Thursday, April 30, 2009

Pork Belly: It's Worth the H1N1

Times are bleak for our slobbery friend, the pig. He just wanted to roll around in some mud, eat a little hay, and, if Babe was accurate, herd a few sheep. He had no intentions of scaring us with a global flu pandemic. But he stands accused of just that.

Revenge against the pig has been swift. Wall Street analysts predict a sharp decline in pork sales. And that would be tame compared to the response in Egypt, where the government ordered every pig in the country slaughtered and burned.

If pigs could do more than oink, I think they would make some sound arguments in their own defense. They’d note that people can’t get swine flu from eating properly cooked pork. In fact, there’s no evidence that people who’ve become sick had any contact with pigs at all.

I would add that I’ve eaten a lot of pork belly over the past month. My strong sense is that I don’t have acute febrile respiratory illness.

If you’re still thinking about swearing off pork, you should consider just how delicious the last month has been.

1. David Chang’s Tonkotsu Soup

About a month ago, I discovered pork belly by accident at David Chang’s Ippudo. I’d read an interview in which Chang, apparently suffering from some self-esteem issues, said that his restaurant serves “crappy pan-Asian ramen made for round-eyes.” As luck would have it, I’m in his target audience, so I figured Ippudo’s popular tonkotsu soup was perfect for me. And I was right, but not because of the noodles, which were average, or even the ramen broth, an excellent emulsion of pure pork and pork fat. What hogged my attention was the pork belly.

I’d never had pork belly before, and my inexperience showed. From the menu, I knew that the soup was supposed to include pork belly. But when I searched with my chopsticks, all I saw were noodles, a few vegetables, and some brownish slabs that I didn’t recognize. It wasn’t until after I demanded a complementary side of pork belly that I identified the slabs: pork belly. I could almost see David Chang in the kitchen, rolling his slanted eyes at my round-eyed ignorance.

So my mistake didn’t earn me any cool points with Chang, but once I tasted the pork belly, I didn’t care. It comes from the pig’s underside, but unlike bacon, they don't cure or smoke it. Instead, it’s usually chopped into thick, square bites and braised in a liquid that ranges from a seasoned stock to soy sauce. Chang’s preparation was precise: slow-cooked to render out just enough fat, so each piece was meaty, but also slightly buttery. At the beginning of the heating process, he’d blasted it to give the surface a crispy, bacon-like crunch. Finally, his braising stock was sweet and smoky. And because of the extra side, multiply all of the above times two.

Egypt, go ahead and slaughter your pigs if you want, but do New York a favor and send them to David Chang.

2. Zac Palaccio’s Pork Belly Sandwiches

It should come as no surprise that when I woke up the next day with my stomach growling, my first thoughts were of pork belly.

I only had to wait until the following weekend for my next taste, but it wasn’t as good. I was in the Meatpacking District at Zac Palaccio’s Malaysian restaurant, Fatty Crab. Vogue calls Zac’s pork belly sandwich a “witty nod to British colonialism.” In other words, they’re tea sandwiches.

But Vogue also says that this dish features an “unctuous chunk of pork belly.” Maybe I took a wrong turn and end up at Skinny Crab? The layers of pork weren’t just thin, they were barely visible, a light streak of white between the grains. I get angry when restaurants try to make the strange textures of novelty foods more palatable to customers by hiding them in bread. And I’m talking to you, Bromberg brothers.

3. Red Cooking with Cheong Liew

I was on the bus back from New York to DC, wondering how I could pursue my passion for Chang’s pork belly with his restaurant over 400 miles away. Like so often when life throws a problem my way, I received guidance and inspiration from OK Magazine. One article offered evidence that Oprah smokes crack to get ready for her show. Her ex-boyfriend says that he used to cook it for her, but when he wasn’t around to provide culinary guidance, she had to learn how to do it on her own.

I found strength in her story and decided I would find a way to reproduce Chang’s pork belly myself. If I could pull it off, my high would be just as exhilarating as Oprah’s.

Like all great chefs, Chang only uses the best ingredients, so my first objective was to get a high-quality cut of pork. I thought about Berkshire, an heirloom breed that offers a cleaner flavor than the typical supermarket pork. But when I asked for Berkshire at Wagshal’s Market, the manager, Pam, examined me with contempt.

