In a previous post, I talked about the virtues of saving what you’d normally throw in the trash after eating a rotisserie chicken or a rack of ribs—the bones—and how some water and seasonings can effect the sea-change that transforms them into a better stock than you’d ever buy at the store. Larger bones also yield a decadent substance that deserves to be put on a pedestal all its own: marrow. Indeed, the late, great Anthony Bourdain once declared that if he had to have one last meal on earth, it would be “roast bone marrow…with a few slices of baguette and some good sea salt.”
I’ve never tried marrow, you might say. I implore: Why not? Its culinary appeal has been established across time and throughout the world’s cultures. Some anthropologists believe that marrow would have been a rich source of nutrients to early, tool-using hominids. There are numerous recipes for it in medieval western cookery books, ranging from cabbage boiled with “Mary-bones” (“marrow-bones”), to savory meat pies that “ley þin marew þer-in” (“lay the marrow therein”) with other meats or cheeses. Or even—more surprising to today’s palate—sweet pies that combine the buttery goodness of “faire Mary” with custard and fruits. Its presence in these proto-cook books attests to its prestige, since such manuscripts were written for and reflective of the households of the elite. Moreover, the large game, cattle, and the like whose bones contain the marrow were a luxury that rarely graced the tables of the lower classes in the Middle Ages. It was apparently no less revered by the 19th century, as Queen Victoria “reputedly spooned up roasted bone marrow every day of her life.” It was similarly valued in many cultures and continues to maintain its eminence today: marrow is at the heart of Vietnamese pho, of Italian ossobuco, and is served on toasted bread as a traditional accompaniment to the French pot-au-feu. So while many Americans would overlook the marrowbone at the grocery store and never think to ask for it at the butcher’s, casting it off as trash, this is an edible that commands veneration.
As for myself, the first time I tried marrow I was attending a slightly off-color, tightly packed literary salon that took place monthly on the upper floor of a restaurant in Philadelphia. A waiter brought up our drinks and a plate of crostini spread with marrow and a dash of sea salt, placed it on the tiny table, wordlessly, eyes downcast, as the poet at the mic spoke of unspeakable acts in the form of a villanelle. Perhaps that’s why my first bite of marrow was married in my mind with wantonness, something buttery and fatty and salty slathered on a piece of crusty bread that most people would turn their noses up at, but which I couldn’t stop eating. Here was the carnal and the rapturous in one bite. Really. Now, when we’re at our local grocery store and we see the rare “marrowbones” pop up in the meat section, my fiancé and I exchange a look. We’ve been good. We haven’t had this in a while. Let’s treat ourselves. For us this, not cake, not ice cream, is our treat for ourselves, our venial sin.
The following recipe is super simple and intimate in that it allows you to spread as much or as little marrow on the crostini as you like, to finish with a sprinkle of sea salt and fresh cracked pepper. Devour and repeat with vigor.
Note: We often find two very different cuts of marrowbones at the store. Some are squat and thick, some are longer and a little thinner. The cooking time should be the same in theory, but we often find that the marrow at the middle of the longer bones needs a bit more time, so just be aware.
Roasted Marrow Crostini
8-12 beef bones cut to expose marrow (“marrowbones”)
1 baguette, sliced on the bias into thin crostini
Fresh cracked pepper
Preheat the oven to 425F. Rub the exposed marrow generously with salt and pepper and place (wider side down) on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Roast until marrow is golden brown (or even a bit dark), and is bubbling and pulling away from the bone slightly; the bones should have also taken on color from the roasting. This will take about 15-20 minutes. Check that the marrow is cooked enough at the center by scooping it from the bone with a chopstick and seeing if it’s still pink at all—if it is, keep cooking. Allow the bones to cool just enough to handle.
While the bones are cooling, lightly toast the slices of baguette, then pile them onto a plate.
Hold the bones in one hand and use the other to scoop out the marrow with a chopstick (if the bone is wide enough, you may only need to use a spoon); place in a small bowl and stir so that the mixture is homogenous. Serve by spreading onto a crostini and sprinkling with sea salt and fresh cracked pepper. You could also consider cutting a lemon and using a splash of the fresh juice to cut the richness of the marrow.
Don’t forget to reserve those roasted bones to make stock
. Bruce Bower, “Hunting ancient scavengers—some anthropologists say early humans were scavengers, not hunters,” Science News. 9 March 1985.