When I hang out with other chefs, as a conversation starter, I'll often ask them what's their favorite thing to eat, or what they'd choose for their last meal. One would expect the responses to be something complex, and, well... cheffy. Surprisingly, often the answers trend toward simple dishes. My current boss, Chef Sean Brock, says his favorite thing to eat is a good cheeseburger. My former boss, Gavin Kaysen of Spoon and Stable, admitted that his guilty pleasure food is a Rice Krispie bar. For Thomas Keller of The French Laundry, it's a simple roast chicken. For me, it's a smear of roasted beef bone marrow on a slice of toasted bread with a side of parsley salad.
There are few foods more decadent than beef bone marrow. Bone marrow is the soft fatty substance inside of long bones, such as the femur, the most marrow-rich bone in a cow's body. It has a delicate, slightly sweet, nutty flavor. Bone marrow is high in fat and protein and is extremely rich. Whenever I eat bone marrow on toasted bread, I can't help but think that it's the best thing I've ever eaten. Fossil records suggest that early man smashed the bones of their prey to get to it, and animals often go for the marrow before anything else.
The first time I tried bone marrow was about 15 years ago at Blue Ribbon Brasserie in New York City. Blue Ribbon is a tiny, always-crowded restaurant open until 4 a.m. It was a place where you could enjoy a late-night meal after an evening out, and spot celebrities like Jerry Seinfeld, Mariah Carey, Mick Jagger and Bill Clinton. It was also a popular after-hours hangout for chefs wanting to unwind after their own restaurants closed. In his early days, before his fall, Mario Batali was a late-night regular at the bar.
Because it was patronized by so many chefs, the Blue Ribbon Brasserie's menu could afford to be adventurous, and the restaurant developed a cult following. Their Beef Marrow with Oxtail Marmalade became a classic. Blue Ribbon's owner said: "Every notable chef for the last 20 however many years has come to the Blue Ribbon and eaten this dish." The dish consists of three or four two-inch cross-cut sections of center-cut beef marrow bones topped with fried parsley, served with toasted bread, and oxtail marmalade, a thick and sweet condiment made with reduced port wine. You carefully scoop out the rich, softer-than-butter marrow, spread it on a piece of toast, and top it with a dollop of the marmalade.
Across the ocean in London, Fergus Henderson's St. James Restaurant opened around the same time as Blue Ribbon, and roasted bone marrow with a parsley caper salad became his signature dish. Like foie gras, which is also buttery, soft and fatty, bone marrow benefits from being paired with something acidic and salty. Henderson seasons his with coarse sea salt and serves it with parsley and caper salad to balance the richness. The late Anthony Bourdain once said, for his last bite before the grave, he would like to dine alone and eat only roast bone marrow with some parsley and caper salad at St. James.
Bone marrow has long been a part of many classic European dishes. Bone marrow is a main ingredient in Italian osso buco (braised veal shanks) and is often found in French pot-au-feu broth. In the 17th and 18th centuries, specially designed marrow spoons were used to scoop marrow from the bones. Bone marrow fell out of fashion most of the last century, mostly due to peoples' concerns about eating fat. These concerns were exaggerated: bone marrow is mostly unsaturated fat and contains many beneficial nutrients.
Marrow bones used to be inexpensive when they were sold as dog treats or for making stock. Now that bone marrow has become trendy, prices have gone up a bit, but are still affordable. For the recipes that follow, you want to obtain uniform pieces cut from the center of the femur. These sections can be cut crosswise into two-inch or three-inch segments or cut in half lengthwise into "boats."
For something so rich and delicious, marrow bones are surprisingly quick and easy to cook. They can be gently poached or simply roasted in the oven. When roasted, bone marrow takes on a slight nuttiness. To add a little smoky flavor, the bones can be wrapped in foil and cooked over a hot barbecue.
For a more elegant presentation, if you plan, soaking the bones in cold salted water overnight or for a couple of days removes any blood and bleaches out the bones. Put the bones in a bowl and make enough brine (1 tablespoon kosher salt to each cup of water) to totally cover. Place in your refrigerator and change out the brine three times to achieve the cleanest bones.
How to cook beef marrow bones
Method 1: Poached
This is my preferred method for cooking cross-cut marrow bones.
Rinse the bones and place them upright in a large saucepan. Cover with water and over medium heat, bring to a gentle simmer. Do not let the water come to a boil or the marrow will melt out of the bones. Periodically check the cooking progress by inserting a thin knife or cake tester into the center of the marrow, then remove and touch it to the inside of your wrist or lip. When the tester feels warm, remove and drain the bones.
Method 2: Roasted
This is my preferred method for cooking marrow bones that were halved lengthwise into "boats."
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Place the bones cut side up into a baking pan or sheet-tray. Roast for about 20 minutes, checking periodically. When fully cooked, the marrow should be "wobbly." If you overcook, the marrow will melt away.
Serve the marrow bones with grilled or toasted bread. Toasting or grilling your bread will keep the marrow from soaking through. Sprinkle the bones with a flaky sea salt such as Maldon. The flaky salt crystals will not dissolve as quickly as fine salt and will retain a nice crunch. Pair with something acidic to balance out the richness of the marrow. I like to serve them with a simple parsley salad.
Stem and chop a cupful of parsley. Thinly slice one or two shallots, depending on their size. Zest and juice a lemon. Combine the parsley with the shallots and lemon zest. Throw in a tablespoon of drained capers if you have them. Add two tablespoons of good-quality olive oil and one tablespoon of the lemon juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and more lemon juice, if needed.