“Everyone wants Berkshire,” she growled. “Well, let me tell you something: we’ve tried out pigs from all over the world, from as far away as Spain, including Berkshire.” After years of sampling different suppliers, Wagshal’s eventually concluded that the best-tasting pork came from a small, private farm in Iowa. “The breed doesn’t matter,” Pam said. “It’s all about how you treat the animal.”

The result? Wagshal’s moves 300 pounds of pork belly per month.

Back home with some freshly purchased Sioux City Swine, I wondered about Chang’s cooking methods. I searched pork belly recipes online for hours, but none of them seemed capable of replicating Chang’s masterpiece. Then, I was flipping through my copy of Fat, Jennifer McLagan’s book about “a misunderstood ingredient,” when my eyes fixed on a picture of glistening, reddish-brown, spice-flecked pieces of pork. My pulse quickened. 400 miles felt like four feet. I was back at Ippudo.

I learned with some disappointment that McLagan had borrowed the recipe from Cheong Liew (in foreground, below), not Chang. But then I read that Food & Wine Magazine had chosen Liew one of the “ten hottest chefs alive” – a list Chang probably wasn’t even considered for.

Per Liew’s directions, I marinated the pork with tangerine zest, cinnamon sticks, sliced ginger, and star anise. I browned the meat in lard and then started to braise. Liew’s technique is called “red cooking” because the braising liquid is soy sauce, which gives the meat a dark, red-brown color.

I took my first bite and thought about Christmas in the 1980s. Being a Jew, when I was a kid my family would always go out for Chinese food on Christmas day. Being a bad Jew, I would always order the spare ribs.

That this dish reminded me of the inexpensive cut of breastbone used by a mediocre Chinese restaurant in Nashville doesn’t say much about Wagshal’s Iowa connection. I don’t suggest changing the state slogan to “We Do Amazing Things with Pigs.” And it tasted nothing like Chang’s version: the zest gave the pork belly a distinct, tangy quality. Next time, Pam’s getting me some Berkshire. But Liew’s braising process did make the fatty streaks rich and succulent, and I thank the pig farmers of Iowa for the childhood memories.

4. Korean Pork Belly

After taking down three pounds of Wagshal’s pork belly, I thought it was a good idea to have a week off before pigging out on Berkshire.

But this past weekend I was at Nam Kang, a Korean restaurant in Baltimore, and my friend Erin and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get their grilled pork belly. Erin is a grill master, but I was still happy that the waitress hung around our table to helm the portable stove as the pork sizzled. The last time I worked the grill at a Korean restaurant, I received an angry lecture in Korean when a short rib caught on fire.

Koreans like their pork belly sliced thin, so it looked a lot like bacon as the waitress finished the cooking process and scraped the crackling meat from the grill. But the pieces weren’t cured or smoked, and my eating companions found them to be too bland. I was the exception; Korea’s perspective on pork belly worked for me. Following the Korean custom, I happily piled the meat onto lettuce leaves along with chopped garlic and jalapeno pepper, over which I drizzled bean paste (daenjang) and a salty sesame oil sauce. It was interesting to think that the first time David Chang, who is Korean, had pork belly, it probably looked just like this – and yet, the version that he now serves in his restaurant bears almost no resemblance.

As a side note, I enjoyed watching my friend Dave attack Korean comfort food with the same aggression he used to show during college. Living in Manhattan, he’s had many fine dining experiences since his undergrad years, and I wondered whether bim bim bap would still meet his standards for excellence. The action shot below answers that question. His head is blurry from attacking the plate with such force.

Hopefully you won’t let a little thing like the onset of a global pandemic get in between you and the delicious pork belly experiences I’ve described above.
And hopefully, health officials won't tell us to stop eating pork. Then again, if grocery stores suddently go hogless, other belly options still exist. At just $42 per pound, tuna belly might be the next big thing.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Dining with Real Estate Moguls: New American / Indian Cuisine at Eletarria

We humans don’t like our food to surprise us. Deciding to put something in your mouth is a big commitment, and we want to know just what we’re getting ourselves into.

This idea was recently supported by scientists in the Netherlands. They told research subjects that they were about to feed them one type of food, and then surprised them with another. The subjects reported feelings of fear, anger, and even depression (the Netherlanders, apparently, are a fragile people).

