Osso buco (veal shanks) with gremolata

There are many versions of the classic Northern Italian favorite, osso buco. This one uses slow oven braising to make the meat flavorful, fork tender, and moist.

Blue Kitchen
Osso buco with gremolata served with short pasta tossed with some of the pan juices and vegetables.

There’s something about using kitchen twine that makes me feel like a chef and connects me to the past. Trussing up pork tenderloins or rolled roasts with string says you’re getting serious in the kitchen, in a comfortingly old school way. It was something Julia did.

So tying up a pair of meaty veal shanks for osso buco had me feeling cheflike. Preparing this classic Italian dish also put me in the mood for opera. I popped a mix CD of arias into the kitchen boombox (never mind that many of them were sung in French or German). Cold winds blowing outside and music playing inside made prepping in the warm kitchen especially rewarding.

We’ve been doing a lot of slow oven braising this winter and really enjoying it. It’s perfect for turning tough, but flavorful cuts of meat into amazing, fork tender meals. Osso buco (AH-so BOO-co) particularly benefits from this cooking method. The Milanese favorite is made with cross-cut veal shanks from the hardworking upper portion of the leg. If not cooked for a long time, the meat can be chewy and stringy. Many recipes call for stovetop cooking rather than oven braising, but I find this can tend to dry out the meat, even if you turn it every 15 minutes as some recipes suggest. Braising in the oven surrounds the cooking vessel with a much lower heat for even, moist cooking.

Browning the osso buco prior to braising it gave me another chef moment. I needed to turn the veal shanks as they browned, and the high-walled Staub La Cocotte didn’t give me a lot of room to maneuver with a spatula or other tool. So summoning my inner Anthony Bourdain (or April Bloomfield), I reached into the pot with my bare hands, grabbed the shanks one at a time and flipped them. I know I’m not really a chef (or even a line cook) until I burn myself with a move like this, but it still felt pretty cool.

Veal is lighter and milder in taste than most beef, so you need to use a lighter hand with flavorings. Using white wine instead of red is one example – red wine would overpower the dish. Because veal is so mild, it can also end up a little on the bland side. At least one recipe calls for browning the shanks in the fat of rendered pancetta to add extra flavor. I considered that for a while until I saw recipes that called for another secret ingredient for adding umami to a meat dish: Anchovy paste or fillets. I first discovered this trick when I made a Provençal layered pot roast. The anchovies impart no fishiness at all, but add a wonderful depth and complexity. Many recipes also call for topping osso buco with gremolata, a mix of minced parsley, garlic and lemon zest. Make sure to do this – it adds a nice bright finish to the dish and balances its richness.

Osso buco is often served with risotto. I served it with short pasta tossed with some of the pan juices and vegetables. It would also be delicious with creamy mashed potatoes – not authentic, mind you, but delicious.

And finally, one of the treats of this dish is the delicious, fatty marrow in the center of the bones. In fact, the name osso buco means bone with a hole, showing how important the marrow is. There are narrow spoons designed specifically for getting at it, but I say it’s an opportunity to finally get some use from those goofy souvenir state spoons in the back of the silverware drawer.

Osso Buco with Gremolata
Serves 2 to 3

2 whole veal shanks (about 1 pound per shank), trimmed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Flour, for dredging
1 tablespoon canola oil (plus extra, if needed)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter (plus extra, if needed)
1 onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 tablespoon anchovy paste (or 4 anchovy fillets, minced)
1 cup dry white wine*
2 to 3 cups chicken stock
2 sprigs Italian parsley
1 sprig fresh thyme (or 1 teaspoon dry)
2 small bay leaves (or 1 large)

For the gremolata:
1/4 cup minced Italian parsley leaves
1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest
1/2 tablespoon minced garlic

Special equipment:
Kitchen twine, for tying the veal shanks

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Pat the veal shanks dry with paper towels. Truss each shank with kitchen twine around the outside (a single strand will do). Season each shank with salt and freshly ground pepper and dredge them in flour, shaking off excess.

Heat a Dutch oven or lidded ovenproof skillet large enough to hold shanks in a single layer over a medium-high flame. Add 1 tablespoon each of canola oil and butter to the pan, swirling to combine. Brown shanks on both sides, about 5 minutes for the first side and 3 to 4 for the second. Transfer browned shanks to plate.

Reduce heat to medium and add onion, carrot and celery to pan, also adding a little more oil and butter, if necessary. Sauté vegetables until beginning to soften, about 5 minutes, stirring frequently to avoid burning. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Stir in tomato paste and cook for about 1 minute. Add wine and bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits. Return shanks to pan, along with any accumulated juices. Add 2 cups of chicken stock; liquid should come about two-thirds of the way up the sides of the shanks (add a little more if needed). Tuck parsley and thyme sprigs around the shanks, along with the bay leaves.

Cover pan and place in oven for about 2 hours or until the meat is falling off the bone. Check every 30 minutes or so to see if you need to add more broth.

Meanwhile make the gremolata. Combine ingredient in a bowl and mix thoroughly. Set aside.

Carefully transfer the cooked shanks to a serving platter. Cut off the kitchen twine and discard. Discard the parsley, thyme and bay leaves. Spoon juices from the pot over and around shanks. Garnish with gremolata. Serve.

Terry Boyd blogs at Blue Kitchen.

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* The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best food bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by The Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own and they are responsible for the content of their blogs and their recipes. All readers are free to make ingredient substitutions to satisfy their dietary preferences, including not using wine (or substituting cooking wine) when a recipe calls for it. To contact us about a blogger, click here.

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