On weekends, I tend to cook dishes that are a little more involved. This past weekend, I finally made a dish that I’d been craving for a while: osso buco. Osso buco is Italian for “bone with a hole,” because after braising cross-cut veal shanks for several hours, the marrow in the bone melts and can be scooped out for a delectable treat. I had intended to make it the previous weekend, but I didn’t really look into getting veal shanks, and it turns out that they’re not the kind of thing you can pick up at most supermarkets. I was forced to go with Plan B, and made some lamb chops with fried sage. Pretty tasty, but they weren’t osso buco.
One weekend later, I made sure to put in a little more preparation. In a few quick calls to local stores, I located some shank at Whole Foods, and asked them to reserve 10 chunks of shank of about 3/4 pound each. Veal shanks (or shanks of basically any animal) are the animal’s femur and the surrounding meat, and osso buco involves cutting that shank horizontally to make pieces that look like a small cross-section of bone encircled by a medallion of meat:
Whole Foods assured me that they had veal shanks in stock, and that they would prepare my order for pickup on Saturday morning. That morning I strapped my 5 1/2 month old baby into her carrier and went on an adventure to the store. After 45 minutes of filling my cart with criminally overpriced yet delicious and organic food, I arrived at the meat counter. I told the butcher that I had called in the order, glanced down at the recipe printout I had brought to the store, and glanced back up to see the butcher carrying several corrugated boxes out of the back room.
Look down. Look back up. You are now surrounded by 10 cow legs.
Yes, they had misinterpreted my order for 10 osso buco medallions, as pictured above, for 10 entire shanks. I like veal, but wow. Luckily they were extremely understanding, and 5 minutes later I was on my way with a more sane amount of meat.
Not having made osso buco before, I decided to base my dish off a recipe from the always reliable Food and Wine magazine. This looked like a basic recipe, and other than the veal shanks, I had all the ingredients in-house. I ran the recipe by my friend Des, who cooks osso buco “with some degree of frequency,” and his main recommendation was to add some butter to the olive oil for the initial browning of the meat so that the oil wouldn’t smoke. Adding additional butter is never a tough sell. I tied a kitchen string around each shank (to preserve presentation, says Des), turned up a skillet to high, dusted the shanks with a touch of flour and good old S&P, and browned them. Whenever braising meat, browning it first is essential. Braising – cooking in moist, low heat for long periods of time – will make just about any cut falling-off-the-bone tender, but it never heats any part of the meat to the point where the Maillard reaction kicks in. Wikipedia says this reaction is when the “reactive carbonyl of the sugar reacts with the nucleophilic amino group of the amino acid, and forms a complex mixture of poorly characterized molecules responsible for a range of odors and flavors.” Basically, it means that at about 310 degrees Fahrenheit, the surface of the meat caramelizes, and makes the meat get that smoky-sweet savory meat flavor that’s essential to just about any dish.
Browning the shanks took three rotations in a hot skillet, then the meat went into a roasting pan. Normally I would have made this dish in my clay pot, which is excellent for braising, but the plan was to take this dish over to a friend’s place for dinner, and the properties of the clay pot include (1) really fucking heavy and (2) breakable, so I decided to go with the roasting pan covered with foil. After browning the shanks, it was a pretty standard braise: sauté a bunch of veggies, add some wine (deglaze!) and reduce until it’s just barely thickened. Then dump it in the oven for 3 hours and you have a meal!
The traditional side dish for osso buco is risotto. However, because of the aforementioned travel, I decided to go with something a little simpler. I found a recipe for cauliflower with pine nuts and bacon that looked good, and was, although I substituted sliced almonds for the pine nuts. It’s definitely a dish I would make again, although I’d cut the cauliflower into slightly smaller florets than I did this time to increase surface area and potential mean bacon coverage (PMBC is a quality metric applicable to many dishes).
Overall review: like many braised dishes, osso buco takes a lot of time but really not much effort. The main reason why this isn’t an everyday dish is because veal shanks are mildly difficult to get. But if you have access to a good butcher and a couple hours, give it a try! Veal combines buttery tenderness with rich flavor better than just about any meat out there, and braising only accentuates both those qualities. As a side bonus, you end up with about a quart of extra braising sauce, which will keep for about a week and is delicious on eggs, potatoes, or just about any other dish!