But an evening at Elettaria in Greenwich Village this past weekend proved that culinary surprises don’t have to be sour. The evening was full of the unexpected:

No Robo Waiter

Elettaria had been recommended to us by one of my dad’s old fraternity brothers - currently a commercial real estate mogul in New York. We were interested to see what type of restaurant satisfies a mogul’s appetite for excess. I pictured ornate mosaic marble floors, Versace tableware, and baby grand pianos. Maybe my own cyborg waiter named Jose.

Instead, Elettaria was furtively located behind a red painted door among a jumble of knickknack shops and seedy shoe stores. The interior was more grunge than grandiose, with a big bar towards the entrance, a mysterious staircase that ended abruptly at the ceiling, and a softly glowing, lounge-style eating area. The space used to be a nightclub, and the kitchen is reputedly located at the same spot where Jimi Hendrix played his guitar.

And the prices were actually reasonable. Was this the mogul's favorite place before or after the economy crashed?

Bombay Meets the Bible Belt

Elettaria describes its cuisine as New American, but most of their dishes use at least one element taken from Indian cooking. For example, the pork ribs are dressed with garam massala and drizzled with pureed lychee, and they sprinkle cardamom on the duck. Makes sense, then, that chef/co-owner Akhtar Nawab (below) is of Indian descent.

The surprise came as we were waiting for our table, when the hostess overheard me talking about my childhood and chimed in that Nawab also grew up southern, in Louisville. Nawab would probably be just as surprised to hear about me, the Jew from Nashville. In any case, I wonder how much he cherishes his dixieland heritage, considering that his menu is free of southern accents. I recently read an interview in which Nawab said that, when he was a kid, his mom cooked only Indian. For Thanksgiving, they made Tandoori-style Cornish game hens.

But to be fair, he does have a drink at the bar called “Kentucky Firing Squad.”

The Foodie Gives the M.D. an Anatomy Lesson

Compared to the entrées, the non-trées/appetizers looked more adventurous to me. I ordered sea urchin and curried rabbit, but the non-trée that sparked the most interest at our table was my sweetbreads. By interest, I don’t mean that anyone was actually willing to try it. I mean morbid fascination that I would eat something as weird as that.

The question soon came up: what exactly are sweetbreads? Mark and I sang out a duet that sounded something like “brart,” – he said brain, and I said heart.

Cue that whistle-y music from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” The foodie and the doctor were about to go pistols at 40 paces over who knew more about anatomy (of a cow, admittedly). His credentials: med school, residency, and over twenty years of medical practice. Mine: I hang out at butcher shops. The rest of the table sized us up and put their money on the doctor.

Well, foodies, put those hands together, because I took it home. Instead of settling the dispute with a gunfight, we asked Mark’s wife, Wendy, to research the question on her blackberry. Neither of us was exactly right, but I was closer. There are two kinds of sweetbreads: stomach sweetbreads – also known as heart sweetbreads – which are an animal’s pancreas, and neck sweetbreads, an animal’s thymus gland. The heart sweetbreads are favored for their delicate flavor and texture.

Everyone was impressed by my sort of accurate answer. I felt smart for about ten seconds before receiving a flood of questions about every other unfamiliar term on the menu. I was shrugging like Atlas. Tatin? Kalonji? Didn’t see any of those at the butcher shop.

No Bone to Pick

The menu had described the sweetbreads (picture, below) dish as “risotto, bone marrow, and szechuan pepper.” I’m new to bone marrow and still in my honeymoon phase, so you can imagine how excited I was to tickle the ivories with an Indian twist.

But the dish arrived bare bones – just the risotto, sweetbreads, and pepper. I realized that this was a Milanese risotto. To make it, a chef scoops out the marrow and chucks the bone. He adds the marrow to butter and then uses this mixture to coat the rice before covering with wine and saffron. I’ve had this kind of risotto with osso bucco and enjoy it, but I’d been looking forward to scooping the marrow from the bone and savoring its oozy fattiness straight-up.

I was depressed like a research subject in the Netherlands. But the surprise turned sweet when I noticed how well the sweetbreads paired with the risotto. In one sense, it was enjoyable because of the flavor contrast: the tang of the risotto was a good complement to the unctuous sweetbreads. What’s more, the sweetbreads actually reminded me a lot of bone marrow – both are rich and creamy, reminiscent of butter. So I drew a parallel between this dish and osso bucco, which, afterall, is bone marrow with Milanese risotto. Did these very similar Italian classics develop independently, or did one inspire the other?

