Though a lover of chicken, a certain college roommate of mine refused to eat it when doing so risked brushing her lips or scraping her teeth against a bone. She was quite aware that the driving force behind her chicken bone aversion was sentimental rather than gastronomic. Living creatures with fluffy feathers have bones, dinner does not. My roommate's feelings about bones seemed a bit extreme to me--how can chicken "fingers" sound appetizing, but not a fried chicken drumstick?
For most of my childhood, my chores included greeting and feeding two pigs who, come fall, would grace my dinner plate. I happily ate meat whose face I once knew, with no preference for whether I enjoyed Porky and Petunia as a boneless pork tenderloin or a rack of ribs. But I cannot attribute my adult feelings about bones to this yearly exposure to the transformation of grunting pigs into bones and meat. It's not that I'm indifferent to bones. I love bones.
Of course, you might think, she loves bones. She cooks. Bones enhance the flavor of the meat that clings to them. They make rich stock out of boiling water, a carrot, and celery stalk. When cooked long enough, they ooze a gelatinous goo without which pate en croute could not exist. But, you see, it's not simply a foodie thing. No, I really can't claim it a foodie thing at all.
From as early as I can remember, dinosaur bones have made me feel all tingly. I once saw an entire whale skeleton with the same effect. I used to have a rabbit's foot keychain which I carried in my pocket. I liked to run my fingers over the fur, but I liked even more to feel the tiny bones hidden beneath it. When I shared this bit of information with my best friend, she promptly wrinkled her nose and requested that I leave my rabbit's foot at home when I came over to play.
But it doesn't stop with animal bones. Human bones are even better. Visiting a museum of saints' relics in St. Mark's cathedral was the highlight of my trip to Venice. I could barely tear myself away from the silver and gold reliquaries, gray bones peeking through their little glass windows. Patrick, who had retreated to the doorway, was practicing his Italian by making small talk with the ticket taker. "I guess she likes them, " he said with an embarrassed shrug. The ticket taker responded with a shudder, "I don't." That display of human bones was only trumped by the crypt of the Capuchin Church of the Immaculate Conception in Rome. Be warned, this link is not for the bone squeamish.
Patrick tolerates my bone fetish. Last Christmas, he indulged me with a three piece serving set, each one shaped in the form of human bones. The spoon is a leg that broadens into a hip bone. A rib cage forms the fork's tines, and a spine it's handle. A double-tined serving fork takes the shape of a flesh-stripped forearm. When I casually dropped a few hints about acquiring a human skeleton to display in our house, he ignored me, which, for him, is equivalent to putting his foot down. I'm not sure I could have found a real skeleton anyway. But I'm holding out for a skull. He just doesn't know it yet. For now, I'll have to stick with the bones of mute animals.
At the dinner table, I do. Recently, rib bones have been my bone of choice. I like rib bones because they insist on being treated as the bones they are. They insist on being gripped, gnawed on, sucked clean, and discarded into a pile on the plate. Ribs remind. It's not easy to picture just where a cooked, bone-in pork chop once resided in a living pig. Despite years spent patting pigs, I cannot recall laying my hands on any part I knew to be the chop. The ribs, though, I could have found. Though buried beneath a thick layer of flesh, I knew where they were because I knew where mine were: that bumpy row of bones that tickled. What's more, the rib bones on which we regularly gnaw are not so different in size from our own. Chicken ribs would not be worth the effort.
Though aware of the culilnary worth of rib bones--they keep the meat moist and rich during long hours of low temperature cooking--I especially like ribs for aesthetic reasons. Rib bones go into the oven veiled in flesh, threads of fat, and stringy sinews. With time, though, they start to peek through, emerging from their meaty surroundings like fossils from the earth.
A week or so ago, I shelacked some baby back ribs with an espresso powder barbecue sauce to great success. More recently, my oven produced some beef short ribs, their flesh falling from the bone. Though such rib dishes are often served with something creamy (mashed potatoes or polenta, for example), this recipe pairs them with chickpeas. The beans provide something firm to bite into along with the melt-in-your-mouth meat. Crusty bread is just about essential.
Beef Short Ribs with Garbanzo Beans
This recipe is from Bon Appetit, September 2003 with just a few changes. Chef Tom Colicchio is credited with the recipe.
1 1/2 cups dried garbanzo beans
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, quartered
1 celery stalk, halved
1 medium carrot, halved
4 large fresh rosemary sprigs
4 large fresh thyme sprigs
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup raisins
8 meaty short ribs
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 small carrot, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
5 large fresh thyme sprigs
5 whole peeled garlic cloves
3 cups low-salt chicken broth
1/2 cup Sherry wine vinegar
1. Place beans in large saucepan. Add cold water to cover by 2 inches and bring to boil. Remove from heat; cover and let stand 1 hour.
2. Drain beans. Heat oil in same pan over medium-high heat. Add onion, celery, and carrot; saute until vegetables begin to brown, about 10 minutes. Add rosemary and thyme. Return beans to pan. Add enough cold water to cover by 2 inches and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer beans uncovered until almost tender, about 45 minutes. Add 2 teaspoons salt. Continue to simmer until beans are tender, stirring occasionally and adding more water to keep covered if necessary, about 45 minutes longer. Add raisins; season beans with pepper. Cool. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill.)
For short ribs:
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sprinkle short ribs on all sides with salt and pepper. Heat oil in heavy large wide ovenproof pot over medium-high heat. Add short ribs in single layer and brown on all sides, about 12 minutes. Transfer ribs to plate. Drain all but a few tablespoons fat from pan. Add onion, carrot, celery, 2 thyme sprigs, and garlic to pot. Saute until vegetables brown, about 10 minutes. Return ribs to pot in single layer, meat side down. Add broth, vinegar, and remaining 3 thyme sprigs and bring to simmer (broth will not cover ribs). Bake uncovered until ribs are tender, about 1 hour 45 minutes.
2. Using oven mitts, transfer short ribs to stove top. Tilt pot; spoon off fat from surface. Drain bean-raisin mixture. Remove onion, celery, carrot, and stems of herbs from beans. (You could leave in the veggies, but I suppose you would have to cut them up). Add to short ribs. Simmer until sauce thickens slightly, about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to bowl.