This little ditty was quite an adventure, and not just because I was chasing down bone marrow and suet. When I set about printing all four recipes (yes, four!: burgers, ketchup, pickles, and buns) and compiling a grocery list, I realized that there were no less than a zillion ingredients involved. Okay, 40-ish ingredients, but it seemed like a zillion. And considering that marrow and suet were two of those 40 ingredients, it should be no surprise that shopping was the real challenge here.
So. Questions. Yes… you in the back?
1) What the heck is suet? I had to look this up, of course, but suet is hard raw fat from around the loin and kidneys – not the same kind of stuff you would trim from a cut of meat.
2) Is beef marrow what I think it is? If you’re thinking of soft fatty tissue found in the center of bones (usually leg bones for culinary purposes), then yes.
3) Where the heck would you even buy that stuff? Well, the short answer is “from a good butcher”, but there’s an interesting story there, if you have a moment.
As regular readers know, Central Market has been my go-to source for the more exotic ingredients for this challenge, because they are wonderful, local, and right around the corner from my office. I called ahead about the suet/marrow request, and they said sure! we’ll take care of you! of course! yes! no problem! And since I had to go there for the juniper berries and pickling cucumbers anyway, this gave me hope that I’d be able to get everything at one place. Oh, how naive I was back then… (sigh)
At the meat counter, the first words out of my mouth were that I had a really weird order. Beef Dude gave me a lay-it-on-me, I’ve-heard-it-all look, so I told him that I needed three different types of beef, plus suet and marrow. To which he replied: “Okay, but you have to tell me what you’re making.” When he learned that I was going to personally grind all that bovine loveliness into four phat burger patties, he asked, “And just who is it that you love this much?” Wow. Even Beef Dude gets the Food of Love thing. I love this store!
So he knocks out my order, which involves him cutting bones with the bandsaw, to expose the marrow… which obviously slows down the line a bit. So I started whistling Dixie and sheepishly avoiding eye contact, but no one really noticed my whistling over the bzzzzrrrrrtttzzzzbzbzzzzrrrrbzzzzz of the bandsaw. A couple of them overheard my order and looked at me like I was the female incarnation of Jeffrey Dahmer. Looking back at it now, I should have barked at them or something. Ruff! That would’ve been so perfect.
The next morning, it was time to break out the apron and channel my inner Sweeney Todd. I unwrapped the three packages of beef, and chunked ‘em all out to fit through the grinder. No problems so far.
I unwrapped the suet. Nothing to write home about, really – it looks like hard, pinkish fat. I can tell from the texture that it’s going to melt differently than normal fat while the burger cooks, which is probably the whole idea. I chopped it for the grinder and moved on.
Then I unwrapped the marrow bones. Uhhhhh, ummmmm. Well, humph. What I had before me were three knobby hip bones… the big ball of the ball-and-socket joint, I think. And they were each sawed in half, which was all very well and good, but there was no marrow. I scraped at the middle of the cut surface with my knife, and it was porous, but very hard. Great.
Seeing as I know exactly zip about marrow, I considered the possibility that it’s actually there, in the bone, but just needs to be softened somehow. So I simmered some water, dropped the bones in, and… nothing. Well, not “nothing”, really, because after an hour of simmering it looked like I had the beginnings of a terrific soup, but to the extent that soup was not on the menu, “nothing” seems appropriate.
Regis, I’d like to Phone A Friend, please…
I called the original Perry’s Steakhouse & Meat Market, to see what they had to say. The person that answered the phone asked me to repeat the word “marrow” no less than three times, at which point she asked me to hold, at which point I asked to talk to the manager of the meat market. When that “manager” actually asked me to spell “marrow”, I hung up. So much for that idea.
I jumped online and looked for other meat markets near my house, and the juiciest hit was a carnicería that I didn’t even know was in my neighborhood. The clock is ticking at this point: I was making these puppies for dinner, for our friends Scott and Caryn, whom I had never cooked for before. (Brilliant planning on my part, don’t you agree?) I knew that I would be ordering pizza (and making a run for a LOT of beer) if I didn’t grab a gear.