Authentically Ignoring Indian Food

Mark, the doctor, is from Nashville, where opportunities for authentic Indian food are few and far between, if not fewer. We misunderstood Elettaria to be an Indian place, and so on the way to the restaurant we got Mark’s hopes up. After he read the American-influenced menu, he looked upset, like he’d just lost an anatomy quiz to a foodie.

He found some solace that there was at least one authentic Indian dish on the menu: saag paneer, which he ordered. The paneer was spinach, and the saag was sheep’s milk ricotta.

But Mark was in for another surprise. Initially resentful of Wendy's non-Indian halibut with Israeli couscous and squid ink, by the end of the meal his napkin was black and he was leaning away from the saag, hovering over his wife’s plate.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Interview with Jose Andres and Wylie Dufresne, Part 1

Are Americans too conservative to appreciate innovative cooking?

If so, the line waiting to see avant-garde chefs Jose Andres and Wylie Dufresne was no indication. It spilled out the back of the National Museum of Natural History and spanned forty people.

I joined the tail and scanned the crowd. The Embassy of Spain was sponsoring the event, so were these people Spanish nationalists or food celebrity stalkers like me? Their bellies didn’t seem big enough to be foodies. On the other hand, they enthusiastically spread rumors that the event would include a cooking demonstration and tastings.

As I was ushered into a crowded auditorium, the evening’s main attractions brushed past me on their way to the stage. Wylie looked about as pretentious as a school bus driver, with long, flat hair and outfit by Eddie Bauer. Stocky Jose wore a bright red scarf and spoke loud Spanish into his cell phone.

The two chefs were there to talk about vanguard cuisine. Depending on who you speak to, the vanguard movement is either the art of creatively challenging the culinary status quo, or, in the words of Jeremy Bentham, “merely nonsense upon stilts.” Jose is a native of Spain and is credited with introducing Americans to both avant-garde Spanish food and traditional tapas. Wylie’s WD-50 specializes in avant-garde cuisine and ranks fourth on New York Magazine’s list of the City’s best restaurants.

The lights dimmed, and the crowd rolled their eyes when the President of the Embassy mispronounced Wylie’s name “Dufrez” during the introduction. But the dialogue that followed was fascinating. Here are some highlights:

The Ghost of Salvador Dali

Both chefs, and moderator Coleman Andrews of Saveur Magazine, talked passionately about recent food innovations in Spain, but they admitted that the food there hasn’t always been so dynamic. Andrews recalled that in the early 1980s he set out to write a book about Spanish cuisine. After spending a year working his way from Barcelona to Sevilla and finding nothing but paellas and French food, he wrote a travel guide about the Riviera instead.

But in 1984, at the age of 22, a skinny kid named Ferran Adria got his start as line cook at El Bulli in northern Spain. 18 months later, he was head chef, and soon his innovations were rapidly replacing the three hundred year-old paella recipes, not to mention le diner.

Pictured above, Adria started a style of cooking based on the imagination, studying all the creative possibilities of traditional ingredients and playing with form and mouthfeel. Each year, he closes El Bulli and devotes six months to laboratory research in Barcelona to come up with new ideas. As the eccentric pioneer of the vanguard movement, he's has been called many things: genius of El Bulli, mad culinary scientist, and on stage, Jose inexplicably referred to him as the Devil.

Despite suggesting that Adria was pure evil, Jose also gushed about him. He noted that the legendary chef was born in the same Catalonian village as Salvador Dali, and Catalonians believe that artist was reincarnated as Adria.

Throwing Out the Blueprint

Adria’s approach took root all over Spain and in the United States, and although Jose was too proud to say it, he implied that his innovative and playful style was inspired by Adria.

Wylie was a little more forthright about having used both Adria and Jose as models. Only months after Wylie arrived in Manhattan, Jose took an interest in him and arranged a series of trips for his sloppy-looking American protégé to study vanguard cuisine in Spain. During one of these trips, Wylie picked up a recipe book in Catalan with photographs of food so beautiful that to this day he still flips through the book for inspiration, even though he can’t read a word.

“Don’t worry,” said Jose in his thick Spanish accent, “the same thing happens to me with English books.”

But Jose’s influence on Wylie extended beyond a few TripTiks. “For me and many others, Jose legitimized throwing out the blueprint,” Wylie explained. “It’s not that I’m copying Jose. It’s that I’m willing to throw out the blueprint because Jose had the courage to do so first.”

For the second half of this blog, go to Interview with Jose Andres and Wylie Dufresne, Part 2.

