Close to the bone

If you want the most tender, succulent meat and fish, forget fillets. Mark Hix prefers the skeleton service
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Don't waste them on the dog, or even the stockpot. Bones can play an important role in cooking. Certain cuts of meat and fish are best cooked on the bone as it makes them sweeter and tastier. The meat nearest to the bone is protected from fierce heat, so it doesn't shrink as much and is consequently less dense, more tender and tastes somewhat more subtle.

Don't waste them on the dog, or even the stockpot. Bones can play an important role in cooking. Certain cuts of meat and fish are best cooked on the bone as it makes them sweeter and tastier. The meat nearest to the bone is protected from fierce heat, so it doesn't shrink as much and is consequently less dense, more tender and tastes somewhat more subtle.

Admittedly it can be harder to eat food cooked on the bone, unless you're going for the caveman method. Also, beef bones may be viewed with suspicion, even now the ban has been lifted. BSE made us fear something we'd happily eaten before, and it's taken a while to feel comfortable again about beef on the bone. But that's not rational, and I hope it hasn't put people off permanently. Anyway, what about sauces made from stock, which is made from bones, as is gelatine? Restaurants are getting into meat and fish served on the bone. Barnsley chops, rare-breed pork chops and luxurious veal and beef rib cutlets are appearing more often to satisfy hardcore, sophisticated carnivores.

Spare ribs and chicken wings don't seem to hold many fears, but many people are more wary of beef rib. Last year, on a trip to New York for the opening party of the Asprey store (I get all the toughest jobs), the British chefs and I were working alongside local caterers. The stock pot was full of what seemed to be beef short rib bones. Not for stock, surely, I thought, there's far too much delicious meat on them. I hooked a couple out and munched on them - between preparing canapés for the evening party - thinking of ways I'd use them back in London. There are many possibilities, from Asian-based dishes to good old barbecued or just braised in a good thick gravy with just some seasonal vegetables. These ribs are a cheap, tasty by-product of the Sunday roast. They don't deserve only to be used for gravy - or, worse, binned.

Bone-in cooking is a fundamental part of regional favourites such as braised oxtail, Irish stew and, from Italy, osso buco. They depend on a skilful butcher - you won't find many cuts like this in the supermarket - and need long, gentle cooking. Yet so many of these tastiest dishes, like boiled mutton and caper sauce, have almost been forgotten because people don't have the time any more.

Cooking on the bone also keeps fish really succulent. It doesn't take any more skill to cook but you do need to dissect and eat it with care. Nobody wants a bone in their throat.

Barbecue chicken wings

Serves 4

Barbecue marinades are a personal thing and can be knocked together quite easily. Depending on your mood, taste or even guests, you can go oriental, Tex-Mex, or concoct your own combination of condiments and spices. Chicken wings are cheap and cheerful and go down well with anyone who doesn't mind getting sticky fingers - especially kids.

1kg chicken wings

For the marinade

100ml tomato ketchup
100g clear honey
50ml soy sauce
1tsp Chinese five spice
30g root ginger, peeled and chopped
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
2tbsp Worcestershire sauce
4tbsp hoi sin sauce
1tsp Tabasco
100ml water

Blend all the ingredients for the marinade and mix with the chicken wings. Put them in a non-corrosive container in the fridge, cover with cling film and leave overnight.

Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/gas mark 4. Transfer the wings and marinade into an ovenproof dish and cook in the oven for 1 hour stirring every so often. If the marinade becomes dry and is in danger of burning, just remove the dish, add a little water, stir well and return to the oven.

Serve with a finger bowl of warm water with a slice of lemon in it to cope with the mess.

Grilled plaice with sea kale

Serves 4

Many people turn their nose up at plaice because it reminds them of a plateful of over-grilled pappy white flesh and bones last seen in a seaside pub that wants you to think it was caught just outside the door. If you can get your hands on a beautiful large, fresh one, it's-I can't think of another way of saying this-a different kettle of fish. A good sized plaice of 2kg-plus has delicious firm flesh similar to that of a turbot or brill, but they are less common as they are normally caught by divers and sold to restaurants. If you can't get hold of a larger plaice then you'll have to buy brill or turbot steak, although it will set you back a bob or two more.

Sea kale is another rarity that is finding its way on to some serious restaurant menus. You can get it in specialist greengrocers like L Booth in London's Borough market. If not, baby leeks make a good substitute.

4 x 250-350g steaks, cut on the bone, from a large plaice
Olive oil for grilling
150-200g sea kale, trimmed
60g butter
1tbsp chopped chervil
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
1 lemon cut into 4 wedges

Pre-heat a grill or ribbed griddle pan. Brush the fish with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill for about 5-6 minutes on each side - if you are using a griddle pan, you may need to finish the fish off in a moderate oven. Test the fish by inserting a metal skewer or small knife into the centre, near the bone. The skewer or tip of the knife should come out hot. If not, give the fish a few more minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the sea kale in boiling salted water for 2-3 minutes until just cooked, then drain in a colander. Melt the butter in a pan, add the sea kale and chervil, season and serve on the plate with the fish or separately with a wedge of lemon. New potatoes such as Anya or Pink Fir Apple will go nicely.

