Bare Bones

Throw me a bone!

My dad has strong memories of his mother’s chicken soup: the aroma, the flavor, and the chicken feet at the bottom of the bowl. He especially liked biting into the pads of the feet, which were nice and chewy.

Like many ethnic cuisines that evolve at least in part out of deprivation, Jewish food has long mined the more interesting parts of the animal (think tongue). But though the tip-to-tail movement has made offal, bone marrow and pork belly trendy, I don’t know any Jewish cooks these days that serve chicken feet in their soup. I set out to dip a toe into the world of off-cuts by buying a bag of beef bones at the Noe Valley Farmer’s Market in San Francisco.

I admit this was a conservative step: no head cheese for me yet. But I had a modest goal. I often cook soup and rice dishes that call for stock, and I’d gotten annoyed by how expensive the store-bought varieties are—four dollars at my local market for four measly cups. My cooking is mostly vegetarian, but on the couple of occasions that I’ve served chicken, I boiled up the bones with carrots and onion and got large pots of the most delicious soup base I’ve ever tasted. (Once, a friend roasted a turkey and gave me the carcass. I was thrilled.) I was looking for a cheap shortcut to homemade stock that would make use of what might otherwise be discarded and wouldn’t require me to either buy a whole chicken or clean out the produce section of my corner market. I contemplated making vegetable stock, which is what I normally buy, but the recipes I’ve seen call for pre-roasting a great variety of vegetables in order to get a full flavor, and it seemed like a lot of trouble and expense. So on a beautiful Saturday at my local farmer’s market, I asked the butcher (of grass-fed and pastured meats) if he had any leftover bones.

I wasn’t expecting him to charge me for them. Bones seemed like the kind of thing that should be a freebie. But in the conscientious foodie heaven that is a San Francisco farmer’s market, I suppose I wasn’t the first with this idea, and the butcher is certainly entitled to charge for his products. I paid a little over three bucks for a pound of beef bones.

A quick roast and three hours of stovetop bubbling later, that three bucks yielded me at least three times what I would get from a container of store-bought stock. Though it didn’t have the heavenly delicate flavor of my homemade chicken stock (which may have to do with my reluctance to let the broth reduce too much, though I hate to see all that goodness boil away), it made a flavorful base and over the course of a week made its way into a stew, tomatillo salsa, a Turkish spinach and dill dish and Indian eggplant bharta. I finished it off in a catch-all, empty-out-the-fridge vegetable soup.

Though I’ll probably play around with the recipe, my beef stock experiment gave me exactly what I was looking for: a cheap, easily-prepared kitchen staple made from just a few ingredients. And if I get tired of stock, I can try what the butcher recommended: roast the bones and spread the marrow on toast.

Here is the stock recipe I used, adapted from Donna Hay’s cookbook, New Food Fast:

[First, a couple of caveats: the original recipe calls for six pounds of bones in 10 liters of water (don’t even ask me to convert). I didn’t measure the water and only used one pound of bones because I’m cheap. I’ve similarly skimped on chicken broth and it has turned out wonderfully, but you might want to experiment with more bones for a richer flavor. Also, almost every stock recipe I’ve seen calls for celery, which I refuse to buy because I detest it and the leftovers rot in my fridge.]  Okay, onward:

1 pound beef bones
1 ½ cups dry red wine
1 onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
8 black peppercorns
4 stalks parsley
2 bay leaves

Preheat oven to 400. Put the bones in a baking dish and brush them with oil, then roast for 30 minutes. Then add the onions and carrots to the dish and continue to bake for another half hour. Take the bones and vegetables out of the oven and transfer them to the largest pot you own. Fill the pot with water almost to the top (leaving room for it to bubble), and bring it to a simmer. Then add the wine, peppercorns, parsley and bay leaves and keep the pot at a low simmer for three hours. During this time, you can alternately cover and uncover the pot to control how much the stock reduces. (I left it covered for about half of the time). The more it reduces, the more concentrated the flavor will be, but you will have less to show for it in the end. Check occasionally to see if any scum has accumulated at the surface of the stock, and if so, skim it off with a spoon. When it’s done cooking, strain and allow stock to cool. Lasts several days in the fridge (that’s the official line, but I used it for a full week), and freezes excellently.

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4 Responses to “Bare Bones”

  1. Sandy Loeffler Says:

    Hey Drew,

    I just discovered your blog by accident but thought I’d let you know about the Jewish Food List. It’s a great on-line gathering of people, Jews and non-Jews, who share all kinds of Jewish food advice, recipes, cooking tips, questions, etc. It was there that I read that it is possible to still buy chicken feet in Israel. I remember my mother’s cooking them, and the little yokes that had not become eggs. I myself never ate the feet, but the “eggies” were a treat.

    By the way, you can also download recipes free from the JFL’s website: http://www.jewishfood-list.com (I think that’s right…I haven’t had had a look lately, so I can’t remember for sure.) If you decide to subscribe, you never need to send in a recipe if you don’t want to. Lurkers are also welcome.

    Mo’adim l’simcha, and have a wonderful rest-of-Sukkot.

    B’shalom,
    Sandy Loeffler
    in Oak Park, Michigan

  2. Julie Steinberg Says:

    Great article – a good project for any cook.

    I love using chicken feet in soup – they make it taste more ‘chickeny’ – don’t know why.

    I also like using leeks in beef broth.

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