As I have written before, we’ve recently visited a local old-fashioned gourmet food market and came home with several treats – these beautiful Osso Buco-cut veal shanks from Pienikangas Highland being one of those. From the moment I beheld them with covetous hungry eyes at the market, I knew they were destined to be a romantic dinner for two.
For most of us (ok, for most of us carnivores – vegans seem to have so little fun!), a slow-cooked stew-like dish is not the first thing that comes to mind combined with ‘romance’ – that category, for some reason, tends to be full of barely-seared fillet or entrecôte, ceviche of scallops, or prawns and lobster that have made close acquaintance with the broiler. And I do agree that any or all of those in any combination are, indeed, lovely and do make a fantastic romantic dinner. A slow-simmered stew, on the other hand, tends to be regarded as a homey, family-style food item, and thus evoking thoughts of one’s old aunt or perhaps a holiday dinner complete with all your baby and toddler relatives – but, bear with me for a moment here. Osso Buco is not your average throw-anything-and-leftovers-in stew.
Osso Buco or L’ossobuco, as it is properly known, hails from Milan. In pre-Colombian times it was prepared with cinnamon and without the tomatoes (since the tomatoes back then were well, in America) – a version that is now known as in bianco. The modern version, like so much Italian food, has taken to the (food) discovery of the New World with wild abandon, and it does include tomatoes. There is (as is always with well-known dishes) a huge debate about whether the old or the new is good, a debate in which I choose to neither participate nor fence-sit. I like both. Osso Buco, oozing its glorious marrow fat, is traditionally served with Risotto alla Milanese, a luxurious dish that highlights the flavors of saffron and parmesan cheese, and garnished with gremolata – a mix of lemon zest, chopped parsley and minced or crushed garlic. Osso Buco is served on weekends and special occasions with some pride and ceremony, and is certainly, certainly not just some frumpy bland floury-flavored stew.
What it is, is a rich, delicately textured and meltingly-soft preparation that is so, so full of flavor that every bite invites you to savor it rather than wolfing it down. The meat falls off the bone, and the entire affair is set off by the garnish of citrusy-garlicky sharp bite of the gremolata. It slows the meal to a crawl, in the best possible way, allowing for leisurely conversation, or just mutual admiration over the table. The only danger here, is that one shouldn’t eat too much if any, ahm, other romantic activities are planned for afterwards for fear of just curling up around a full stomach and falling asleep instead. Granted, the same is true with a rare steak or a lobster tail, so there’s that.
I could probably wax poetic about this longer, but you probably want the recipe by now, or have fallen asleep reading this. Either way, here’s to make some of your own. Note – the recipe takes 3-5 hours depending on the toughness of your shanks. On the up side, once the pot is in the oven, you can go take a long bath, take a nap, or beautify yourself to your heart’s content. The oven does the work for you.
Serves 2 generously with some awesome sauce leftovers.
Things you will need:
- A good oven-safe pot or casserole dish. I use my much-beloved blue glazed ceramic pot from Alsace. It is my precioussss!
- 2 slices of osso buco cut veal or mutton shanks (some swear by mutton, I am happy to have either – these are veal)
- 2 tsp of flour for dredging
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 2-3 tablespoons of butter and some duck fat or frying oil to prevent burning. Duck fat is very recommended – whenever I make duck, I always scoop or pour off and reserve it in a small crock covered with plastic film in the fridge. It keeps for months and is very excellent to add richness to stews and prevent butter from burning in the pan.
- 1 large glass of white wine (I am talking about 3dl, but 4-5dl won’t go amiss).
- Enough stock or water (water works just fine here so long as you are using actual shanks with a bone which essentially cook their own stock up while the dish stews) to cover the meat in the pot. This will depend on size and shape of your pot so no quantity given.
- 1-2 onions, peeled and chopped
- 2-4 carrots, peeled and chopped finely (you don’t want large fat hunks of carrot in this, that’s not what we are going for
- 2-4 sticks of celery, washed, and sliced very fine. If the green tips are good, reserve and chop these as well
- 1-2 sprigs of fresh rosemary or 1 tsp dried rosemary leaves
- 1 generous tablespoon of tomato paste (optional but I do like it)
- 3 bay leaves
- 4-6 large cloves or 2 heads ‘Solo’ garlic, peeled and chopped finely or minced
- Large handful of washed baby tomatoes (I like the grape rather than cherry type because they are meatier and turn out better when cooked)
- 1-2 potatoes, washed and/or peeled, chopped into 2-3cm bits. Entirely optional and not at all traditional, but! – if you are not going to make Risotto alla Milanese with this, and just want it on its own, they are a very nice addition.
- 1 tsp chili flakes (entirely optional but I think a tiny touch of nearly-undetectable heat does great things with stew flavors)
- 2 cloves or 1 more ‘solo’ head of garlic, peeled and minced
- Zest of 1 lemon
- Handful of parsley, flat-leaf if you can find it, washed, blotted dry and chopped very fine
- A pinch of sea salt
- I have also sliced a few kumquats into mine. This is not entirely traditional either, but they are citrus and they are lovely and fresh and work really well here – not to mention looking good!
What you do:
- Set your oven to preheat to 180-200C.
- Put bay leaves, chopped celery greens, rosemary and chili flakes (if using the latter) into your pot.
- Melt some butter and duck fat or oil in a large pan on medium heat, and fry the onions and celery with a small pinch of salt until soft and just beginning to turn golden.
- Push to the side, add carrots and fry until those turn light gold, and mix into the veg.
- Make a space on the side and toss in the garlic, frying for a few seconds only until aromatic, and not allowing to color.
- Scrape all the vegetables into your stewpot, and give it a stir to distribute the spices in it. Add your tomato paste if using.
- Add a bit of butter/duck fat to the frying pan.
- Season shanks with salt and pepper, and dredge in the flour. Shake excess flour off and brown the shanks on both sides, then place them on top of the vegetables in the pot.
- Pour the wine into the pan, scrape any brown bits off into it and pour the heated wine into the pot on top of the meat.
- Add the baby tomatoes and chopped potatoes to the pot.
- Add enough stock or water to nearly cover everything, so that the shanks can be just pushed into the surface of the liquid. Add 1/2 tsp salt if using water rather than stock (I salt my stock when I prepare it).
- If the surface of the liquid has too little visible fat, add a small dab of duck fat or butter on top of the meat.
- Cover the pot and put it in the oven (with fan off if possible, if you have always-on fan, turn temperature down to 175C).
- Set your timer to 1.5 hours and go relax.
- When timer rings, take the pot out of oven using thick potholders, open and check to make sure all is cooking beautifully. Poke the meat with a fork (it will probably still be pretty tough at this point). Inhale the beautiful aroma. Taste the sauce for salt and add any if necessary.
- Cover the pot and replace it in the oven. Check every half-hour thereafter.
- In the meantime make the gremolata – in a nonreactive dish, mix all ingredients. Cover and stick in refrigerator. Go back to relaxing.
- Once the meat falls off the bone, lower the heat to 90C and keep the pot in the oven until you are ready to serve.
- Plate the osso buco, placing the falling-apart shank as much ‘on top’ as you can since it’s falling apart. Garnish with gremolata. If you made risotto or something to eat this with, use smaller portions (leftover sauce is divine as pasta sauce or soup base the next day!).
- Crack open some wine (white or red, both work well with this in my totally-not-wine-snob opinion – drink what you think would taste good for you!), light some candles and enjoy.