Halloween night, most caldrons will be filled with candy. But the ones on the stove might be filled with bones (cue creepy music).
The holiday aside, in this era of nose-to-tail dining, adding "bones" to the shopping list doesn't seem unusual — nor should it. Dogs know what humans should: Bones are nutritious and delicious.
Today, bones are rarely prepared in such a straightforward manner. They usually arrive on the plate still attached to a piece of meat, or hidden in a chicken or fish.
"Boneless rib isn't going to have nearly as much flavor as eating ribs off a rack of bones," says Clementine executive chef Jill Snyder. "The benefits of cooking any meat on the bone are the flavor and taste. The meat stays moist, and there will be more flavor."
According to Cyrus Keefer, chef de cuisine at Birroteca, "Bone-in meats cook more evenly. Cook them slow, let them rest, and for crispy skin, sear them before you serve them."
Separated from their meat, bones may stand alone, roasted and presented as a vessel for their unctuous, intensely rich marrow.
"Bone marrow is highly sought after at our restaurant," says Jacob Raitt, the chef de cuisine at Corner BYOB in Hampden. "It's buttery, rich, pure fat."
At Corner BYOB, Raitt cuts 3- or 4-inch bones lengthwise to expose the marrow in the center. He then roasts the bones for 10 or 15 minutes with herbs, butter and bread crumbs. "We serve it with toast," he says, comparing its texture to another delicacy, foie gras.
Marrow's intense flavor comes at a price — it's high in fat and calories. But like bones themselves, it's also full of protein.
"Bone is a living thing," says Kelly O'Connor, registered dietitian and director of diabetes education at Mercy Medical Center. "Therefore, it is involved in the processes in the body and serves as a storehouse. Bones are full of calcium, phosphorous, magnesium and other minerals."
Mark Sisson, author of "The Primal Blueprint," is a proponent of the paleo or "primal" diet. The diet is an approach to eating that adopts the habits of the Paleolithic people who lived 2.4 million years ago — a combination of wild game, fish, ostrich eggs and gathered plants, seeds and nuts. People who adhere to the diet work to get as much out of animal products as they can, right down to the bone.
On his blog, "Mark's Daily Apple" (www.marksdailyapple.com), Sisson calls marrow "sacred gel" and rattles off a list of the nutrients bones contain. Calcium and phosphorous top his list, which also includes magnesium, collagen, gelatin, the amino acids glycine and proline, and hyaluronic acid and chondroitin sulfate, two elements of cartilage.
O'Connor and Sisson agree that the best way to extract the nutrients from bones is by making stock. "Making broth from any type of animal bones is a nutritious and inexpensive way to obtain valuable nutrients," says O'Connor.
For chefs, stocks are a core element of cooking. "Stock is the main way I use bones in our kitchen," says Snyder.
For home cooks, beef, chicken, and fish stock are the varieties that most immediately come to mind. But for chefs, there's more variety.
"Pork stock is awesome," says Snyder. "You should hear about it more. We have a whole hog we're breaking down right now, so of course, using the whole animal is important. I make pork stock, then braise some of the cuts of the pork in the stock. It's all about getting the maximum amount of flavor out of each bite."
Raitt promotes the virtues of veal demiglace, a highly flavorful sauce base made by reducing veal stock down to a pastelike texture. "It's a three-day process," Raitt says. "The more you reduce, the more the marrow's natural gelatin thickens the sauce. The demiglace is the base of nearly every sauce we use."
Home cooks without access to whole hogs, or the means to simmer stock for three days, might want to start with something simpler. "The easiest and quickest bone usage for a home cook would be brown cooking stock," says Raitt.