The Giro d’Italia is in town this weekend, and several regular characters in my ‘Moss Reid’ series are serious cycling nuts. Time for some Italian food…
Ossobuco is Italian for “bone with a hole” – that marrow hole at the centre of a cross-cut veal shank. It’s a cheap and tasty cut of meat, from the top of the thigh which has a higher proportion of meat to bone.
Ossobuco is also the name of a classic Milanese dish made from these shanks, verrrrrrrry slowwwwwly cooked with vegetables, wine and stock. But what makes a great ossobuco, one that’s succulent, melting, with layers of flavour and scrummy savoury marrow?
1. What kind of meat?
Get four slices of veal shin. Good veal of course, that has been properly reared. You could use beef shin (oops, see pic) instead, but it’s not quite the pale classic.
They should be 2.5 centimetres (an inch) to around four to five centimetres (two inches) thick.
2. To tie or not to tie?
A good ossobuco is falling off the bone. So should you first tie up the shanks to help keep the pieces stay intact? No, life is too short – just handle the shanks gingerly once they’re cooked (see below).
3. Brown the meat
Dust the veal shanks with plain white flour, then fry in butter in a large skillet or casserole dish with a tight-fitting lid, for about 5-6 minutes on each side or until browned all over. Remove them from the pot and reserve.
Better still, first render some fat from a few lardons and then brown the shanks in that.
Or just use olive oil and crank up the temperature to high. Or you could sear (I said “sear”, not “seal”) the meat by putting it under a really hot grill for a few minutes on either side.
4. Make your mirepoix
This means finely chopping up the standard three veg that go into a mirepoix mix:
- 1 large onion
- 2 carrots
- 2-3 celery stalks
5. Tomatoes or not?
There are two main versions of the dish:
- A modern version which has tomatoes
- The original version, ossobuco in bianco, which doesn’t. That’s what I’m doing, so no tomatoes please
6. Fry your vegetables
Add the mirepoix to the pot along with four bay leaves, and cook gently without browning for about 7-8 minutes until the onion is soft.
7. Add the vino
Now add a good glug (about 100ml) of wine, and let it reduce slightly.
Which wine works best? A dry white. There are recipes out there with red wine (such as ossobuco al Barolo), and/or with dry sherry, brandy or even balsamic vinegar. But for the classic one it has to be a dry white.
A strong red such as a Cabernet Savignon can be a bit of a thug. It’s often great in other slow-braise dishes, or a light red such as a Pinot Noir would sometimes do in a stew. But for ossobuco, a white wine will usually provide a gentle flavour which won’t overpower the delicate taste of the veal.
Oh, and do you have a spare anchovy in the fridge? Add it. No, it won’t turn everything fishy. It will dissolve and act a flavour catalyst. Anchovy is a sort of natural monosodium glutamate of slow cooked meats, but without the bad MSG stuff.
8. Take stock
Return the meat to the pot, and add a litre of light chicken stock – or veal or beef stock if you’re stuck. For extra depth of flavour, add:
- 4 sage leaves
- 1 rosemary sprig
- The grated zest of 1 small orange
9. Cook slowly
Now turn the heat down and cover with a tight lid. Cook at a low heat for one and a half hours, until the meat is coming off the bone – turn the veal very gently every 20 minutes or so.
Use thongs or a spatula to do this, so that the meat stays in one piece and the marrow doesn’t fall out. If the pot is getting too dry, add a little more stock.
The long slow braise will extract loads of gorgeous gelatin from the bone and connective tissue, reconfiguring the collagen and “loosening” up the meat in the shanks.
This is an incredibly simple technique, requiring next to no effort, and with these cuts of meat it’s quite hard to over-braise.
When cooked, taste and season with salt and black pepper if required, and place onto a serving dish and keep warm.
10. Make a gremolata
Gremolata is an optional garnish, but well worth doing. Besides adding an extra zing, it introduces a bit of colour to an otherwise quite pale dish.
The gremolata (or gremolada) usually consists of a mix of:
- 1 lemon, zest only, grated
- A clove of garlic, thinly chopped
- Two tablespoons of chopped parsley. It’s usually flat-leafed, but it doesn’t have to be
Mix all the gremolata ingredients together and sprinkle on the individual servings.
11. Plate it up
Serve the ossobuco – sprinkled with the gremolata if using – with:
- Creamy mashed potato or
- Polenta or
- Possibly lentils or
- A saffron-flavoured risotto alla Milanese (as featured in chapter 12 of my novel Another Case in Cowtown)
12. What else?
Alternatively, try pork shanks. Or goat? In Dublin, FX Buckleys the butchers in Moore Street usually have some.