A LOVE AFFAIR WITH ITALY
My clever husband was working in the scientific publishing sector many moons ago, working for a small publishing house as European editor. Not only was my clever husband in charge of European content for their weekly newspaper aimed at professionals in a specific medical field, but he was equally entrusted with the mission of unearthing golden opportunities for his bosses on the European market.
And here is where the clever part comes in: he convinced his bosses of the interest, nay the necessity, of purchasing a small, failing publishing house in their sector of interest. In Italy. Of course, clever as he is, he knew right away that they would very quickly realize that he was the only possible choice to take over and run this affair for them. Clever is as clever does, so he immediately signed up for intensive Italian lessons with Berlitz.
Mission accomplished and this is how we had the golden opportunity of living – oh yes, and working – in Milan for 7 glorious years. And thus began our love affair of everything Italian. Culinary, that is.
Yes, of course, we fell in love with Italy as well, her joyous people, her incredible landscape, her fabulous monuments, churches, art, her history, her movies and movie stars, her language. What is there not to love about Italy? But culinarily, if I may coin a phrase, Italy is indeed a gem, and one has difficulty in separating her cuisine from the rest of her attributes. It is a cuisine based on ingredients which come from her own terra, truly seasonal and fresh, healthy and luxurious in the depth and richness of flavors. Tomatoes and garlic, artichokes and asparagus, olives and olive oil and wine, tender veal and luscious prosciutto all lead to a multitude of fabulous meals. Followed, of course, by gelato or Tiramisu, cannoli or biscotti, all washed down by a smooth, rich grappa or nutty Amaretto. For most of us, Italian food stirs up images of pizza, pasta and risotto, but live in Italy for a while and you will discover treasures unheard of of: Saltimbocca, Carpaccio, Ribollita, Arancine, Olive all’Ascolane just to name a few. A world to discover.
And there is Osso Buco alla Milanese. A classic dish of this northern Italian town, our city. The dish is named after the slice of veal shank with its center bone – the “osso buco” or “the bone with a hole” – filled with tasty marrow (it usually arrives at your table with a spoon sticking out of the marrow, the better to scoop out and eat the marrow with). The veal shanks are long simmered in chicken stock and white wine, flavored with the traditional “soffritto” (chopped onion, carrot and celery, sautéed in olive oil or butter at the beginning of the cooking process), tomato and bouquet garni. Osso Buco’s traditional partner and best friend is a Milanese style saffron-infused risotto, sometimes dusted ever so lightly with freshly grated Parmesan.
Occasionally he would call me from work and invite me to join him for lunch and we would eat this luscious dish at a wonderful restaurant near his office that clever he had discovered. Between the two of us we can’t come up with the name of the restaurant to save our life (though 10 years or so later, we most likely still have the business card tucked away somewhere, long after the restaurant has closed), but we savor the clear, sharp memories of the taste of the Osso Buco, warm and rich, meat so tender that it falls off of the bone and melts in the mouth, scooped up in all its glory with a spoonful of golden, creamy risotto, the slight tang of the tomato and the delicate crunch of a sprinkling of toasted pine nuts, the flavors lingering behind, all these years later.
It took me many years before I found the courage to make Osso Buco. I can now make homemade pizza, dough and all, practically with my eyes closed. I am the Risotto Queen, whether saffron, Parmesan, mushroom or seafood. Clem makes the world’s most amazing Tiramisu, one which has the power to induce the “vapors” in all but the most stout-hearted. Biscotti are a breeze. But the succulence and the complexity of this dish always terrified me; I thought that I was simply not up to the task. I don’t remember what finally pushed me to attempt it, maybe a word from the clever one who doubts my culinary abilities not one whit, but try it I finally did. And discovered that I, too, could create a wonderful Osso Buco and bring to our table the flavor and the memories of our beloved Milano.
OSSO BUCO ALLA MILANESE
A little bit Mario Batali, a little bit Françoise Bernard and a little bit rock and roll
Serves 4 - 6
2 ½ lbs (1.2 kg) veal for osso buco (sliced veal shank or, if unavailable, veal shoulder) or 1 per person
4 – 4 Tbs olive oil
¾ - 1 cup (190 – 250 ml) dry white wine
1 Tbs tomato paste
1 onion + 1 carrot, both diced (you can add a branch of celery, as well)
Seasoned flour (salt & pepper), enough to dredge the slices of osso buco
1 cup (250 ml) crushed tomatoes or tomato pulp (or 3 fresh, ripe tomatoes, peeled and crushed)
3 – 4 cups (750 ml – 1 liter) chicken stock or half stock, half water
Bouquet garni or a few bay leaves + a few branches of dried thyme
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ lemon for juice (optional)
Zest of 1 lemon
2 Tbs pine nuts
¼ cup or 2 Tbs chopped fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley
Prepare the Gremolata :
Lightly toast the pine nuts in a skillet over medium heat with no fat, tossing and watching carefully so as to pull them off the heat immediately they are golden brown.
