Cooking ugly bits – bone marrow

Yeah, I’m avoiding the really ugly bits for a moment – you think tongue was bothersome, wait’ll you play with… well, let’s wait a bit. Also, all the puns I was using were severe stretches, so you got a more straightforward title this morning.

If you’ve never had bone marrow (to your knowledge) let me start by trying to get you focused. Ah, I know. Picture the richest broth you’ve ever had. Now picture it, still warm, the consistency of that hot fudge you’ve oozed over the brownie and vanilla ice cream. Yeah.

Most people who eat bone marrow eat it as some form of usso bucco or bulalo. That is, straight from the bone. The second most common way to eat it is as part of a stock – one where large bones are opened (cut or broken) so the hot liquid melts the marrow into it. Remember I said it’s like that hot fudge – it melts.

Before I begin, the inevitable ‘how do I deal with this’ element. You need two special things done when you’re going to cook marrow. First, you need to open the bones. The typical way is to ring-cut them, though I had one butcher who would split the bones instead (which let me get to much smaller bones’ marrow – including the leg bones of much poultry). Unless you’re planning to strain out the solids and splinters (for stock, say), don’t smash the bones.

The second thing is cleaning. When you first look at that marrow it’s a dingy gray – rather unappetizing, really. If you soak it in cold water for 9-12 hours, maybe changing the water two or three times between, you are left with a creamy off-white substance. The grey is, well, it’s blood and blood production elements. If you’re gonna get technical it’s also nutritious. It is not (in my opinion) tasty. (Don’t cite blood sausages to me. I like those, too, and will get there. But they’re made with fresh blood – dried blood picks up off tastes.)

So whatcha gonna do with these chunks of bone, anyway? As I said the ‘classic’ is an usso bucco or a bulalo. Basically you start by cutting the shank into a three or four inch thick ring, keeping the meat on the bone. You’re only going to keep the end pieces, because as you cook this you don’t want the marrow to come out when it melts. I’m going to go with an usso here, but I’m not insisting on veal shanks.

Brown the rings on each side and pull them out. Add chopped onions and let them brown a bit, then add some carrots and celery. Now add about a cup of a dry white wine, deglaze, and reduce to about half. Now you’re going to add about 14 ounces of chopped tomatoes (canned is fine – please drain them), a bay leaf or two and about 2 cups of stock. Bring this to a boil, then remove from the heat for a moment. Now put the shanks back in (open side up), and add enough stock to bring the level just under the top of the shanks. Bring it back to a simmer, and then put a lid on and put it in a medium (350 or so) oven where it’ll braise for about two hours.

While it’s braising you can make a traditional ‘spike’ to the meal with a minced clove of garlic, about a dozen or so parsley sprigs that you’ve also minced, and the zest of a whole lemon. Mix and refrigerate.

When the shanks are done (the meat should be trying to fall off the bones so be careful here) remove them and slightly thicken the remaining liquid. You can use a cornstarch slurry, you can add it to a roux, you can reduce it… use the thickener of choice, but you’re wanting it thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Serving is put the shank in a bowl, pour a ladle of the broth over it, sprinkle with the spike you’ve made, and make sure you’ve some crisp warm toast on the side. Spoon out a little marrow and either eat it directly with the broth or put both on the toast.

By the way, Bulalo isn’t as thick but it’s just as rich. It’s a clear soup from the Philippines. Instead of braising you’re going to boil, completely covered, and your veggies are a wee bit different: some bok choi, some corn on the cob that you’ve also cut into rings, a quartered onion, maybe some potatoes and carrots if that’s your taste. Oh, and a tablespoon (or a handful if that’s your taste) of peppercorns You’re going to completely cover the shanks by two to three inches of liquid (frequently water, stock if you’re REALLY wanting rich) and boil the shanks for two to three hours with just the onion and peppercorns for accompaniment. You’ll add the other veggies for a final 15-30 minutes of cooking. Bone with meat (if it’ll stay on) goes in the bowl, finish filling with the soup.

Noticing a theme here? Yeah.

Now you can also just dry roast the bones (don’t bother with the meat) for a half hour or so till the marrow is hot and gooey. Serve them on a plate with a lot of toast and tabouli. If you don’t want your guests to work hard or to be quite as uncomfortable, scoop the bone marrow into oven-warmed small ramekins instead. By the way, this bit of popping it out into ramekins works well for the long bones and bones you’ve split.

Now if you’ve popped the marrow out, you can do a couple more things with it. Before I go there, I want to point out you’ve got an opportunity here. You can wrap the marrow in plastic and freeze it for later use. What later use?

If you’ve cleaned it as I noted above, a great thing to do is drop a piece of marrow into any meaty liquid you’re preparing. Remember, liquid meatiness – it’ll enrich your broth or soup to an astounding degree. Sadly, do not do this to your consomme – it works, but much of the marrow gets pulled in the filtering.

If you’re TRULY daring, you can make fried marrow. Take the marrow, warm it if you had it frozen, and roll it in a bit of flour, eggwash, and bread crumbs. Fry the result – in a skillet or in a deep fryer, but if you do the latter watch it carefully so it doesn’t melt into the oil. You get…

You get meaty flavored lava love.

Go enjoy some bone marrow. If you like meat, you’ll like this.

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