside my New York City oven, a marrow squash can live up to its name. Kelley, a vegetarian, would probably be horrified.
Combine 1 pound of veal, 1 grated onion, three cloves of garlic finely chopped, ½ cup of Parmagiano Reggiano, ½ a cup of finely chopped parsley, the grated rind of one lemon, and 1 cup of slightly stale white bread that has been soaked in a cup of milk for one half an hour and wrung dry. Season well with salt and pepper.
Split lengthwise and scoop out the seeds of one marrow squash, at least 18 inches long and weighing two pounds.
Stuff the meat mixture into the two squash halves. You may have some meat stuffing leftover, in which case you can shape them into meatballs, brown them, and braise them in a bit of tomato and white wine.
Set into a well oiled baking pan. My brother Yar would probably drape two slices of bacon, lengthwise, over the top of each of the halves. Drizzle a generous ¼ cup of olive oil over the top, and also ½ a cup of white wine, and bake covered in a 400 degree oven for 40 minutes. Uncover, and test for tenderness – your fork should slide in. Continue baking until the top of the marrows begin to sizzle.
I will often throw a marrowbone into my stews. Apparently, the French do this all the time, with their pot-au-feu. It was what inspired Eric Bromberg to start serving marrow bones in New York in the first place. But more about this later.
BEEF SHORTRIBS WITH OPTIONAL MARROW BONE
In a large Dutch oven or heavy casserole with a tight fitting lid, brown well 6-8 pounds of beef shortribs, also known as beef shanks, until caramelized. Do not stint on cooking time – it takes usually about fifteen minutes, and you want the meat to yield when you go to turn it over. At the same time, brown four-six marrowbones. You can brown the meat and bones in two to three batches. Season both the meat and the marrowbones generously with salt and pepper.
In the same pan, brown one onion finely chopped, five stalks of celery, and four carrots. Add thin slices of garlic, reduce the heat to medium high, add salt, and let the vegetables perspire (approx five minutes.)
Add the meat back into the pan, and add one handful of chopped rosemary, chopped parsley, and a couple of sprigs of thyme. Add one cup of water, and a half a bottle of red wine, taste for seasoning, and if it doesn’t taste like anything to you, add salt. Bring to a bubble, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for an hour and a half, at the very least, until the meat is falling off the bone.
I love vegetables cooked in meat juice for hours, but if you don’t, remove the meat and bones, and strain the sauce. Re-introduce the meat and the sauce, and sprinkle with fresh parsley and cracked pepper. Before you serve, of course, taste for seasoning.
Often I serve this as two different courses. The marrow bone, which I flash briefly under the broiler, goes with toast and fresh parsley for an appetizer. Meanwhile, I take the strained sauce, reduce it to about two thirds, and then add half a stick of butter until it is slick and smooth. As my father did before me, I slather the shortribs in coarse, French mustard, the kind where you can see the seeds, and then roll them around in fresh breadcrumbs, grated lemon rind, and chopped parsley, dot them with a pat of butter, and slip them underneath the broiler for about ten minutes, until the crust crackles. This I serve with the strained sauce and baby vegetables (carrots, pearl onions, baby squash, asparagus), that I have blanched individually for a minute in heavily salted boiling water (one tablespoon per two cups), and then sautéed in a combination of butter and olive oil for five minutes until tender, and then splashed white wine on top, and let reduce over high heat. Then I turn off the heat, and swirl cold butter in. (NOTE: When I was a university student, I cooked the same recipe, substituting the red wine with dark beer – I called it carbonnade, which is a Belgian beef stew.)
Sometimes I also add to the mixture three heads of star anise, crushed, – and a splash of maple syrup – it gives the dish an intriguing, Asian aroma, something that would be at home on a bowl of noodles.
Pure marrowbone soup – so beloved of starving maidens and monks in fairy tales – is more difficult to make truly tasty. The Koreans have a version in which they boil the marrowbone without any browning – the result is milky fluid that tastes unpleasantly like a skeleton. I prefer my version, which I made up when I was recovering from my wisdom tooth operation. Granted, it does rather go against the ethos of marrowbones – namely, that marrowbones are cheap.