Interview with Jose Andres and Wylie Dufresne, Part 2

For the first part of this blog, go to Interview with Jose Andres and Wylie Dufresne, part 1.

Pacojets and Thermomixes

If you want to be a vanguard chef, you might as well get a PhD in chemistry.

The movement has actually been labeled molecular gastronomy because, to truly think outside the lunchbox and use food like no one has before, you have to know how to manipulate the cellular structure of your ingredients. So practitioners end up learning many of the same theories and tools that are used by biochemists when they’re splitting stem cells. Maybe that’s why Adria’s famous cookbook, “El Bulli 1998-2002,” is over 500 pages long.

And just like chemists, the best vanguard chefs build laboratories and fill them with high-tech equipment. Gadgets include the Pacojet, a Swiss-made, 2,000 r.p.m. frozen-food processor. And for $945, you can have your very own Thermomix, a German all-in-one kitchen aid that grinds hazelnuts to a powder in 5 seconds.

Even if you’re willing to hand over thousands to get this gear, the panelists all agreed that the techniques of molecular gastronomy aren’t for your average Joe Gourmet. Wylie gave the crowd that old, “Don’t try using your CO2 dispenser to convert liquid into an ethereal froth at home,” cliché. And when someone in the crowd asked the panel to recommend the best brand of sous-vide machine for preventing toxins, Jose suggested that the guy just stick with the microwave. It’s not that cool, but neither is botulism.

Death by News Cycle

Winner for most awkward moment of the night was Wylie’s attack on American food writers for not supporting this country’s avant-garde movement. “Spanish journalists have done a lot more to encourage avant-garde,” Wylie said. Just when it looked like Coleman Andrews was about to get his skull cracked with a Pacojet food processor, Wylie caught himself. “Look, I’m not going to criticize American journalists, especially with one sitting right here.”

Despite the effort at diplomacy, it seems like Wylie’s got a point. American vanguard cuisine has been criticized in a number of articles, including one in which the New York Times called it “shallowly theatrical.” Slate writer Lisa Abend counted five signs that vanguard cuisine was no longer haute, including Death By News Cycle. Abend explained, “Food writers have to write about something, and if we can’t write about a new trend, we might as well tear down an old one.”

Wylie’s on-stage rant reminded me that I recently saw him on Bickering Foodies getting huffy with cookbook author Barbara Kafka when she claimed that vanguard food is half-baked.

“Where does one cross the line between experiment, and searching, and the final result in terms of pleasure?” Kafka asked.

Wylie said he thought his cooking was more than just experimental. It tasted good, too. “I wouldn’t put my good name on it if I thought it was disgusting.”

“Oh, let’s not get bitchy,” said Kafka.

Even Jose, whose ego is bigger than Adria’s 500-page cookbook, acknowledged that the backlash hurts. “You’ve got to cook first to please yourself,” he said. “But, sure, I get upset when people tell me my food is too out there. It’s like, in this museum, you wouldn’t say, ‘let’s change that Matisse.’”

But is it possible that bad press actually helps vanguard chefs? In an interview for the Slate article, Aponiente chef Angel Leon suggested so: “There are people who say, ‘this is over, let’s put it behind us,’ but that’s just marketing.” If the mainstream ever really celebrated avant-garde, would the movement lose meaning and disappear like the vapors from Jose’s mojito mists?

Jose Andres’ Green Card and Foie Gras Cereal

Throughout the evening, a projector showed photographs of the chefs’ best dishes, while Jose and Wylie explained the creative processes behind each. Every time they showed a new picture, my friend Rupa’s stomach growled.

One photo was Jose’s deconstructed New England clam chowder (picture below), which he serves at Minibar in D.C. “Now, what is wrong with the traditional New England clam chowder?” Jose rhetorically asked the crowd.

“Nothing!” said Wylie, who happens to be a native of New England. This comment got the biggest laughs of the night. Wylie might be a freedom fighter for avant-garde cuisine, but don’t mess with his hometown’s clam chowder. That’s not cool.

Jose disagreed, saying that the clams in the traditional version are “so overcooked.” Jose breaks the classic dish down into its component parts: cream, potatoes, clam, clam broth, onion, bacon and chives. From each of these elements, he creates a puree, or sauce, thickening them to a slightly unexpected viscosity: the onion, for example, is a thick jam. He adds a raw clam and a sprinkling of potato chips to the surface for textural contrast. The diner’s spoon gives the final stir that blends the ingredients and sets the “chowder” in motion.

