One of my favorite things to make on a cold winter night is osso buco (AW-soh BOO-koh, or OH-soh BOO-koh). The Italian name, literally translated, means "a bone with a hole in it," and refers to the principal ingredient, veal shanks. The dish hails from Lombardy, in northern Italy, home both to industrial Milan and picturesque Lake Como. According to Bruno Angelotti's Notes on Food, "the origins of osso buco are lost in the very distant past, but it can be traced as far back as the twelfth century in very much its present form." Any recipe that's been made continuously for 900 years has to be considered an oldie but goody.
The dish has the main elements I look for when the air is crisp: rich, fork-tender meat and plenty of hearty sauce just yearning to be soaked up with crusty bread. It consists of veal shanks, or shinbones, usually cut into 2- or 3-inch segments, which are slowly roasted or braised in a flavorful sauce of stock and vegetables, then topped with an aromatic garnish called gremolata.
Osso buco substitutes the magic of time for an expensive cut of meat. Before cooking, shanks are tough because they're full of connective tissue. By letting them roast slowly at a moderate temperature, those tissues break down, become soft and flavorful, and ultimately fall off of the bone. As this happens, the juices from the shanks blend with the cooking liquid, reduce slowly, and essentially make their own gravy.
Since the result is quite rich, the gremolata topping cuts and complements the flavors with its zingy mix of lemon zest, parsley and garlic. There's no need for fancy techniques or pricey equipment, and although getting it right takes time, it's pretty easy if you're patient. Here's what you need to make this at home for four:
3 to 3 1/2 pounds of veal shanks or shins, sawed -- not chopped -- into four pieces, each 2 1/2 inches long, and tied with string around their circumference. (The butcher should be able to do this for you at any area market.)
2 tablespoons butter
1 carrot, 1 rib of celery, 1 medium onion, 2 cloves of garlic, all finely chopped
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup dry white wine
3/4 cup beef, chicken or veal stock (canned is OK, but bouillon = bad news)
5 parsley sprigs
3 cups drained fresh or canned whole tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
2 bay leaves
2 additional cloves of garlic, finely chopped
3 additional tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1 tablespoon lemon zest
You only need two pans for this one: a heavy frying pan and a Dutch oven or a shallow casserole with a heavy bottom and a tight-fitting lid. Ideally, it will be just large enough to hold the shanks standing up in one layer.
Begin by setting your oven to 350 degrees so it can preheat. Next, put the Dutch oven or casserole on the stove over medium heat. After three minutes, add the butter, then the carrots, celery, onion and garlic. Cook them for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until colored lightly, and then remove from the heat.
Turning your attention to the shanks, season them generously with salt and pepper, and then roll them in flour. Heat your pan thoroughly on medium high and add the olive oil. When the oil becomes hazy, add the shanks and brown them thoroughly, rolling them by quarter turns to brown them all over to seal in the delicate flavors. Remove the shanks directly to the Dutch oven and stand them up on the vegetables.
Leaving only enough to coat the bottom, drain the fat from the skillet and return the skillet to the heat. Pour in the wine, raise the heat to high and scrape up all those tasty bits clinging to the bottom. Boil, reducing the liquid by half and removing the alcohol, then add the stock, parsley, tomatoes, thyme, basil and bay leaves. When this mixture boils, pour it over the veal shanks and into the casserole. It should come halfway up the shanks. Move the whole shebang to the hot burner, get it to boil, then put the lid on it and put it in the lower third of the oven. Give it one hour and fifteen minutes to become tender to the tip of a sharp knife, but don't ignore it. Baste it every 15 minutes or so and make sure it's simmering gently. If it isn't, adjust the heat as necessary.
Finish by mixing up the gremolata, combining the remaining parsley, garlic and lemon zest. Serve the shanks on a deep platter (don't forget to take the strings off!) and spoon the sauce over the top. (For the bonus round, scoop the softened marrow out of the bones and spread it on a piece of bread with a sprinkle of salt.) Add some crusty bread, a simple risotto and a crisp salad, and you have a healthy and satisfying meal sure to warm the body and soul.
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