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Jennifer McLagan's Bones: A Gremolata Interview

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By Malcolm Jolley

Jennifer McLagan's Bones has attracted praise from the master of things edible and animal himself, Fergus Henderson as well as Toronto cookbook masters Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford. To top it all off the Chef/Food Stylist/Writer was recently singled out in a glowing New York Times review. Gremolata's Malcolm Jolley caught up with McLagan this week to discuss the cookbook that turning out to be this season's must-have.

Gremolata: Now, this isn't a book only about cooking bones is it?

Jennifer McLagan: No, and some people seem to be missing this point: It's actually about cooking meat that's attached to the bone. Beef, lamb, poultry, game, fish...cooking meat with bones and understanding how important bones are tot the taste an flavour of food.

Gremolata: I know that much, because I know that chicken breast roasted in the oven with the bone is much better than a boneless. But I don't know why.

Jennifer McLagan: Ah, well! The nearer to the bones, the sweeter the flavour: that's true. When you cook something on the bone it's so much more delicious because inside the bone is collagen and the meat next tot he bone has more collagen too, so as it cooks it melts it gives that unctuous quality to the dish that so good. and a sauce mage from the dish will coat your mouth, give you much more of a "mouth-feel'. And of course the second thing that happens is that it will take longer to travel down your tongue, so that as you actually taste the dish all the taste buds get a chance taste and say "wow, this is delicious!" it really improves the enjoyment of a dish.

Gremolata: What drove you to write this book?

Jennifer McLagan: I was worried that too many people were eating flavourless, boneless, skinless pieces of meat. I'm thinking of things like pork tenderloin, which virtually has no flavour because of the way they raise pigs now. And boneless, skinless chicken breasts. And I wanted people to realise that cooking with bones isn't difficult. It's actually really simple, and doesn't even need to take a lot of time. There are recipes in the book that take only a half hour or less. And for those that do take longer it's worth the time. And if you cook something on the bone, that takes longer, you can go clean the house, or read a book, whatever you like. It's not like a stir-fry where you have to be at the stove the whole time. And at the end of it you have lovely dish that's literally falling off the bone that wasn't hard to cook at all. It just took a little time.

Gremolata: If I wasn't familiar with cooking meat on the bone, what recipe would you suggest to get me started?

Jennifer McLagan: Short ribs. They're not at all scary and they just have that one bone in the centre. There easy to get; you can probably find them still on the bone in your supermarket. And you don't even have to eat them that night. You could have them the next night, or freeze them and re-heat them later. Or a grilled bone-in steak. What's simpler than barbecuing a steak? And then after you can pick up the bone and gnaw on it! There's something primordial about gnawing on a bone that satisfies everybody's genetic memory!

You know, when you buy a boneless steak or a boneless chicken breast, you've paid for the bone. So why not get everything you've paid for? Get the benefits of the bones. You can even throw in a bone next time you make a stew. Or if you have to have your standing rib roast off the bone, then throw the bones in the pan for the gravy.

Gremolata: There may be a lot of people who don't know that you can ask your butcher for bones ort for a cut that's still on the bone.

Jennifer McLagan: That's right, which is why it's important to have a good butcher or fishmonger that you can talk to. But even in the supermarket, you can always ask. And you should ask, because if people do ask and start demanding those things they'll be there. Look at organic food. It wasn't in the supermarkets ten years ago.

Gremolata: How did you find or come up with the recipes?

Jennifer McLagan: I've been in the food business for a long time, as chef, a stylist and a food writer, so I had a background a collection of recipes that I really liked to cook. Some of them I came up with, others I attribute to others. Or sometimes I'll start with something and add something else. There's a shoulder of lamb in the book with preserved lemons, dates and almonds that started from a chicken dish like that that was yummy so I thought I'd try it with lamb. When I served it to a friend, she said, "it's nice, but it's too acidic for me." So, I looked for something sweet to add to it, and thought about the are where the preserved lemons came for and came up with dates. I tried it and it worked brilliantly. So recipes often evolve that way. Or sometimes I'll be at home and have a bunch of ingredients and just try and put them together. Sometimes that words out too.

Gremolata: What's your favourite bone-in dish?

Jennifer McLagan: That's hard to say, but I guess if I was going to pick something it would be just roasted marrow bones. It's the classic. There's nothing else to distract you. It's really a special dish, I think it's just like eating foie gras: it's one of those magical dishes. You just break out the salt.

Gremolata: And simple to make.

Jennifer McLagan: It's unbelievably simple to prepare.

Gremolata: The book includes a recipe for seven hour lamb.

Jennifer McLagan: Well it's not really seven hours. Or it doesn't have to be. It's actually a classic example of a dish from a recipe that's been around for a long time that we seem to have forgotten. We're so caught up in this idea of "three ingredients, five minutes". But sometimes really good food takes time. And what's so bad about that? people spend, I don't know, five hours playing video games or watching TV. You could spend that cooking, or really, with these recipes you can do both.

Gremolata: It occurred to me that the slow recipes are often actually more convenient because you can entertain yourself how eve you like over the seven hours it takes your lamb to cook.

Jennifer McLagan: Right. and the thing is, it probably only really takes five hours, but can leave it in for seven or even let it sit warm for an hour after it's cooked and it doesn't matter. If you have guests you can sit down and have a glass of wine and enjoy yourself. And in the end, you don't even have to carve! The meat will fall right off the bone!

Gremolata: What's the weirdest recipe in the book?

Jennifer McLagan: Pigs tails. But they're absolutely delicious. In the recipe in the book they're cut up, so they don't look like a tail. Everyone who's tried them has told me they're delicious. They're just one of these parts of the animal that we throw away without thinking about it.

Gremolata: The subtitle of Bones is "Recipes, History and Lore".

Jennifer McLagan: I tried to write the book even for people who don't cook that much so I included whatever stories there were about bones. Since the first meals humans have cooked, there have been bones. They've been used for jewellery, games, tools, weapons. Bones have been with us throughout our history; they're in our culture. So I wanted to add this kind of content to the book as well. For instance, most people don't know that "bone china" actually contains bones - up to 50%.

Gremolata: Not people's bones!

Jennifer McLagan: No, no. Animal bones. It makes the china stronger, whiter. I thought that was interesting. Also, because I'm in Canada, I thought it was interesting that early man used bones for ice skates. They'd tie them to their feet and push along the ice with a pole.

You know, if we're going to slaughter animals for meat, then I think we should try and use every part of the animal and get all of the benefits. There's a wonderful Yiddish expression that I have in the book: bones without meat is possible, meat without bones is impossible.

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