This recipe, although simple, is both expensive and time consuming, but very relaxing when you are recovering from minor surgery, have someone else do your shopping, and have just enough energy to watch a pot and read a mystery novel.
REALLY, REALLY DECADENT MARROWBONE SOUP
Brown together in a 450 degree oven:
4 pounds of marrow bones with meat attached
1 veal shoulder and or neck (about three pounds) chopped into large pieces
¼ cup of olive oil
a few sprigs of thyme
Toss until brown and caramel, and it perfumes the kitchen with the smell of roasting meat, about 40 minutes. Meanwhile, mince the bodies of 4 partially deboned quail. I have done this in my mother’s food processor, but it may have explained why the Cuisinart expired a week later. Alternatively, roughly chop the bodies of the quail with a cleaver and a steady hand – a fine mince is not necessary. (One poussin or game hen can be substituted. Remove the backbone and the neck of the larger birds and roast them in the oven with the meat. Chop up the rest of the meat and brown like the quail.) Also finely chop three onions, three carrots, and four stalks of celery, which you can do by hand, but also in the Cuisinart, if you haven’t ruined it by grinding up the quail.
In a heavy 8 quart stockpot, brown the quail meat (with bones) and the vegetables with a generous pinch of sea salt. (1 tbsp). Add the browned bones and the meat, which you have also coarsely chopped, and fill the pot with water. Ideally you do not want to bring the mixture to a boil, but you can let it go on high to medium high heat until you see the first bubble rise to the surface (this usually takes about fifteen minutes.) At which point, reduce the heat to simmer, and let simmer for about five hours, skimming the fat every half an hour.
Taste at the end of five hours, it should taste light, but with definite body. Then add the shells of four eggs, crushed, into the soup, turn off the heat, and let sit for ten minutes, before straining through a sieve. If you are feeling particularly bored (because of surgery, sickness, unemployment, etc.) you can also line the sieve with cheesecloth. The eggshells however, should cling to the undesirable bits and scum. Remove the marrowbones from the sieve and reserve. You should discard the rest of the meat – it seems like a waste, but if you have done the stock properly, the veal and quail will taste like wet cardboard because they have been totally leeched of flavor.
At this point, I add a good slug of port (at least 1/2 a cup) to the stock, which I have returned to the pot, and let bubble until reduced to at least 2/3 of its original volume. I season it generously with salt and pepper, and sip it out of a white ceramic mug while sitting tucked with a feather quilt wrapped around my knees.
My cousin Jay, usually the antithesis of a sentimental man, still revisits the time when we were at the dingy London café, eating ossobucco, risotto Milanese, and fresh grilled sardines, eaten with the fingers burning hot. Combine the following meal with cheap red wine and a scarred table covered in a plastic red and white check, and you will have brought the fumes and bustle of the Russell Square Tube stop into your home, a prospect more romantic than it sounds.
But most importantly, you must begin with sardines, for they are what elevate the experience. I have eaten ossobucco many times, but only once have I prefaced it with sardines. If you begin with something like a mozzarella and tomato salad, your meal might be tasty, but it will be commonplace. You must eat the sardines with your fingers, which they will turn hot and sticky, and wash them down with cheap red wine. Ideally there should be an underground train rumbling intermittently under your feet, and there should be Puccini on the stereo..
Living in New York City, I rarely ever use a grill. Having said that, if I lived in Brattleboro Vermont, I would probably use a grill just as often. I’m simply not as infatuated with the charcoal or hickory kick as other people. Very rarely do I see the point, especially if you are just going to be grilling a dozen tiny fish. I find that a grill or cast iron pan over a gas flame works fine, as does slipping the fish under the broiler.
If your sardines aren’t cleaned, just scrape the scales off with the blade of a knife, moving the knife from tail to head. Then slit open the fish’s belly (I find sewing scissors very efficient, you start at the mouth and snip about half way down the fish), remove the guts, and then rinse the cavity quickly under water to get rid of anything your fingers might have missed.
Line the bottom of a dish or baking pan large enough to hold a dozen sardines with ½ cup coarse sea salt. Place the sardines on top, cover with another ½ cup of salt, and then cover and refrigerate for an hour. Curing the sardines with salt gives them a firmer texture.
In a heavy pan, heat ¼ cup of olive oil over high heat. Remove sardines from their salt blanket, and dust off the excess salt. Cook the sardines no more than two minutes a side, until the flesh begins to flake. Alternatively you can do this under the broiler for about 3-4 minutes. Serve with a sprinkling of lemon juice, fresh cracked pepper, a drizzle of olive oil, and no silverware.
I have made ossobucco in numerous ways – browning it with a soubise of a myriad of vegetables; braising it in a variety of liquids; eschewing the browning and poaching it; serving it with roasted vegetables; serving it with vegetables that have been blanched and cooked quickly in the sauce; straining the sauce; food milling the vegetables into the sauce. I’ve flavored it with veal stock, chicken stock, Evian water, sherry, and many different varieties of dried wild mushrooms. I’ve done it with and without flour. I’ve even thickened the sauce with toasted ground almonds, in the Spanish style. But my greatest triumph was when I simmered the veal shanks with carrots, garlic, and what turned out to be quite an expensive Chablis.
Nevertheless, I’ve tried it with wine that was less dear, on one occasion, Yellowtail Chardonnay, and the results are just as delicious. I do not subscribe to the theory that you should only cook with wine that you would deign to drink. If you have so many four hundred dollar Barolos that you have already used Barolo to fill your swimming pool, then by all means, cook with it. I myself am in the unenviable, and perhaps not uncommon position of not being inundated by more great vintages than I can drink. Therefore, if I spend more than twenty dollars on a bottle, it goes into my glass. I do cook a lot with wine – because I enjoy the aroma and the sugars – but most of the wine in my food costs around 6.99, and sometimes, when I am very strapped, it has come from a jug that I hide from my guests.
I love this recipe. Maybe it’s because I’m so dazzled by its simplicity. Also one often doesn’t get served the vegetables that have been long simmered with meat because they are not lovely on the eye. But I happen to adore the flavor, especially in this dish, when the baby carrots are so laden with the sauce they are butter soft and on the point of dissolution. You can add the traditional mirepoix – minced carrot, celery and onion sweated with oil and a pinch of salt – at the beginning after you have browned the meat. However, as I have said before, my favorite element of this ossobucco is its ease.
Season four to six veal shanks (cut about 1 ½ inches thick, but four pounds in total) generously on both sides with salt and fresh pepper. Dust the veal shanks with flour.
In a Dutch oven, or a heavy bottomed casserole with a tight fitting lid, heat ¼ cup of olive oil over medium high heat until rippling. Then brown the veal shanks well over medium high heat – a process that takes longer than you think – approximately five minutes on each side. You want your meat well browned on both sides, gold in some patches, practically burnt in others, with a hefty crust. Add four cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed with the flat of a knife, and then add one full bottle of white wine. It doesn’t have to be too dry, but try to refrain from using something as sweet as a Gerwurtzheimmer. A Yellowtail Chardonnay will do. Bring the wine to gentle boil, season well with salt and pepper, add three sprigs of rosemary, chopped. There should be enough wine to cover the veal shanks with at least an inch of liquid on top. If there isn’t, add more wine. By the end of the recipe, you should have used at least a bottle and a half of wine. If you don’t feel like you have enough wine to spare, you can always substitute a bit of the wine with veal stock, chicken stock, or water.
Season with another generous pinch of salt and pepper, and cover and simmer for half an hour over low heat. Add one pound of peeled baby carrots and two strips of lemon peel, recover and continue to simmer for at least one and a half hours, checking occasionally to see whether there is enough liquid. When the veal is done, the meat should be falling off the bone, and a fork should slide into it without compunction. Season to taste with freshly ground pepper and salt, if necessary.
Serve with a garnish of fresh chopped parsley tossed with several tablespoons of lemon juice, coarse salt, the zest of two lemons and enough olive oil to coat. This is gremolata, the age-old osso bucco garnish and it bears quite a lot of resemblance to the parsley salad one so often eats with marrowbone.
