Originally published Oct. 28, 2007
By Greg Atkinson, former Taste contributor
“WHAT,” DEMANDED MY college roommate Ty, “is the purpose of a fruit without seeds?” The offending seedless orange that prompted this outburst was held up like evidence in a courtroom.
“It has no purpose!” he cried. A 6-foot-4 presence as eloquent as he was indignant, Ty was on a roll.
“Without seeds, a piece of fruit is meaningless! Fruit is not here for our amusement; it’s about reproduction! Seedless oranges! Unfertilized eggs! Soda pop without sugar! Our food is a symbol of everything that’s wrong with America!”
That was in 1976, and we were attending a small liberal-arts college in New England. Our cooperative kitchen was meatless, so I can only guess that Ty’s sentiments on a boneless piece of, say, chicken, might roughly parallel his thoughts about seedless fruit. But thanks to a book called “Bones: Recipes, History, & Lore,” I know exactly what Australian-born chef and food writer Jennifer McLagan has to say on the matter. “The connection between flesh and bone,” she writes, “is primordial and fundamental. Yet today, bones have fallen out of favor.” Like seeds, they have been relegated to the waste bin in favor of relatively flavorless boneless cuts that are “easy to cook.”
But judging from the response her book received at a conference hosted by the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) in Seattle last year, I think it’s safe to say that food professionals are pretty much in accord on this one. Bones are good.
At the book fair associated with the IACP conference, attendees crowded around “Bones” the way theatergoers recently flocked to Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” when the new Broadway-bound musical got a test run in Seattle. And come to think of it, some of the fascination might have come from the same place. Like Frankenstein’s monster, bones are a little scary, but just as Brooks used old horror movies as a starting point for something deliciously funny, so McLagan used bones as a starting point for something just plain delicious.
By taking familiar classics and tweaking them just a bit, McLagan creates new classics that seem at once familiar and cutting edge. She braises short ribs in wine and balsamic vinegar, and osso bucco becomes new again with fennel and blood oranges. Oxtail is roasted with root vegetables in one recipe and braised with a Chinese anise- and soy-flavored sauce in another. And I want to make the apricot-and-mango-glazed ham, just to save the bone so I can fix the split pea soup with chestnuts.
McLagan’s collection strikes an easy balance between dishes challenging enough to attract the adventurous eater and delectable enough to tempt the timid. In the poultry chapter, there’s a poached chicken with seasonal vegetables that would be elegant enough for company and friendly enough for school-age kids. Too tame? How about Grilled Quail with Sage Butter?
Fish have bones, too. Whole fish are fried, grilled and wrapped in parchment. A whole sea bass is baked in a salt crust. Sardines get their moment in the sun. And the woman’s clearly wild about game. Recipes for venison and boar abound. Just reading her recipe for Rabbit in Saffron Sauce with Spring Vegetables sent me back to the drawing board on a menu I already had submitted to a client who wanted a birthday dinner for a friend. I braised the rabbit with autumn vegetables and, needless to say, the bones were all there.
Overnight Tamarind, Pineapple and Chili-Glazed Ribs
Any book about cooking with bones had better have a good formula for ribs, and this books does. With a flavor profile reminiscent of Southeast Asian dishes, these ribs get marinated overnight. But once they’ve had their soak, it’s easy to bake these succulent ribs for a casual Halloween supper.
2 racks wild boar or pork ribs
1 ancho chili pepper, stemmed, quartered and seeded
1 tablespoon tamarind pulp (see note)
½ cup boiling water
¾ cup pineapple juice
2 tablespoons brown sugar
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1. Pat the ribs dry, and set them in a shallow baking dish; set aside. Place the chili and the tamarind pulp in a small bowl, pour in ½ cup boiling water and let them soak for 30 minutes.
2. Transfer the chili from the bowl to a blender. Add the pineapple juice, brown sugar and kosher salt. Use your fingers to mash the tamarind pulp into the water, discard the seeds, and add the pulp and water mixture to the blender. Blend until smooth to make about 1 cup of sauce.
3. Strain the sauce through a sieve, then pour it over the ribs. Turn the ribs to coat them evenly with the sauce. Cover the baking dish, and refrigerate the ribs for several hours, preferably overnight.
4. One hour before baking the ribs, take them out of the refrigerator and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
5. Turn the ribs flesh-side-up, cover the pan with baker’s parchment and aluminum foil, and bake the ribs for 30 minutes. Taking care to avoid a steam burn, uncover the ribs and turn them over. Re-cover the ribs, and bake for 30 minutes more. The ribs should be cooked by now. The bones will be exposed and somewhat loose. If not, bake another 10 or 15 minutes.
6. Increase the oven temperature to 450 degrees. Uncover the ribs, and bake for 10 minutes more, basting 3 or 4 times with the pan juices until the ribs are well-glazed and browned.
Note: Tamarind pulp with seeds is sold in blocks in Asian supermarkets. Some stores specializing in Southeast Asian ingredients sell presoaked and strained tamarind puree, which may be used in place of the tamarind pulp and boiling water. If no tamarind can be found, use a tablespoon of lime juice instead.
— Adapted from “Bones: Recipes, History, & Lore,” by Jennifer McLagan