There are few dishes in the world that I love as much as osso buco which, purely translated, is “hole in the bone.” I love it for the marriage of all its flavours into a comforting, richness. I love the philosophy of this dish. It is “slow food” done to perfection.
While this classic Italian dish has as many variations as there are Italian families, the most traditional version calls for the use of the veal shank. If you’re hung up on or ethically opposed to using veal, a similar cut from another protein source is not uncommon. Ultimately it is the ‘hole in the bone’ that makes this dish spectacular … along with the fact this dish exemplifies all that is superlative about Italian cuisine.
As I’ve said before, what I admire and love so much about Italian cuisine is its emphasis on using great ingredients together to tell often a simple but mind-blowing story.
The story of osso buco, as I say, is the story of that hole in the bone. With Easter or any great holiday feast, the foods we eat are almost always slow-cooked “on the bone”: turkey, goose, ham, prime rib. It’s the story of how those bones, and the contents of those bones, infuse the dish with so much flavour. It’s why the veal shank is cut the way it is, to have a big piece of bone and the marrow well exposed for the whole cooking process. It’s why the marrow melts in the braising … it’s why osso buco is to die for ….
The lesson: pick your veal shanks carefully. It’s not just a bone. It’s flavour … it’s the dish.
If you’ve heard tell or tasted osso buco before, you know it is famed for being a tender tender mouth melting piece of meat. However, don’t read from this that a shank is tender. It’s not. It’s anything but tender. It’s the braising that makes it tender. As with many braising methods then, it’s what you put in the braise that becomes important … and in most cases, it’s some version of a mirepoix, the holy trinity of ingredients found in most sauces, stews, and soups: celery, onion, carrot. Sometimes bell pepper is added or substituted, but you get the idea. However, I’m not personally big on celery and so given this is an Italian dish, I chose to substitute fennel instead … which I think is superior both in terms of flavour and because it doesn’t get ‘mushy’ during long cooking processes.
My other change in this dish was with the classic gremolata, the Milanese condiment of fresh herbs which brings some zest and pungency (in this case, from the parsley) to the richness of the dish … it brings balance. In my experience, however, the gremolata sometimes fails because of the traditional inclusion of minced, fresh garlic. That’s why I chose to take advantage of the oven and roasting time to roast the garlic as well … a process which mellowed the garlic by bringing out the sugars and putting it in balance with the lemon zest.
Finally, while not everyone is a fan of it, I personally think the perfect accompaniment for this dish is polenta … and I’ll provide a creamy recipe next. Nevertheless, if you really are against it, well, I’d wager you haven’t had good polenta … which you’d think would become more popular since it’s a classic gluten-free dish. Either way, rice would work as well … or even orzo pasta. And if you want to abandon the presentation entirely, well, once it’s all cooked, remove the meat from the bone, mix it in the sauce, and you will have a rustic bolognese you will never forget.
Whatever you do, don’t forget to scoop out the delicate marrow at the end. I know that will leave some of you squeamish, but if you have the palette and the heart of a real foodie, trust me, that’s what the dish is all about. Spread some of that deliciousness on a crostini or put some on that creamy polenta and you’ll have a treat that will rock your world.
Prep time: 20 mintues
Cook time: 2 hours
Total time: 2½ hours
- 2 pounds (900g) veal shanks,
- 1/4 cup (250mL) all-purpose flour
→ a chickpea-based gluten-free flour worked well
- 1/4 cup (250mL) butter
- 2 cloves garlic, roughly minced
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 medium carrot, chopped
- 1 medium parsnip
- 1/2 medium fennel bulb
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary
- 1/3 teaspoon (4mL) dried thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 cup (250mL) dry white wine
- 1 cup (250mL) beef stock
- 1 cup (250mL) canned tomato sauce
(or 12oz diced tomatoes)
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1/4 cup (65mL) chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
- 1 small clove garlic, roasted and minced
- 1 teaspoon (5mL) grated lemon zest
- pinch fresh ground pepper
- Preheat oven to 350ºF (175ºC). Chop your ingredients and set aside.
- Lightly coat the veal shanks with flour. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. When the butter is bubbling, add the veal shanks to the pan and cook them until lightly browned on each side, about 3 minutes per side. Remove to a plate.
Add the chopped onion to the same saucepan and sauté for 4-5 minutes until golden brown. Make sure you scrape up the little bits of flour and veal to prevent them from burning … they’re there for a reason, but don’t burn them.
Add the carrot, fennel and parsnip and continue sautéing for another 4 minutes until other veggies have lightly caramelized and you can smell the light aroma of the fennel. Add the garlic and sauté for another minute. Deglaze the pan with wine. This is the reason you kept all those brown bits in there and are sure they didn’t burn. This the rich flavour key to so many dishes.
Add the beef stock and tomato sauce and season with salt and pepper. While diced tomatoes are also ok here, why use them when you have homemade tomato sauce concentrated with the flavours from your own garden?
Add the veal shanks. Be careful so they’re as deep in the pan as possible and not resting on the veggies.
Bring the pan to a simmer then cover and place the osso buco in the oven at 350ºF (175ºC) for 45 minutes. Place the clove of garlic on the lid of the pan and let roast for 15-20 minutes until soft and the natural sugars just begin to ooze. Remove the garlic from oven and let cool. Meanwhile, every 15 minutes, remove pan from oven baste the shanks with the sauce and return it to the oven. After 45 minutes, reduce heat to 325ºF (160ºC) and continue to braise for another hour.
The veal shanks will be done when the meat is tender, easily separates with fork but isn’t yet falling off the bone (which would ruin the presentation, right?). Remove from oven, test sauce for seasoning (adjust if necessary), and let rest, covered for 15 minutes or so while you finish off the sides (e.g. polenta).
- In the last half hour of cooking, prepare the gremolata for the garnish. Chiffonade (i.e. tightly and finely chop) the parsley and add it to a small bowl.
Using a zester, pull long strands of zest off a lemon until you have roughly a teaspoon worth.
Coarsely chop and add to the bowl. Remove the skin of the roasted garlic then lightly smash/crush/mince it and add it to the bowl. Toss in a pinch of pepper and mix it all up together.
- With a slotted spoon, carefully lift and the osso buco from the pan and place over rice or polenta. Arrange some of the veggies around the plate and then spoon over some of the sauce.
With your fingers, sprinkle the gremolata over the veal just before serving…
And serve with a nice Italian wine, e.g. a Barbera d’Asti from Piedmont like this one from Giordano which I reviewed.