Arguably the figlio preferito of Lombardy’s regional cuisine, ossobuco is, perhaps, the ultimate Italian braise. This is not a dish for the fainthearted, this is real stick-to-your-ribs fare! I would categorise ossobuco as lick-your-plate food, something that, even in the politest of company, I cannot help but do!
Sadly though, like many other Italian classics, ossobuco has suffered more than its fair share of well intended culinary-meddling and is, more often than not, worse off for it. Of course, there is never a definitive version of any Italian recipe. Familial traditions and regional variations are the norm throughout Italy and, as a result, there are countless interpretations of how to cook ossobuco. But as with all culinary classics, there are always rules and whilst none are ever truly set in stone, these are the three “ossobuco rules” that I recommend adhering to:
- Meat: Ossobuco should only ever be made with veal shanks. Unfortunately this isn’t really negotiable, as it simply would not be ossobuco if it was made with beef shanks, or perish the thought, lamb. Whilst the braise still works well with either beef or lamb shanks, you could not in good conscious call the dish ossobuco if you used either of these.
- Bone-marrow: Ossobuco literally translates as bone-hole, so it should come as no surprise that bone-marrow is an inescapable part of the dish. In fact, sucking out the tender veal-marrow is integral to the joy of eating ossobuco. If you are still haunted by Mad Cow disease, then this most definitely isn’t the dish for you!
- Accompaniments: In truth, ossobuco can be served with just about anything; whether it be with a crisp potato rosti or with buttery mash, it will be delicious. But just because it tastes good, doesn’t make it right! Traditionally ossobuco is always served with risotto alla Milanese and is typically garnished with a sprinkling of gremolata. Sometimes tradition knows best and this is such a time, the combination of all three elements is simply stellar! Even if you don’t serve it with the risotto, I would urge you not to skip the gremolata – it is very easy to make and elevates the ossobuco to an entirely different level.
For aficionados there are, of course, a myriad of other do’s and don’ts: should tomato be added, red wine or white? To be honest, our pantries and situations do not always allow us the luxury of perfection so, rules or no rules, we have to make do with what we have available.
As much as I absolutely love ossobuco, I usually have mixed emotions whenever I see it on a menu and I never order it lightly. Despite my mind being awash with those pesky “rules”, provided the basic tenets are adhered to, my leap of faith is invariable justified and I still enjoy my dining choice irrespective of my skepticism. Testament, perhaps, to ossobuco’s infinite variability and appeal. I guess you just can’t keep a good dish down!
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Ossobuco: Serves 4
- 8 medium veal shanks, 2cm thick
- 1/2 cup plain flour
- 3 tbsp. olive oil
- 2 tbsp. butter
- 1/2 green pepper, finely diced
- 1/2 red pepper, finely diced
- 1 red onion, finely diced
- 2 carrots, peeled and finely diced
- 1 celery stalk, finely diced
- 4 garlic cloves, finely sliced
- 1/3 cup brandy
- 1/3 cup Marsala wine (or dry sherry)
- 1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
- 50g tomato paste
- 2 bay leaves, fresh if possible
- 1 sprig flat-leafed parsley
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 500ml chicken stock
- Salt and pepper
- 2 tbsp. flat-leafed Italian parsley
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- 1/2 tsp. lemon zest
- 1 tbsp. lemon juice
- Heat 2 tbsp. of the olive oil in a large casserole
- Season the shanks and then dredge in the flour
- Brown the shanks in the casserole, making sure that the meat is sealed on all sides. Remove the browned meat and keep to one side in a bowl covered in tinfoil
- Add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and the butter
- Add the finely diced onions, peppers, carrots, celery and garlic. Stir to coat the vegetables in the butter and oil, then cover with a tight-fitting lid
- Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 10 minutes
- Remove the lid and add the brandy, Marsala wine and balsamic vinegar. Stir and cover again, allow to simmer for another 6 to 8 minutes
- In the meantime, make a bouquet garni using the bay leaves, parsley and thyme (you can either wrap the herbs in a piece of cheesecloth or simply tie them together using some string). Add the bouquet garni to the pot, along with tomato paste
- Increase the heat to high and add the veal and stock to the casserole. Give everything a stir.
- Bring the sauce back up to a boil, then reduce the heat and cover. Simmer for an hour and a half
- Once the veal is just about tender, remove the meat and bouquet garni from the casserole. Cover the veal with tinfoil and set aside
- Using a hand-blender, briefly pulse the sauce till thick (you don’t want it completely smooth though)
- Check for seasoning and return the veal to the casserole
- Simmer uncovered until the meat is tender and the sauce has reduced to a coating consistency
- Like all stews and braises, ossobuco would benefit from being made in advance
- Gently reheat before serving with a light sprinkling of gremolata (see below)
- Chop the fresh flat-leafed parsley very finely
- Place in a mixing bowl along with the crushed garlic, lemon zest and juice
- Mix to combine