In Praise of Nubbins
Food writers are in this game to share delicious things wherever we find them; you could call it one of the journalistic obligations of the profession. But to be honest, we all have our secrets—discoveries or restaurants we keep to ourselves for fear that they'll be overwhelmed and ruined by public attention. The nubbins at Heritage Meats are mine.
Though the dry-aged steaks and cured meats like citrusy pork sausage and pastrami-cured tongue at Heritage are all excellent, they command a pretty penny, and a few items in the meat case climb to over $30 a pound. Are they worth it? Sure, but on a food writer's salary they're only a rare indulgence.
Which is why I was delighted last year to discover a small bin in the corner of the case, nestled between two hams, that was topped off with cubes of cured pork odds and ends. "Nubbins," a sign on top of the bin read, "$5 a pound." Think about it for a moment. This is the same charcuterie sold at premium prices, already cut up for you, and mixed with a bunch of other meats (mostly hams and bacons but also some sausage) for variety's sake. The butcher may not be able to get usable slices from them, and they may be a touch fatty compared to the rest of the cut, but that's their problem, not yours. Nubbins aren't just a good deal on end cuts—they're an improvement on the original product.
I decided to start talking about nubbins with others when I realized they were the best worst-kept secret in the butcher case. For instance, the nubbins at Heritage are now $7 a pound, so I take it some people are already catching on. Earlier this year, Sam Sifton penned a piece for the Times on the fishy, fatty lox nubbins you can get at Russ & Daughters for a song. And cured meat nubs have long been popular in restaurants, be they surreptitiously slipped into dishes for thrift's sake or cooked behind the scenes for family meal. (You didn't hear it from us, but there's a popular New York sausage maker and restaurant that does a "salumi pâté" as a cook's treat.)
Let's be real: we all love nubbins even when we don't think of them as nubbins. Kansas City-style burnt ends? Barbecue nubbins. Squeaky cheese curds? Dairy nubbins. The stray bits of roast broccoli crowns that get extra crisp and oily in the oven? Vegetable nubbins. The broken hunks of maple sugar candy I once picked up from the farmer's market at sundown, too small to sell with the rest of the batch, $3 for a half pound? You get the idea.
There are many nubbins out there, but meat nubbins are the highest value proposition for cheap eaters who don't want to cheap out on their food. When dismantling a rib of beef into individual steaks, I found myself with plenty of odds and ends too small to cook. So they became tartare—a thrift-upon-thrift process of turning nubbins into even smaller nublets, then bulking them up with pickles and egg.
Whenever I visit a new butcher, I keep an eye out for their nubbins. They may not be right for eating raw as charcuterie, but they excel at being cooked into larger dishes. Near my apartment in Astoria, Queens, Balkan butcher Euro Market has an astonishing selection of dried beef and pork sausages, and their smoky, salty, occasionally spicy nubbins are a mere $6 a pound. They made wonderful fodder for a smoky bean stew.
If the butcher has a prepared foods counter, take note, for nubbins may be involved. Di Palo's near the Serious Eats office does a porktastic tomato sauce with their prosciutto necks—the ankle ends of the ham too skinny to slice but chock full of good meat and gelatin-rich skin. You can also buy the necks whole to slice and dice at home—ur-nubbins, if you will.
The beauty of nubbins isn't just their thrift and tastiness, but also their durability. I endeavor to keep at least a half pound of assorted nubs in the freezer at all times, where I can retrieve them by the handful for whatever greens or soup or sauce that would merit their addition. Unlike whole sausages or hunks of cured meat, nubbins don't require running heavy knives through half-frozen chunks. Just use what you need and keep the rest in cold storage.
Eventually I encountered a problem: I had accumulated too many nubbins. In my freezer there were tasso hunks from New Orleans and prosciutto bits from Heritage, plus some chunks of rind-on bacon from honestly-I-don't-remember-where. So I called Robyn and Chichi and announced we were having a nubbins night, and they were to come over for a meal starring nubbins in various forms.
Half of the nubbins went into a modified version of Marcella Hazan's legendary tomato sauce, which normally gets along just fine with its trio of canned tomatoes, butter, and onion, but certainly didn't mind the inclusion of half a pound of pork hunks. Chichi rendered some of the nubs' fat—just enough to lubricate the whole mess, not cook the meat into dry, overcooked submission—before adding the tomatoes for a long simmer. Meanwhile, I cooked some more nubbins with white wine and garlic for a nubby broccoli rabe side dish.
The resulting pasta sauce was so pork-sticky and sweet that half a normal portion was all we needed. And we got to relish not just the fatty sauce and delightfully thick noodles, but also the varied textures of the cooked nubbins—some lean, some wobbly, some chewy. As for the broccoli rabe, I'm happy to say it was one of the best versions of the vegetable I've ever had.
We could have done so much more with our nubbins, like chop them into tiny bits and bake them into bread, or render their fat to fry eggs, or make chili, or pot beans, or a couple dozen green dishes. That's how it goes with nubbins: they give and give and give.
Which is why I'm always looking out for more nubbins and ways to use them. Do you buy nubbins? If so, what do you do with them? Let me know in the comments.