I headed over there and wandered in, and it wasn’t just a meat market, it was a full on authentic Mexican grocery store with a lunch counter. How did I not know about this place?!
As silly as it sounds, no hablo Ingles was not a possibility I’d considered until I actually tried to order up some ol’ bone marrow. ¿Cómo se dice ”bone marrow” en español, anyway? I had no idea. Mexican Beef Dude was blinking alternately at me and then the other customers, as if to say, can someone please explain to me what the heck this pasty blue-eyed gringo lady is doing in my shop?
In the end, we reached a bit of a compromise. Lucky for me, Home Fries was selling some sort of steak I’d never seen before that included a round bone teeming with pearly marrow. After trying unsuccessfully to use that as a prop for explaining exactly what I was after, with plenty of lo siento‘s sprinkled in, I finally gave up and said, “Aquí, éstos. Siete, por favor.” He put seven of the steaks on the scale, and then gesturing, asked “Todos?“ Sí, todos, I replied, defeated. Muchas gracias! And then, for good measure, one last lo siento mucho! since I was already planning to return during tamale season.
And that, friends, is why I have seven slabs of mystery meat in my freezer, all with hollow bones. But here’s the funny thing… those seven steaks only cost me twelve bucks. Whaaa? Later, I looked up the translation for the label on the meat, which read “hueso para caldo”. Turns out that Mexican Beef Dude rang me up for “bones for broth”, which I’m guessing is why they were so dang cheap. (On the other hand, these steaks look like they’re going to need a good long braise to be edible, so it may be that they were just cheap cuts of meat and I’m used to Central Market price points.) Either way, when I dug those silky Crackerjack prizes out of each bone and dropped them on the scale, guess what? It was three ounces, exactly the amount I needed, no more and no less. Whew!
* * * * *
Through cyberspace, I can hear you all yelling: Enough with the rambling! Tell us how the burgers turned out already!
Well, they were great. And obscenely huge. They were the best burgers I’ve ever made, actually, but not for the reasons you might suspect.
Once the shopping was done, the prep was fairly easy. Check it out…
Burgers: Grind, shape, salt, pepper, done.
Spiced ketchup: Squirt, measure, stir.
Red Vinegar Pickles: Bring vinegar, water, and a dash of everything in your spice cabinet to a boil. Slice cucumbers and onions, place in large jar. Pour kitchen sink mixture over veggies in jar. Refrigerate.
I contemplated not making the buns, especially while lost in translation in the carnicería. But since I’ve been working with yeast since I was a kid, and since I technically said I would make any and everything that appeared on the cover, and since the marrow thing actually worked out in the end, I went for it. And you know what? It made all the difference. The weirdo preservatives they put in bread to keep it soft on the shelf would have made it too absorbent for all this yummy goodness. They would have soaked up the juices and turned to mush. These homemade beauties were sturdy, and you could tell that, left to their own devices, they’d be hockey pucks in 24, maybe 36, hours… which means they absorbed all the juice the burgers had to give, and then mocked them for not having more. Take that, suet!
And then something really interesting happened. When all those components came together, it created one harmonious entity: a colossal burger. I couldn’t taste the meat. I couldn’t taste the bun. Or the ketchup, or the pickles. Or even the sharp cheddar, which I sliced pretty thickly. My buddy Caryn and I sampled the watercress beforehand, just to see what watercress is all about, and that stuff was peppery and in your face. We were worried, actually (Caryn was too nice to say so, but her eyebrows were way up). But when it was buried in the six-inch tall behemoth of a sandwich, it was totally lost in the crowd. It was like a symphony… I knew the woodwinds were in there somewhere, but for the life of me, I could not pick out a clarinet.
So, in that sense, this was the best cover recipe yet. I’ve never had a savory dish fuse together so completely.
The real stars of the show were the pickles, ketchup, and buns, all of which I will be making again, many many times. But I can’t say I’d go chasing down marrow and suet again. They didn’t do anything for the flavor, because fat itself has no flavor - so I can replicate the taste by grinding good beef. They did, however, create a lovely texture, which means that if you’re wanting to make the best burgers EVER, then find yourself a carnicería and go for it. Just be sure to take your Spanish-English dictionary with you…