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Writer has a bone to pick

Following some recent recipes with vegetarian appeal, I’m confessing my carnivorous side.

Far surpassing meat is my deep love of bones. Many chefs prize these culinary building blocks because marrow and connective tissues impart flavor and texture, not to mention nutrition.

My digestive system labors over meat, particularly in quantities commonly served in restaurants and prepared in home kitchens according to classic American recipes. But give me a bone stock-based soup or stew, even just a steaming cup of plain broth, and I feel supremely nourished.

While recent trends have acquainted a new generation of Americans with bone broth, including heat-and-eat products available in grocery stores, the raw ingredients remain far removed from many people’s realities. Indispensable in the majority of professional kitchens, bones are more likely viewed as a waste, a nuisance — or downright distasteful — in the home kitchen, where quick-cooking, boneless cuts of meat usually reign.

Ask a butcher. He or she will probably tell you that the average American consumer seems almost afraid of bones.

Chalk it up to fear of the unknown. Food-industry writing over the past decade has cited the obscurity of bones in our country’s industrialized commodity-food system, in which the prevalence of national-chain supermarkets are a major factor. Bone-in meat spoils faster, so it can neither store nor travel over long distances as well as boned meat. And at butcher counters, frugal shoppers continue to object to the notion of bones counting as a portion of the meat poundage they are buying.

I don’t purchase a lot of meat at the grocery store and instead procure a whole, locally raised lamb most years. Yet I’m always annoyed that I have to insist on my custom order’s inclusion of the large leg bones, from which kebab and ground meat have been excised at a local butcher’s shop. I paid for the whole animal, after all.

Those bones typically bide their time in my freezer until such occasion and motivation arise for making a big batch of stock, starting with oven-roasting the bones. I’m hard-pressed to refrain from digging out the hot marrow, thereby depleting my stock’s character.

Bone marrow, in my mind, is the animal’s very essence, to be relished with gratitude for its life-giving sustenance as long as humans have vied for their place in the food chain. How far have we really progressed these days when gnawing even chicken bones or barbecued ribs seems uncouth?

In my own kitchen, whenever I’m free to self-indulge, I pick over bones like my very survival depends on it. It’s not enough to just boil bones for stock and discard them. Stripping away morsels of meat, I add them back to the soup or stew or save them for another dish, like fried rice or even tacos.

The gelatinous cartilage and tendons, of course, aren’t as transferable. So I gnaw on them to my heart’s content. If the marrow hasn’t melted into my stock, I break out the garlic toast, a snack that chefs worldwide enjoy on the sly while roasting bones for soups, stews and sauces. If you have no frame of reference for marrow, its flavor evokes pure fat, and it spreads like fruit butter.

Marrow bones have seen a resurgence in restaurant dining rooms. The main attraction to ossobuco or any roasted shank is the marrow. And meatless, center-cut marrow bones with toast points make a popular appetizer. Locally, Smithfields and Mezcal in Ashland do brisk business in bone marrow. If it wasn’t a hit, the kitchen staff would save it all for themselves.

You don’t need a chef’s touch to roast marrow bones. They’re readily available in many grocers’ meat sections. If you don’t see them, ask the butchers if there are any behind the counter. Or call ahead and request them.

Gourmet affectations aside, marrow bones, along with necks, shanks, hocks and others of their ilk remain some of the most budget-friendly cuts. But it takes long cooking times and low heat to unlock their potential. Hours of rendering, braising and stewing transform these gristly, sinewy parts into delightfully chewy, jiggly, wiggly, even silky, creamy morsels. The flavor is deeply savory.

With more and more exposure to traditional Southern, American farmhouse and ethnic comfort foods — not to mention fine dining — some adventurous cooks are hunting down the previously undervalued, even obscure, bits and pieces of meat butchery. Grocery stores that still practice actual meat-cutting, including Food 4 Less in Medford, are prime outlets. The region also boasts several specialty meat markets, such as The Butcher Shop in Eagle Point, Rogue Meats in Sams Valley, Montgomery’s Meats in Central Point and Cherry Street Meats in Medford.

Latin grocers, including Medford’s El Gallo and Phoenix’s La Tapatia, also are great sources of such cuts as oxtail and any number of parts collectively described as offal. Lest I wax poetic for the latter, let’s save liver, heart, tripe, tongue and sweetbreads for another day.

Roasted Marrow Bones

4 center-cut beef or veal marrow bones (about 3 to 4 inches each)

1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste (divided)

1/4 teaspoon pepper, plus more to taste (divided)

2 teaspoons butter

1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 to 2 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

1 teaspoon capers, well-drained

1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Crispy toast points, for serving

Soak the marrow bones in water to cover overnight in refrigerator for up to 24 hours, changing water 3 or 4 times, to release excess blood from marrow. Drain and season with the salt and pepper.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

If bones are flared at one end, stand them up, wide end down, in a roasting pan. If they won’t stand up, lay them flat.

Place in preheated oven and roast for about 15 minutes. Watch carefully, making sure marrow does not melt too quickly and start to seep out. As marrow starts to bubble, reduce heat to 350 and roast another 10 to 15 minutes, checking often with a thin fondue fork or skewer to see whether marrow is soft all the way through. Marrow is done when it turns golden and separates slightly from bones.

Meanwhile, as bones cook, melt the butter in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and parsley, sautéing until soft, for about 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the capers and lemon juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Divide parsley mixture among 4 serving plates. Place 1 marrow bone on each plate along with a few toast points. Provide guests with a thin knife or scoop (a thin parfait spoon handle works) to dig out soft marrow. Serve by spreading toast with marrow and a bit of parsley mixture.

Oxtail Stew

3 pounds oxtails

1 cup flour

Salt and pepper, as needed

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 garlic cloves, peeled smashed, minced

1 large onion, peeled, halved lengthwise and sliced into 1/4-inch slices

1/2 cup red wine

2 cups diced tomatoes with juice, or 1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes

1 to 2 cups beef broth

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled

1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary, crumbled

1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks

3 pounds potatoes, scrubbed and cut into large chunks

Working in batches, add the oxtails to a large, zip-close bag filled with the flour, heavily seasoned with the salt and pepper; shake to coat oxtails generously with flour. Transfer floured oxtails to a plate; discard flour.

Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add floured oxtails and brown them on all sides, for about 3 minutes per side. Transfer oxtails to a plate and set aside.

Add the garlic and onion to Dutch oven, and cook, stirring frequently, until onion is softened and translucent, for about 5 minutes. Add the wine, and stir to scrape up any browned bits. Cook until wine has almost evaporated, for about 5 minutes.

Return oxtails to pot. Add the tomatoes and enough of the beef broth to cover. Break the bay leaves in half and tuck them between oxtails. Bring to a boil, decrease heat to a simmer, cover and cook until meat is tender, for 2 to 2-1/2 hours.

Add the carrots and potatoes. Cover and simmer until vegetables are tender, for 45 to 60 minutes longer. Remove bay leaves and serve.

Makes 4 servings.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.