Zest the lemon in long, curling threads.
In a small bowl, toss together the toasted pine nuts, the lemon zest and the chopped parsley. Set aside until dinner. If there is long to wait, cover with plastic wrap to keep it from drying out.
Prepare the Osso Buco :
Chop the onion and carrot along with a branch of celery if you have one on hand. Stir the tomato paste into the white wine to dissolve.
Dredge the veal in the seasoned flour (salt and pepper) to coat both sides. Shake off the excess flour.
Heat about 4 Tbs olive oil in a dutch oven or deep, heavy pot over medium-high heat until hot and sizzling when a piece of onion is dropped in. Add the veal, making sure not to overcrowd – you may need to do this in 2 or even 3 batches. Allow to brown well on one side before carefully turning each piece to brown on the other side; this will take anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes per side, depending on the temperature of the oil.
Remove the veal to a plate and continue with the next batch.
Once all the veal has been browned on both sides and removed to a plate, add a couple of additional tablespoons of olive oil into the pot if necessary. Add the chopped vegetables and, over medium heat, sautée the veg until soft and coloring golden brown around the edges, about 5 to 8 minutes. (This is what the Italians call soffritto. All great dishes and sauces start with this flavor base. The basic Southern Italian soffritto is prepared with olive oil, chopped onions and sometimes chopped garlic. In Northern Italy the most common soffritto is made with minced celery, carrot and onion.)
Add the wine/tomato paste to the cooked vegetables and cook for a minute, scraping up any brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pot.
Add the veal back to the pot along with any meat juice that has accumulated in the plate, the crushed tomatoes, the bouquet garni and salt and a generous grinding of black pepper.
Pour the chicken stock over it all until just barely covered with liquid; actually, just make sure that the veal pieces are at least half submerged in liquid. Reserve the rest of the stock in case too much boils away and you need to replenish.
Cover the pot tightly with a lid and lower the heat, allowing the osso buco to simmer for 1 ½ hours, checking once or twice on the level of the simmer and the liquid.
½ hour before the end of cooking, begin the Risotto alla Milanese (although the Osso Buco can very easily be made ahead of time, even the day before, and reheated beautifully).
When the Osso Buco is finished, taste and adjust seasonings. If you prefer, squeeze in half a lemon for a tangier, sharper flavor. I thought it would have been better with a splash of lemon, clever husband said it was perfect just the way it was.
RISOTTO ALLA MILANESE (or Risotto Giallo – Yellow Risotto)
For a more step-by-step photo explanation, see my Lemon Risotto post
2 shallots or 1 small onion, finely chopped
4 Tbs (60 g) unsalted butter, divided
2 Tbs olive oil
10 oz (300 g) Italian rice for risotto, such as Arborio or Carnaroli
1 wine glass of dry white wine
5 cups (1 ½ lt) chicken or light meat stock (if you like, you can use vegetable stock)
½ tsp saffron powder
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
4 Tbs grated Parmesan cheese, fresh Parmesan if possible + more for serving
Bring the stock to a simmer, then turn off. You want the stock to be hot or very warm when making risotto. The wine should be at room temperature.
Heat 2 Tbs (30 g) and 2 tbs olive oil in a large skillet or pot. Add the chopped shallots or onion and sauté until translucent and soft. Add the rice and stir, making sure all of the rice is coated with fat.
Stirring constantly, cook the rice for a minute or two until partly translucent.
Pour in the wine and, stirring, cook until the wine has been absorbed, which should only take a minute or two.
Pour 2 ladles of stock into the rice and cook, stirring slowly, until most of the stock has been absorbed. Continue adding the stock, 2 ladlefuls at a time, stirring almost constantly, and allowing each addition to be absorbed into the rice before pouring on more stock. The whole process should take 20 to 30 minutes until the rice is cooked tender and meltingly soft, NOT al dente!
About halfway through the cooking process, 10 to 15 minutes after having added the wine, stir in the saffron powder and a generous grinding of black pepper. Continue adding the stock until the rice is completely cooked : the rice, as I said, should be meltingly tender and soft, the risotto creamy almost like a rice pudding, not dry like a rice dish.
At this point, remove the risotto from the heat, add the remaining 2 Tbs (30 g) of butter and 4 Tbs grated Parmesan cheese and stir until well blended. Cover the pot and allow to rest for 2 minutes. Taste, adding more salt or pepper if you think it is needed, though it would surprise me, before serving.
Make sure a bowl of more grated Parmesan is on the table for those who would like to add more.
SERVE THE OSSO BUCO
Place a healthy serving of Risotto alla Milanese on each plate. Place one slice of veal on the risotto, pour some sauce on the meat and around the risotto (not on top) and sprinkle with Gremolata. Serve immediately with the rest of the white wine and some good, fresh Italian bread.
For the perfect dinner party, finish the meal with Clem’s Out of This World Amazing Tiramisu!
If you do not want to make the Risotto, serve the Osso Buco the French way with fresh egg tagliatelle; in this case, pour the sauce right on the pasta.