There are two types of meat that my wife Jan and I enjoy more in France than we did in Canada — veal and pork. That’s because in France, veal and pork actually taste like something meaty, rather than a meat substitute from which all fat and most flavour has been removed. (Beef is another matter entirely, but I won’t comment on the state of French beef now, for fear of becoming depressed.)
So veal tastes better here, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to find well-trimmed, attractive pieces of veal shank to make that Italian classic, osso buco. In fact, whenever I have the urge to make the dish, we start hunting for pieces of veal shank at least a week or two in advance; then, if we find some nice ones in the supermarket, we will freeze them until I’m ready to cook.
All of this is fresh in my mind because we had planned a large Italian feast for lunch on Monday of this week, with friends from England who have a holiday home near us. On the menu: baked mushrooms that we stuffed with a mixture of fennel-flavoured Italian sausage, minced onion, parsley, and cheese; then osso buco served with polenta and tarragon-flavoured bread; then an arugula (rocket) salad; a cheese course with three types of cheese, a baguette and some huge green grapes from Italy; and then Jan’s delicious semifreddo with espresso sauce.
There were to be seven of us at lunch — five adults and two children. But when Jan and I started hunting for suitable veal shank pieces, we weren’t happy. In Gourdon’s Carrefour supermarket, we found packages holding two pieces of veal, one being huge and the other one tiny. In some cases, the large ones seemed to be mostly bone. Nevertheless we bought a few packs, and then — just to be on the safe side — we ordered four more pieces that we would pick up from the supermarket butcher on Saturday. (I was cooking on Saturday afternoon, so that the osso buco could stay in the refrigerator through Sunday, to let the flavours marry. How chef-y is that?)
The result of our shopping trips was a heck of a lot of veal, in all kinds of sizes. Jan and I weren’t amused, because when we lived in Toronto we always found it easy to buy several nice pieces of veal shank, neatly trimmed and nearly identical in size.
But we were determined to make the best of things, and so Jan tied each piece around its circumference with a couple of turns of twine, and I started the browning process. Here’s what I had to work with:
Here I could provide a detailed recipe for osso buco, but recipes are easy enough to find on the Internet. In brief, however, osso buco is made by browning the pieces of veal shank; placing them atop a bed of sautéed onions, carrots, celery and garlic; and then braising everything together in a mixture of chopped tomatoes, white wine and beef stock, topped with some bay leaves, fresh thyme and parsley. It all goes into a moderate oven for an hour and a quarter or so. (Normally, I use a heavy casserole dish to cook the veal; because I had so many pieces, I needed to use our large roasting pan.)
My additional step is to remove the veal when it’s tender, discard the bay leaves and thyme sprigs, and then pulverize the sauce using a hand blender. Then I add a gluten-free mixture, like Maizena Sauceline, to thicken the sauce before returning the veal to the pot. When I was done with the cooking on Saturday, our pot of osso buco looked like this:
After spending Sunday in our spare refrigerator, the osso buco just needed some final fine-tuning on Monday morning, before our lunch. The sauce tasted a bit tart (probably from too much white wine, and not enough beef stock), so I added a few cubes of sugar. Then to give it more richness, I added a few tablespoons of tomato paste.
The results of all the work were some nice looking plates of osso buco, served with creamy polenta and some of the sauce, with the traditional topping of gremolata on top of the veal. (Gremolata is made by mincing together parsley leaves and fresh garlic with grated zest of lemon.) Here’s my plate — with my special little spoon for scooping out the delicious marrow in the veal bone:
As you might have expected — given the amount of veal in the first photograph above — we had more than enough for the seven of us. And more than enough for lunch on Tuesday for Jan and me. And there’s still left osso buco left in the refrigerator for another meal to come. But we’re not complaining.
Oh yes, and there’s some extra semifreddo in the freezer.