Cook with bones for flavor, economy, ease

NewsdayNovember 8, 2012 

  • Cooking bones couldn't be easier

    Bones are scary if you've never cooked with them, but once you've done it, you'll see there is nothing to be afraid of.

    1. Read your recipe carefully and note how the bones need to be cut. Then head to the butcher. Most oxtail soup recipes call for lengths of 2 to 3 inches. Sometimes, short ribs are cut into shorter or longer lengths. Unless you have a bone saw in a kitchen drawer, you will want your butcher to do the cutting. Ideally, all pieces should be about the same size so they cook at the same rate. Bones freeze well, so if you visit the butcher only occasionally you might want to pick up some short ribs with your veal shanks and freeze them for a cold and rainy day.

    2. Take a few minutes before fixing and forgetting your short ribs, osso buco or oxtail soup to brown the meat. The caramelization that occurs during this extra step will add yet another layer of flavor to your dish.

    3. When cooking bones, low and slow in a moist environment is the rule. The collagen that holds together the muscle fibers in the meat surrounding bones is extremely tough. When it is cooked to a temperature of 160 degrees it begins to dissolve, rendering the meat tender. But the only way to get the internal temperature of your meat to 160 without drying it out is to simmer gently in liquid. Eventually, the meat will get hot enough to fall apart but also will stay moist as it bathes in the sauce as well as its own melted collagen and fat.

    To test how done the bones are, gently insert a sharp paring knife into the meat at a few points. If it slides in very easily, it is done. If the meat is still tough in parts, let it cook 30 more minutes and check again.

    4. If you'd like to store your cooked bones overnight before serving, separate the meat and sauce into two containers. Skim the solidified fat from the sauce an hour before you want to eat, transfer the meat on the bone to a baking dish and top with the sauce, cover with heavy-duty foil, and reheat at 325 degrees until the meat is warmed through and the sauce is gently bubbling, about 45 minutes.

Children might think fall is a great time because of crunchy leaves. But for cooks, osso buco comes to mind. This is a great time of year to cook with bones. Rich, meaty dishes such as braised short ribs and oxtail soup warm up the kitchen on the chilly nights of November and December.

Consider cooking up a cauldron of short ribs, veal shanks or oxtails for reasons of flavor, economy and ease.

Bones add flavor to braised meat dishes: As bone-in cuts slowly cook in water or wine, bone marrow melts into the braising liquid, giving it exquisite flavor. Collagen, the connective tissue between muscle fibers, breaks down, thickening and enriching a soup or sauce.

Bones are a bargain: Cuts such as short ribs and oxtail cost no more for a pound than stew meat and deliver rich returns in flavor. Veal shanks cost a little more, but compared to other dinner party-worthy items such as filet mignon and rack of lamb, they're a bargain if you want to serve an impressive and meaty dish on a budget.

It's hard to overcook a short rib: One of the reasons that short ribs, oxtails and other bone-in meats are relatively inexpensive is that they contain a lot of connective tissue, which makes them tough unless they are cooked for a long time. You can't just throw a lamb shank on the grill. But long cooking time doesn't have to be a negative. Once you've put together your braise, you can forget about it for a few hours. And if you let your short ribs or osso buco go an extra half an hour because you're on the phone or folding laundry, there will be no harm done.

Bones can be braised in advance: Most recipes made with braised bone-in meat taste even better the next day, as flavors meld overnight. Another advantage to refrigerating your dish and reheating it: Excess fat rises to the surface and solidifies, making degreasing a breeze. Just discard the fat, reheat and serve.

RECIPES

Serve these meltingly tender short ribs in their flavorful sauce over soft polenta, rice or egg noodles.

Short ribs braised in coffee

3 pounds (3-inch-long) short ribs

Salt

Ground black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large yellow onion, finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 large chipotle chili in adobo, finely chopped

1 cup strong brewed coffee

1 cup dry red wine

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Sprinkle short ribs with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add ribs and brown on both sides, turning once, about 8 minutes total. Transfer to plate and discard all but 2 tablespoons grease from pot.

Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and chili and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add coffee and wine and bring to a boil, stirring up brown bits from bottom of pot.

Stir in oregano. Return ribs to pot. Cover and place in oven until tender and falling off bone, about 2½ hours. Remove ribs from pot and cover with foil to keep warm. Degrease sauce, season with salt and pepper, pour over ribs and serve.

Makes 4 servings.


For this osso buco recipe, place the shanks bone-side up so the marrow will stay put, and you can enjoy it along with the meat at dinner.

Osso buco with white beans

4 (10-ounce) crosscut veal shanks, tied with butcher's twine

Salt

Ground black pepper

½ cup flour

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

2 yellow onions, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes

1 cup dry white wine

1 cup water

2 bay leaves

1 sprig fresh rosemary

2 (14-ounce) cans cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil leaves

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Sprinkle veal shanks with salt and pepper. Dredge in flour. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Brown shanks until golden on both sides, about 8 minutes total. Transfer to a plate.

Lower heat to medium. Put remaining olive oil in pan. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Stir in tomatoes, wine, water, bay leaves and rosemary, and bring to a boil, stirring up brown bits from bottom of pot. Place veal shanks on top of liquid, making sure bone is facing up so marrow doesn't drain out during cooking. Cover and place in oven until tender and falling off bone, about 2½ hours.

Remove shanks from pot and cover with foil to keep warm. Stir beans into sauce and heat through. Season with salt and pepper.

Spoon bean mixture into 4 shallow soup bowls. Place a veal shank on top of each portion. Sprinkle with basil and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.


Oxtail and barley soup

2 pounds oxtails, cut into 1-inch pieces, rinsed and patted dry

Salt

Ground black pepper

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

2 ribs celery, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 cup red wine

10 cups water

1 cup pearl barley

4 carrots, peeled and cut into ½ -inch pieces

1 bay leaf

3 sprigs thyme

Sprinkle oxtails with salt and pepper. Heat olive oil over medium-high heat in large Dutch oven and brown oxtails on all sides, 8 minutes total. Transfer to plate and discard all but 2 tablespoons fat.

Add onion, celery and garlic to pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in tomato paste and cook another minute. Add wine to pot, bring to a boil and scrape up any browned bits.

Return oxtails to pan along with water, bring to a simmer and skim off any foam that rises to surface. Add barley, carrots, bay leaf and thyme, cover, reduce heat and simmer until meat and barley are tender, about 1 hour. Remove meat from bones and return to soup. Season with salt and pepper. Makes 8 servings.

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