The avant-garde community raved about the dish almost as much as New Englanders hated it. “I almost lost my green card with that dish,” Jose said.

Another celebrated vanguard dish is foie gras cereal: corn flakes are combined with little balls of foie gras, which provide a liquid burst that mimics the textural experience of milk.

“American food is an excuse to get involved in creative cooking,” Jose told the crowd. To him, our cuisine is just a black and white movie in need of Technicolor.

But the purpose isn’t just to improvise and shatter tradition. The main criticism of vanguard chefs in the U.S. is that they get caught up in flamboyance and irony. In so doing, they overlook a key tenet of Adria’s philosophy: innovation, in addition to being playful, should also enhance flavor. Mr. Adria once told Frank Bruni that, “what he was always after was ‘the pure taste of things,’ and that his manipulations were paradoxically in the service of that.” And Bruni reports that, “Most of the meals lived up to his motto.”

Spain’s Snobby Embassy

As the dialogue wrapped up, Rupa and I were disappointed to note the absence of any food carts in the back of the room. Not only was it dinner time, but for the past hour we’d been looking at pictures of some of the best food in the world. Maybe it was a bit much to hope that Jose would serve everyone his famous cotton candy foie gras, but no edible swag at all?

I staved off hunger and focused on the business of autographs. Wylie was an easy mark. He was lingering by the stage and his entourage of groupies was sparse, possibly due to his bad haircut. Still, he was in a good mood – he’d found out a few hours before that his wife was pregnant with his first – and when I told him how much I enjoyed the evening’s dialogue, he seemed to genuinely appreciate my input. If he ever gets in another fight with Barbara Kafka, I’ve got his back.

Jose, on the other hand, was enjoying the admiration of his chef groupies way too much to be bothered by me. At least one tightly clothed female groupie (a Tom Colicchi-ho?) eyed him like he was a deconstructed clam chowder as he talked about his PBS show. I finally got him to sign, but, as you can see from the action shot below, he wasn’t interested in a photograph with me. Thanks to Rupa for taking one anyway.

As we made our way from the auditorium to the lobby, I noticed a roped off section of the room that was only being penetrated by the Spanish Embassy crowd. Dressed up in black ties and evening gowns and walking with a purpose, they appeared to be headed for food.

I was still wearing my suit from work, so I figured I had shot of fitting in. I maneuvered so I was right behind Jose as we neared the roped dividers, and when he made what appeared be a joke in Spanish, I cracked up. I did everything but roll my r’s and wave a red cape, but when I told the swarthy Spaniard who was standing guard at the ropes that I’d left my Embassy id at home, he turned up his nose and pointed me back to the commoners.

If only all embassies were like Korus House.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Monday, April 6, 2009

Bone Marrow, Man's Best Friend

At the counter of Wagshal’s Market in Tenleytown, I notice a picture of a dog slobbering all over his bone. According to the advertisement, all this can be mine for seven dollars per pound. Warily, I point at the bone in the picture and ask, “Is that what I just ordered?”

The butcher looks up from his meat saw and grunts, “People eat ‘em, too.” Then he’s back to business, filling the market with the high-pitched sound of saw on bone.

Yes, in addition to playing Frisbee and shaking hands, humans and canines also share a love of bone marrow.

I was turned on to marrow by Jennifer McLagan, the thin food journalist who wrote a book called “Fat.” In this ode to blubber, McLagan gives the skinny on the many benefits of eating animal fats. For one thing, fat tastes good – scientists now believe that we may have a taste receptor for fat, and some even speculate that fat is the sixth taste. But McLagan also argues that animal fat, with its balance of essential fatty-acids, is actually healthy for us.

I was especially intrigued by one of her favorite fatty dishes, roasted bone marrow, which registers eight grams of fat per tablespoon. I guess that makes me a health nut.

And so I found myself leaving Wagshal’s with a bloody bag of bones, feeling a little like Jigsaw after a really messy execution.
Back home, I followed McLagan’s simple recipe: let the bones soak in water for 24 hours to get rid of any impurities, then blast them with high heat for 25 minutes.
Soon, I was scooping the soft, warm marrow straight from the ivory. The textural experience was like slightly melted butter. The earthy smell triggered archetypal memories of scavenging the carcasses of water buffalo thousands of years ago.

