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.
Cooking with bones is as old as cooking itself. In the "appetizers and snacks" section of "Le Guide Culinaire," published in 1903, the famed French chef Auguste Escoffier included a simple recipe for grilled sirloin bones: "Sprinkle them with cayenne," he advised. "Coat them with mustard, and grill them."
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.
Chefs agree that stock is an important element of good home cooking and that it is fairly simple to make, but they differ on the details.
Keefer recommends roasting the bones lightly before cooking and simmering the stock for only 45 minutes. Snyder, on the other hand, recommends a deeper roast, and Raitt suggests simmering for two or three hours.
All three add mirepoix — diced carrots, celery and onions — to the stock before it cooks. And they say that confident cooks can experiment with cooking times and the addition of wine and herbs to the mix.
No matter the final technique, good stock is the foundation of many delicious and nutrient-rich meals. Keefer says, "It's healthy and nice to know that you're in control of what's in your cooking and what's going into your body."
In Baltimore, home cooks can often find bones at low prices, or for free, at local butcher shops. Matthew Daly, the corporate manager of Ceriello Fine Foods in Belvedere Square, recommends calling the shop a few days before making the stock to make sure he has bones on hand.
"You should never show up the day you need them," he warns. "Your butcher might not have them. Call three to four days beforehand, so they're ready for you."
Helpful advice, when the pantry is fresh out of bones for the caldron.
Basic chicken stock with star anise
Birroteca chef de cuisine Cyrus Keefer compares making great stock to making tea, saying the focus should be on extracting as much flavor as possible from the bones without muddying up the works with additional ingredients.
"Stocks are very simple," he says. "Some chefs get a bit crazy and overwhelm stocks with too many ingredients. I think the more you put in with the bones, the more away from the actual flavor of the bones you get."
He recommends a simple combination of bones, mirepoix (celery, onion, carrots), and star anise. Keefer also suggests seasoning the stock with salt throughout the cooking process "to build the flavor while the cooking is in progress."
Makes: approximately 2 quarts of stock
5 pounds chicken bones
2 medium onions, roughly chopped
4 celery stalks, roughly chopped
3 carrots, cleaned and roughly chopped
3 star anise pods
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Clean the chicken bones, leaving as little meat on them as possible. Place them on a baking sheet or in a roasting pan, in one layer. Roast for about 45 minutes or until the bones are golden brown.
For a lighter stock, reduce roasting time.
Place the bones, vegetables and star anise in a large stock pot. Add water until the pot's contents are covered.
Slowly bring the water to a boil, then turn down to low heat. Let the stock simmer, uncovered, over very low heat for 45 minutes to one hour (see note), occasionally skimming the froth or foam that comes to the surface.
Taste and lightly season with salt at several points while cooking. Be careful not to overseason — adjust the salt to your personal preference.
After removing the stock from the heat, let cool for 30 minutes to one hour. Remove the chicken bones, vegetables, and star anise, and discard.
Strain the stock through a fine sieve, discarding any solids remaining.
Cool the stock in the refrigerator overnight to allow fat to rise to the surface. Skim the fat before freezing.
The stock will last for two to three months in the freezer.
Note: Keefer recommends only one hour of simmering time for smaller batches of stock, explaining that cooking for too long will result in a stock that's "cloudy and muddy." However, larger batches of stock require more time simmering.
Every stock is different, and every chef — whether cooking at home or in a grand restaurant kitchen — has personal preferences. To get the most out of homemade stock, consider these suggestions:
•Clean up. "Clean as much meat as you can off the bones," says Clementine's Jill Snyder. It will make roasting easier.
•Roast first. Roasting the bones before covering them with water to simmer will bring out their flavor and add depth to the stock. The longer the roast, the richer the flavor.
•Use the bits. Oft-forgotten pieces like chicken feet and pig knuckles add flavor and nutrients to stock.
•Experiment with liquids. Try adding wine or small amounts of vinegar to amp up the flavor and nutritional value. According to Mercy Medical Center dietitian Kelly O'Connor, "Adding a small amount of an acidic agent, such as apple cider vinegar, helps bring the minerals out of the bone."
•Play with spices and seasonings. Try adding different spices to the mix — garlic, bay leaves, star anise and other dried herbs will subtly shift stock's flavor. Experiment with salt, as well, adding it early in the process or later.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun