Variations on a theme by Noma

I was so excited to make this Noma dish: Pickled Vegetables and Smoked Bone Marrow. A garden full of different vegetables, each shaved thinly and quickly pickled in its own designated brine. And smoked bone marrow – something that sounds almost too decadently awesome to exist.

I made two versions of this: one, with bone marrow, on New Year’s Eve; the other, with seared scallops, a week later. I present both of these below.

For the marrow version: Four days ahead of time, procure your marrow bones. I had six, two-inch sections, and that was about right for 6 people. Soak them in cold water for two days, changing the water every 12 hours or so. Then switch the soaking liquid to a 7% salt brine – i.e., 70 grams of salt per litre of water.

Getting marrow out of the bone is a tricky business. Set the bone down on a cutting board, with the wider cut-side down. Protecting your hand protected (somewhat) with a tea towel or a chain mail glove, grip the base and, using a flexible steak knife or boning knife, carefully stab downward around the perimeter of the marrow until you’ve done a 360. Turn the bone section over, and try to repeat the procedure. This will be easy on the upper and middle segments of bone. Depending on your butcher’s skill and how little he likes you, you’ll likely end up with some segments that are partly or mostly bony at the wider end. If this is the case, carve out an opening wide enough to admit your index finger, trying your best to minimize the amount of fragmented bone that you introduce into the marrow. The next step is to poke the marrow out of the bone – this is best done when the whole thing is ice cold.

The next step is to smoke the marrow, using a combination of hay and wood chips. I found timothy hay at – you guessed it – the pet store, where it’s sold for bunnies and other, more rodent-esque creatures that apparently have invitations to the homes of my neighbours for reasons that are obscure to me.

The smoking happened on my ghetto smoker. Hay smoke is pretty intense – I was skeptical that it would end up tasting like anything other than a barn fire. In the Noma book, Redzepi prescribes a smoking time of 20 minutes. It was hard for me to see how this would impart flavour, but I followed instructions anyway.

For both versions: Redzepi calls for flash-pickling each veggie in a chamber vacuum for 10 minutes. Not having a chamber vac, I used the marinating accessory jar that came along with my Foodsaver. I really can’t say whether it worked better than just marinating in a bowl for half an hour or so – some day, I’ll do a controlled, double-blind trial of Foodsaver vs. bowl. But I can say that it worked just fine.

Many of the brine recipes call for apple balsamic vinegar. This is a hideously expensive ingredient; I paid about $30 for a 250ml bottle. (Yes, mother, I heard your sharp intake of breath from 120km away…) Of course, it’s also amazing: like balsamic with the slight, tangy, autumnal scent of apples gone to cider. Soooo good.

The bone marrow version of this dish had beet (in a very apple balsamic-intense brine), carrot and parsnip (in another apple balsamic brine), kohlrabi (in a brine of white vinegar and seaweed – I used a mix of wakame and laver, but I think nori or kombu would be fine – dulse might be too smoky), and cauliflower (in a straight-ahead vinegar-and-sugar brine). I forgot to make the cucumber and turnip. The scallop version had cucumber (in a watery brine with fresh dill and a tiny bit of vinegar), beets, carrot, and cauliflower.

To pickle the veggies, proceed thusly. Get your mandoline out, and shave yourself some veggies  – you’re going for slices just a touch thicker than a standard carrot peeling, and about 1cm wide. Except for the cauliflower, which needs a mandoline (or a knife wielded by steadier hands than mine) you can get by with a peeler. Carrots, parsnips and kohlrabi like being thrown into ice water after being sliced – it makes them curl up.

Here’s the Foodsaver flash-pickling apparatus, looking very Mr. Wizard:

… and here it is with carrots and brine:

… and here are the carrots after their dip in the brine:

Here’s the cauliflower, cheerily mimicking a cross-sectioned brain in formaldehyde:

And finally, just because it’s so pretty, here’s the pickled cucumber (which did make it into the second version of the dish):

For the marrow version: Slice the cold marrow into coins. Take the pork rib stock you’ve prepped, and boil some of it down into a near syrup.

For the scallop version: If you have pork stock left, so much the better (think bacon-wrapped scallops…mmm.) If not, warm up some demi-glace. Sear your scallops (sea scallops / diver scallops, not bay) in some clarified butter or neutral oil.

Here’s the marrow version – this was plated at about 11:59:10pm on New Year’s Eve, so there are no micro-herbs or flower petals… we did end up garnishing it with some tiny dill sprigs (after the photo session), but that’s about it.

Picture doing 7 plates with at least 2 or 3 rolls of each of 4 vegetables, cauliflower shavings, and marrow coins carefully doused in hot pork jus, between 11:52 and 11:59, and you’ll understand the lack of garnishes.

And here’s the scallop version, replete with edible (duh) flower petals and dill spriglets… (now be honest, does this make me look gay?)

Some thoughts:

  • 20 minutes of smoking was more than enough for the marrow. It was decidedly smoky, and the smoke permeated the pork jus on the plate. Far from unpleasant – downright heady – but I think it would have been better with a more subtle smokiness.
  • Not surprisingly, the quality of the root vegetables, in particular, matters a lot. Older, woody beets, parsnips, and carrots don’t absorb brine well, and their texture is less succulent than that of more tender veggies. Obvious, yes, but worth paying attention to.
  • Once you’ve rolled your veggies up, trim the sides so you end up with even geometry.
  • Do as much prep ahead of time as possible – most importantly, roll up your pickled veggies. But don’t plate and refrigerate, or the fat in the protein/stock components will congeal.
  • Kohlrabi + seaweed… delicious. Who knew?
  • The marrow version was superior, flavour-wise. Very, very rich, but super-tasty. But the scallop version was great too, and more suited to being a course – rather than a taste – for a short menu.
  • Redzepi doesn’t call for flower petals, but they actually added a lot to the scallop version of the dish: it becomes even  more a riot of colour, and their light perfume was oddly parallel to the briny-sweet scallop scent.
  • Crucially, given the cost of the apple balsamic: you can strain, refrigerate and reuse the more acidic/sugary brines a couple of times at least.