I also like to add the fillets of two anchovies, coarsely chopped, but that is because I love anchovies in everything. You can top the ossobucco with the gremolata before you serve it, but I prefer to pass it around at the table and let people help themselves. This is a dish with a lot of sauce, which is fine with me. At heart, I am a crass, rustic eater, and I like my dishes drowned, with plenty left over for bread for mopping. One too many plates with dime sized, artfully positioned spoonfuls of reduction is enough to drive me into the kitchen and demand a staff meal.
Whatever you do, don’t forget about your marrow. Dip it out with a shrimp fork or corncob skewer or what have you. I try to save it for last, but frequently find that I lack the patience.
This is the traditional accompaniment to ossobucco and it is one of which I heartily approve. A marrowbone unadorned is one of the purest forms of pleasure. But if you must have meat with your marrow, then I believe you should also eat the meat with forkfuls of this rice that is colored bright gold like money.
Trying to master risotto was one of the plagues of my teenage and college years. My mother was a genius at it, but it was something that I could not do – it would be gluey one day, over-salted and undercooked the next. In cookbooks and on television, people purred about the dish’s simplicity – “One of the simplest, and fastest things you can do,” and I felt as though they mocked me.
I gave up after I made risotto for a date, the disaster of which I attributed to the dish. Years later, I was stranded alone in my parents’ Connecticut home, without a driver’s license or any provisions, save for a frozen solid duck and a quantity of Arborio rice. So, gamely, I tried again. It was not marvelous risotto, but it was perfectly fine. It was like the time when I finally dusted off the Chopin Ballade in G minor. For a full year, I had struggled with and was finally vanquished by its treacherous coda, this tricksy thing that looks easy on paper, and which a pianist like Maurizio Pollini made sound like child’s play. Then sitting down after six months of no practice at all, I found the coda had settled into my fingertips. To be honest, my coda still sucks, but at least I can get through it, and people can figure out that it’s Chopin as opposed to Schoenberg. Right now, my risotto is slightly better — but that is with many more years of practice.
Risotto is not simple. While risotto is far from impossible, it, like the Ballade coda, is not as effortless as Pollini (Chopin) or Marcella Hazan (risotto) might make you believe. There is a certain amount of magic involved in its mastery, and sometimes a spate of non-practice can take you far. There is little or no relation between risotto and culinary talent. You will get the hang of risotto when the risotto itself believes that you are ready. In my mother’s case, it took one try. In mine, it took ten years.
In risotto, there are no shortcuts. Even risotto from a box requires that you do the difficult part – twenty-five minutes of stirring and the patient adding of liquid. Adding the stock in two additions for a risotto that serves two works fine – you add half the hot stock and let it merrily simmer without touching it, and then you add the rest in ladlefuls. Having said that, it does not really make things that much easier; being forbidden to stir the rice in the first half makes you, if anything, more neurotic as you hang about the stove, helpless, waiting for something to go wrong. Also the idea of cooking exactly enough for two people with nothing leftover is a territory best reserved for 19th century German scientists and martini-swilling WASPs.
Use unsalted, or lightly salted stock, whenever possible. The stock concentrates and if you do not watch what you are doing, the result can taste like licking the inside of an iodine mine.
Ideally you should use homemade stock, but just as I am at home with using $7.99 wine, I believe in the stock that comes in a box. I recently saw one of the chefs that I had admired most since adolescence – make a black truffle risotto with quantities of Imagine brand chicken broth.
You should watch your heat. Even now, I am confounded by the idea of making risotto on an electric cook-top. I need to be able to regulate my flame constantly, turn it down and turn it up and have the heat respond as soon as I twist the dial. The heat that I have found best is a solid medium – with brief forays into medium high and medium low. I was so shaken by my first risotto, which I cooked on high heat and that ended up crunchy on the inside, and salty on the out; that I went in the opposite direction – to a flame so reduced that it was a dot – and perversely I stayed there, even though what I got was glue. You want to keep your risotto liquid quietly burbling, occasional bubbles on the surface. If it is frisky, turn the heat down, but if the liquid just lies there, do not be afraid to urge the flame a little higher.