Braised shin of veal with spring vegetables

Serves 4

This cut is known as osso buco in Italian and is used to make the famous osso buco Milanese. It's cut through the shin about 3-4cm thick and can be used in all sorts of ways, incorporating seasonal vegetables or even in Moroccan-style in a tagine. Unfortunately our native spring vegetables have not arrived yet and won't for a month or so, depending on the weather. We can, though, rely on our European friends where the climate is a little ahead of ours to come up with the goods and give us a little taster of what's to come. Or use frozen peas and beans.

4 x 300-350g pieces of shin of veal
Vegetable oil for frying
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2tbsp flour, plus extra for dusting
80g of butter
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 leek, roughly chopped and washed
3 sticks of celery, roughly chopped
1 bayleaf
A few sprigs of thyme
100ml white wine
1 12 litres chicken stock
3tbsp double cream

For the garnish

80g peas (shelled weight)
100g podded weight of broad beans
100g any other spring vegetable like runner beans, barbe di fratte (monk's beard or agrette) or young leeks

Heat 2-3 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan. Season and lightly flour the pieces of veal and pan fry them for 3-4 minutes on each side until they begin to colour (they just need to be sealed, so do not brown them). In a heavy-bottomed saucepan with a lid, and large enough to fit the pieces of veal, gently cook the onions, leeks, celery, thyme and bayleaf in the butter for 3-4 minutes without colouring, stirring every so often. Add the flour and stir well, then gradually stir in the wine and stock, ensuring no lumps form. Bring to the boil, season and add the pieces of veal. Cover with a lid and, skimming every so often, simmer gently for 1 hour or until the meat is tender but not falling apart. It's difficult to put an exact time on braising, so you may need to give it another half an hour or so if it needs it.

Remove the pieces of veal from the pan and strain the sauce through a fine-meshed sieve into a clean pan. Skim off any fat and simmer until it is thick enough to coat the pieces of veal, but not too gluey. Add the double cream, bring back to the boil and re-season if necessary.

Meanwhile cook the vegetables in boiling salted water for 2-3 minutes until tender. If the broad beans are large you may need to remove the outer shells after cooking. If you can get monk's beard, it can be trimmed and added raw to the other cooked vegetables at the end. Re-heat the veal in the sauce and serve in deep plates or bowls with the sauce spooned over and the vegetables scattered on top.

Beef short ribs with five spice and Chinese greens

Serves 4-6

In the States these are known as buffalo ribs or Jacob's ladder, as turned on their end the ribs resemble rungs. You'll definitely have to explain what you want to your butcher as normally these are trimmed and used for mince or stock, or fed to the dogs. You basically need to ask him to saw you some ribs from above the rib eye, with a good amount of meat between them, to about 8-10cm in length. They can be left attached. It may be something that he will need to build up over a couple of weeks of butchering ribs or he may need to specially order them. They should also not come from beef that has been well hung as meat exposed to the air for long periods tastes pretty awful. If all this sounds like too tall an order for your butcher, you could use the more familiar pork spare ribs instead.

1-1.5kg beef short ribs, cut to 8cm in length
1tbsp flour plus extra for dusting
Vegetable oil for roasting
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
30g root ginger, scraped and roughly chopped
2tsp Chinese five spice
100ml rice wine
1.5 litres beef stock
100ml light soy sauce
250g pak choi, bok choi or choi sum
1tbsp sesame oil
Approx 1tbsp cornflour
Salt and pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 220ºc/425ºF/gas mark 7. Separate the ribs into pairs. If you have any odd ones, don't worry, just cook them with the others. Season and lightly dust the ribs with flour and roast in a little vegetable oil for 25-30 minutes until nicely coloured. Meanwhile, in a heavy based saucepan, fry the onion, carrots, garlic, ginger and five spice in the sesame oil for 3-4 minutes until lightly coloured. Add the tablespoon of flour, stir well and gradually add the rice wine, beef stock and soy. Bring to the boil, add the beef ribs, cover and simmer gently for 2-2 12 hours or until the meat is soft and tender.

Remove the ribs from the pan, remove any fat with a ladle and simmer the sauce

until it has reduced to about half its volume, giving it an occasional skim. Taste the sauce occasionally and if it becomes too salty add a little water. Dilute the cornflour in a little water and stir it into the simmering sauce a little at a time until it's of a good consistency for coating the ribs. Simmer for another 10 minutes to cook out the cornflour. Strain into a clean pan through a fine-meshed sieve and return the ribs to the sauce. Half or quarter the Chinese greens lengthways if they are large and steam or cook them in boiling salted water for 1-2 minutes, so they still have a crunch.

Serve the ribs and sauce in a serving dish, or in individual bowls with the greens.

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