The cold weather has been relentless here on the coast of Maine. Today, Wednesday, is a couple of degrees warmer than yesterday, and looking ahead at the weather report, which a died-in-the-wool Mainer does every morning, we seem to be heading with timid, halting steps toward spring. But snow, old, dirty snow, still covers the ground and lowering clouds cast gloom on the landscape. Hard to believe it’s almost April but still—I recall being caught out on the road in a driving blizzard one mid-April years ago, and it could, and well might, happen again. So the kitchen manager turns back now to the kind of substantial, meaty, robust fare that kept us going through January and February and, stirring the pots with her fingers crossed, she sneaks a peek from time to time out the kitchen window, looking for a ray of sunshine.
Osso buco means literally bone with a hole and it refers to the shank or fore-leg bone with its prominent hunk of marrow in the center. In this day and age, not everyone has a jones for marrow but believe me, in this rendition, it is absolutely delicious and you might think of serving the dish with some golden toasted bread slices on which diners can spread the marrow for further delectation.
This is also one of the very few dishes in the entire Italian repertoire that is often served accompanied by a risotto—a very plain risotto made with a savory broth and chopped parsley and a sprinkle of parmigiano cheese. Most often, risotto, like pasta, is considered deserving of its own special status on the menu but here, in Lombardy (think Milano, the capital), the combinaton of osso buco and risotto is considered just right. Moreover, in that gastronomic center where the business lunch is elevated to a thing of glory, osso buco is equally elevated by the addition at the very end, right before service, of a gremolata, a sprinkle of finely chopped garlic, parsley and lemon zest, just the perfect touch to an almost perfect dish.
The recipe comes from The Essential Mediterranean, my favorite out of all the books I’ve written.
Don’t be surprised at the recommended size of the veal shanks. A lot of the weight is taken up by bone. Do get the meatiest shanks, the ones farthest up the leg. As the leg descends to the hoof, just as with humans, the bone takes over from the muscle—and the muscle is the meaty part.
To make 4 servings:
- 4 veal shanks, each about 2 inches thick and weighing about 12 ounces
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- About ½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 ounces pancetta, minced to make about ½ cup
- 1 medium carrot, chopped
- 1 celery stalk, chopped
- 1 small yellow onion, chopped
- 1 garlic clove, chopped
- 1 medium ripe tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped; or 2 canned plum tomatoes, well drained and chopped
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 cup dry white wine
- ½ cup chicken or veal stock
- For the gremolata:
- Grated zest of 1 lemon, organic preferably
- 2 tablespoons finely minced flat-leaf parsley
- 1 garlic clove, finely minced
Pat the veal shanks dry with paper towels and cut a few narrow slits around the edge of each to keep them flat when they’re cooking. Sprinkle each shank liberally on both sides with salt and pepper. Spread the flour on a plate and dredge the shanks on both sides, tapping to get rid of any excess. Set aside.
Add the oil and butter to a heavy-duty saucepan that’s large enough to hold all the shanks in one layer and set the pan over low heat. When the butter has melted and the foam starts to subside, add the pancetta. Cook briefly, just a minute or so, until the fat in the pancetta starts to melt. Stir in the carrot, celery, onion, and chopped garlic. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are very tender and melting in the fat. Do not let the vegetables brown.
While the vegetables are cooking, turn the oven on to 300ºF.
Use a slotted spoon to remove the vegetables from the saucepan and set aside. Raise the heat slightly and slowly brown the veal shanks on both sides in the fat remaining in the pan–about 10 minutes to a side. Once the shanks are thoroughly browned, return the vegetables to the saucepan. Stir in the tomato. Add the bay leaves, ½ cup of the wine, and the stock. Bring to a simmer, cover, and transfer to the oven to bake for about 2 hours. (You may also cook this on top of the stove if it’s more convenient.)
Heat the remaining cup of wine to just below boiling. Check the meat from time to time and add small amounts of hot wine—a few tablespoons at a time—to the pan as the liquid cooks down. After the first 45 minutes, carefully turn the veal shanks over. The meat is done when it is fork-tender and falling off the bones.
While the osso buco is cooking, combine the lemon zest, parsley and minced garlic. Mince together until very fine to make a gremolata. Add the gremolata to the pan at the end of the cooking time and stir in. If you wish hold back a little of the gremolata to scatter over the veal shanks as you serve them.
About veal: I had a standing argument with Julia Child, may she rest in peace, over the definition of true veal. Julia insisted that it must be white meat from animals that had never been put out to pasture but only subsisted on their own mother’s milk. Once the little animals start to browse on grass, iron in their feed turns their flesh pink and then red.
That was fine as long as we were talking about the good old days when dairy farmers raised their excess veal calves in that manner and dispensed with them when they were still very young. But with modern industrial methods of raising white veal, the meat became highly questionable since the calves were kept confined in cages throughout their brief lives, and massive amounts of medication had to be dosed in order to keep them alive until they were ready for slaughter.
But there is a better way and the veal used in this recipe, as you can see from the color of the raw meat, comes from animals that were raised humanely, partially on pasture and gradually weaned, without the need for medication. I bought the meat at Maine Street Meats in Rockport, Maine, a great source if you’re looking for butchers who know a lot about their meat and break down the product themselves. The veal comes from Springdale, a dairy farm in Waldo, Maine, where the Whitcomb sisters breed, raise and milk registered Jerseys and Guernseys on their family spread. The veal calves are slaughtered at 10 months so they’re a bit larger than most, but the meat is still tender and full of flavor.
Oliver, the butcher at Maine Street Meats, believes that anyone who eats dairy products has an ethical duty to support veal consumption. I see exactly what he means though it might be hard to convince cheese-eating vegetarians of that.