Stir perpetually but with languid strokes, and do not afraid to leave it alone if the telephone rings.
Perhaps even more essential than heat is the fact that risotto, like piano practice, is best done in solitude. This, I realize, is near impossible, but whenever you make it for others, try to surround yourself with an easygoing crowd, of people that can entertain themselves, and do nothing more than refill your wine glass. Risotto takes concentration and calm. I will make risotto for my stepfather Jonathan (who chops the parsley and refills my wine), my brother Yar, (who grates the cheese), my best friend Yeewan, (who like my stepfather, chops parsley, refills wine, and does the dishes), my mother (who makes a concerted effort to stay in her seat), and a select handful of others. I will never cook risotto for my lovable, noisy extended family, whose kitchen manners include hovering, joking asides, frequent questions, and pouring two cups of stock into a pan without permission. Similarly, while my immediate family slips silently around the house during piano practice, my extended family throws a ruckus. “I don’t want to hear that!” someone exclaims, “Can’t you play something else? God we must have heard this goddam measure forty-five times. I want Cole Porter!” Another person flips the page, while my cousin Jay seats himself uninvited on the bench, idly improvising an independent tune. Like a taxing coda, risotto needs focus, and sadly, is not raucous party fare.
In a pot, bring four cups of veal or chicken stock to a boil and then lower heat and keep at a simmer. Dissolve a generous pinch of saffron threads (half an ounce) in 2 tbsp of hot water and set aside.
Sweat one onion, finely minced with a pinch of salt, in 2 tbsp of butter and 2 tbsp of olive oil, in a shallow 12- inch saucepan over medium high heat. Add one cup of rice and sauté until the rice is translucent, about two to three minutes. Add ½ cup of white wine, and stir until the wine has absorbed into the rice. Add a ladleful of the stock and stir until the stock is absorbed. You will probably want to lower the heat to medium at this point – remember, you want it to simmer with the occasional bubble, but never to boil.
The stock should take about four to five minutes to absorb. Continue to add the stock. As the rice continues to cook, the stock will absorb more slowly, until you are finally adding the stock in 1/3 to ¼ cup measures. After approximately fifteen minutes, when the rice is cooked on the outside but still crunchy in the middle – that point where it has not yet become al dente, add the saffron that you have dissolved in the hot water. Continue to add stock until the rice is ready – cooked on the outside, but still firm in the center. Many recipes place this at around 18 to 20 minutes, I find that it can take as long as 25 minutes.
Taste for seasoning – if you are using unsalted stock, you’ll need salt. Then remove the rice and stir in one last ½ cup ladleful of hot stock plus four tablespoons of butter. Stir in 1/3 cup of freshly grated Parmagiano Reggiano, douse with freshly cracked pepper, and serve.
Montepulciano D’Abruzzo sardines, Osso Bucco, Risotto Milanese, no dessert, but a double espresso and a Sambuca: In my mind it is one of the perfect meals. My cousin Jay, who enjoyed it with me in London – would probably be torn between nostalgia and his ceaseless desire for variety. “It’s not as good as I remembered,” he’d say. “Are you sure it doesn’t need another fourteen dishes?” If I make it right then my best friend Yeewan will eat silently, asking to be left out of any conversation until she is finished; my stepfather will consume what is on his plate, and then dollop one more spoonful of risotto and sauce, getting up for each additional dollop, for he is not a greedy man. Many of the men in my life would praise the meal to the skies but not care all that much in the end; should I feel romantically inclined, I would say that they cared more about me than the food that I produced. The father of my childhood would scrutinize the supermarket receipts, the father that I remember as an adult would be both appreciative and bemused, even though veal and sardines are not his favorite foods. My mother would love the sardines, but worry that we should have a vegetable, to which my brother Yar, who would have already chastised me on my stingy use of Parmagiano in the risotto, would reply, “Why ruin it with vegetables?” And even though I am not adverse to a salad, I would echo, why indeed? All meals are delicate, but the ones that are most easily spoiled are the meals that exist in the mind. If you try to recreate them, then something as simple as an unneeded lettuce leaf, too much salt, grit in the parsley, or one too many glasses of wine, can sour it beyond saving.