Don’t get me wrong. I love osso buco. I’ve even made the time-honored Italian dish. But when I recently got my hands on some nice looking veal shanks, I wanted to try something different. Apparently, I’m not alone in that. Nestled among a bazillion osso buco recipes that a quick search for veal shanks recipes brought up was this plaintive cry on Chowhound: “Need veal shank recipe – Not Osso Buco.”
In my head, I traveled the culinary globe off and on for a couple of days. I spent a lot of virtual time in Mexico and Latin America, conjuring up tangy, spicy, chipotle-smoky dishes. Morocco called to me, with cumin, paprika, cinnamon, and golden raisins. In the end, though, I landed right next door to Italy, in France. And the resulting recipe borrowed from classic dishes of both.
For osso buco, veal shanks are braised for a couple of hours, often on the stovetop (for my version, I oven-braised them). This slow cooking makes the mild-flavored meat fork tender and infuses it with the flavors of the braising liquid – aromatics, herbs, wine, and stock. Small wonder this rustic dish is a favorite in Italian restaurants and home kitchens alike.
Cassoulet, comfort food as only the French can do it, blows right past two hours for cooking time. Not only do you cook everything for hours – one of the ingredients, duck confit, is duck that’s already been cooked for hours. And you are further encouraged to cook the whole thing a day ahead and then cook it some more before serving.
For this braised veal shanks with white beans recipe, I took advantage of some of the overlap in these two timeless dishes. Then I skewed the whole thing in a cassoulet direction. Traditional cassoulet is a real meat festival. In addition to the aforementioned duck, it usually contains lamb and/or various cuts of pork, and it always includes sausage. The shanks are plenty meaty, so I just used a little bacon to achieve some of the smoky flavor sausage adds. And of course, white beans and bread crumbs are key cassoulet ingredients. They help anchor this dish, too.
Braised veal shanks with white beans
4 cross-cut veal shanks (osso buco cut, 1/2- to 3/4-pound each)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
flour (about 1/4 cup or so)
3 slices bacon
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 shallots, sliced (or 1 medium yellow onion)
3 carrots, sliced on an angle
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves (or 1 teaspoon dry)
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary needles (or 1 teaspoon dry)
2 plum tomatoes, chopped
1 cup dry white wine (I used a muscadet) [optional, may substitute cooking wine]
2 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth (plus more, if needed)
2 small bay leaves (or 1 large)
1/2 cup bread crumbs
2 15-ounce cans white beans, such as cannellini
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Pat the veal shanks dry with paper towels and tie them with kitchen twine around the outside. Season generously with salt and pepper and dredge in flour, shaking off excess. Set aside. In a cold Dutch oven large enough to hold shanks in a single layer, drizzle a little canola oil and add bacon strips. Cook bacon over medium heat until crisp, turning frequently. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate.
Working in batches, brown shanks on both sides, 3 to 5 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate. Reduce heat to medium-low. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of fat from Dutch oven and add 1 tablespoon butter. Add shallots and carrots. Cook until shallots are beginning to soften, stirring frequently to avoid burning, three to four minutes. Add garlic, thyme and rosemary to pot and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 45 seconds.
Add tomatoes, wine and 1 cup of chicken broth and scrape up any browned bits. Crumble in the cooked bacon. Season with pepper, but no salt at this point. Nestle shanks into pot, adding any accumulated juices. Add second cup of broth. Shanks should be about 2/3 submerged in liquid. Add a little water if more liquid is needed (or cut back on broth if you don’t need it all). Bring to a boil over high heat, then cover Dutch oven and transfer to the oven.
Braise shanks for 2 hours, until meat is completely tender, checking every 30 minutes to see if additional liquid is needed. If so, add water; adding more broth could make it too salty – and too brothy.
Meanwhile, toast bread crumbs. I used Japanese panko – it tends to be lighter and crunchier than other bread crumbs, and the toasted crumbs tend to maintain their crispiness even when sprinkled over cooked foods. But feel free to use whatever white bread or bread crumbs you have on hand.
Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-low flame. Add 1/2 tablespoon oil to pan, swirl to coat. Add bread crumbs and toss to coat with oil. Toast until golden brown, stirring frequently, about 3 to 5 minutes. Watch closely – they will remain stubbornly pale for a while and then suddenly turn brown. Don’t burn them. Transfer to a shallow bowl or plate and allow to cool completely. You can toast the bread crumbs a day ahead and, after they’re cooled, store at room temperature in an airtight container.
When shanks are just about done, drain and rinse the beans. Set aside one cup of beans. Transfer Dutch oven to stovetop and turn off the oven. Transfer shanks to a platter and tent with foil. Return to oven to keep them warm.
Discard bay leaves. Add beans (all but the one cup you’ve reserved) to Dutch oven and heat over medium flame. Using a hand masher, mash the reserved beans in a pot or sturdy bowl until smooth, adding a little braising liquid to make it easier. Add mashed beans to Dutch oven and stir to combine. If braising liquid is thin, raise heat to medium-high and thicken slightly. Taste and adjust seasonings – chances are, you won’t need to add salt.
Divide bean/braising liquid mixture among four shallow bowls and top with bread crumbs. Place a shank in the middle of each bowl, removing string. Serve.