“Wow, that is so good,” Marcy cried out. I was relieved to hear it – I had been concerned that my vegetarian girlfriend wouldn’t bone up to this experience. Then I realized that she was raving about the side-salad she’d made, not the marrow. But eventually she grew curious about this creamy, sensual delight. And by the end of the meal, I was wrestling her for the last unctuous pieces.

When the marrow was gone, the only thing left standing was a circle of upright bones that resembled a model of Stonehenge. I wanted to know more about this mysterious new treat, and so began an obsession that lasted two weeks. I read about marrow bones at work, chose restaurants only if they offered marrow, and made a series of return trips to Wagshal’s for more bones to play with.

Here’s what I learned:

What it is

Typically, veal or beef. Compared to the marrow of sheep, veal and beef are more popular in the kitchen because their leg bones have more marrow. My first purchase at Wagshal’s was beef marrow, but the second and third times I opted for the veal, the marrow of which I found to be smoother and creamier.


According to McLagan, in the nineteenth century, bone marrow was regarded as a health food and given to invalids and sickly kids to improve their strength. Queen Victoria, who died at the ripe old age of eighty-one, loved bone marrow so much that she had some every day.

How to get your marrow out of the bone

This all depends on how civilized you are. For the most part, I used a butter knife, but in my most debased moments, when I was starving and pieces of marrow were stubbornly clinging to bone, I’ll admit that I resorted to digging away with my fingers. I thought this worked really well, but apparently gourmets from Milan see things differently: they use a special long-handled spoon called an essatore.

Like me, Anthony Bourdain would be booted from a Milanese dinner party and banned for life. He treats his marrow bone like a Slurpee. During the Singapore episode of No Reservations, Bourdain tried bone soup and sucked down the marrow with a straw.

Where to find marrow

New York restaurants are lousy with it. Ever since Frank Bruni of the Times came out in favor of marrow, it’s been showing up on menus all over town. New York Magazine argues that we can also attribute this trend to the recession. The dish is cheap to make and can be sold at inflated prices because it’s considered a novelty.

As usual, D.C. is a step behind. I was disappointed to only find marrow at a small handful of restaurants here. Tom Sietsma of the Post, when are you going to pick up your pen and let us know that it’s okay to eat this stuff.

What goes with it

If you like the idea of eating bone marrow just because it’s trendy, but secretly you think it’s weird, then you put the marrow on a big piece of bread, and you top it with a sweet, shallot-based marmalade just to make sure there’s a fat chance you’ll actually have to taste the fat.

I’m guessing that the majority of people who go to restaurants for bone marrow do so in an effort to build their foodie credentials, not really for the taste.
I got to this conclusion after watching Felippe Newlin of pay a visit to Blue Ribbon, one of the City’s most popular places for marrow. I was disappointed to see chef and co-owner Eric Bromberg put a tiny piece of marrow onto a huge slice of bread covered in marmalade. Predictably, after a few bites, Felipe’s first comments were about the quality of the bread. Eventually, he remembered that he was supposed to be tasting marrow and noted it almost as an afterthought. By playing hide and seek with what should be the main element of the dish, chefs let their customers have their marrow and eat it, too.

If, on the other hand, your taste buds are working and you genuinely appreciate marrow, I have the following advice:
  • Do nothing to mask the flavor of the marrow. Don’t coat it in salt. Don’t douse it in marmalade. Don’t hide it in your couch and gnaw through your sofa cushions. Keep it simple. Enjoy a large spoonful of marrow straight-up.

  • Complement the taste of the bone marrow with good sides that have the right flavor profiles. The marrow is rich and luscious, so its supporting cast should be salty: caviar, or an oxtail stew with kosher salt. A side of something sour like gremolata also works well.

  • As McLagan writes, fatty foods are digested slowly, so it doesn’t take much bone marrow to fill you up. But if you find that your hunger isn’t satisfied, include an egg-based bread to munch on in between spoonings, or fingerings, of the marrow.

Is it really nutritious

Some people swear that monounsaturated fats like the ones found in marrow are important to a healthy diet. That might be true, but after two weeks of preparing nothing but marrow and other recipes from Ms. McLagan’s Fatty Opus, I was feeling bloated and moody. Last night, I proved no match for a big serving of duck rillettes, which contains 14 grams of fat per tablespoon. I put aside the rillettes, staggered to the supermarket clutching my chest, and bought a bag of fruit.