Ossobuco alla Milanese (à la Anna Del Conte)

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“The main lesson you have to learn is simplicity,” is Anna del Conte’s warning to whoever wants to approach Italian food. “For what you leave out is just as important as what you put in”.

These few words have been resounding in my head for days. I have surprised myself thinking about them a lot. Not just in relation to food, mind, but to other aspects of living, too. What we leave out of our kitchen, of our home, of our lives matters as much as what we put in. Aren’t we who ultimately decide what to include and what to leave out, just like in a recipe? We choose which flavour our life is going to have at any given time. Except, perhaps starting over isn’t as easy as a round of washing up. Or is it?

Anyway, my cooking (and, consequently, this blog) went through a similar scrutiny lately. Some things went in, many others were stripped back. It’s now clear to me, at the dawn of my thirties, what it is that I just don’t care to eat, cook, or write about. Likewise, I’ve finally learnt what keeps me inspired, happily glued to the stove, and, well, hungry. This ossobuco alla milanese from Anna del Conte is one of these things. Not just because I love to eat it, but because it envelopes many of the traits that I find attractive in a recipe: culture-richness, humbleness, sustainability and straightforwardness. It just makes sense.

Yes, this ossobuco is here to stay, at least for as long as winter lasts. And I’m thinking now, as I type, as I spy a shy spring-like sun shining through my windowpane, that I better drop the chatter and tell you more about it, for winter doesn’t have much time left under its belt. So let’s.

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For years, I thought that my favourite way to cook ossobuco was with tomato sauce. I stated it on this blog only one year ago. I thought that tomato would add a nice edge and cut through the rich meat juices. And it’s not that it doesn’t do that. It’s just that I hadn’t yet had Anna del Conte’s recipe to tell me otherwise.

Have you ever found yourself in a debate in which you are so sure you’re right that,  even though you may concede some ground to the other person, you still think you’re fundamentally right and the other person is wrong? That’s how approached this tomato-less ossobuco. With scepticism. And I can say now, in all honesty, that I was an idiot. So that’s something else I’ll try to leave out of my kitchen from now on: idiocy.

Anna del Conte is originally from Milan, so it only makes sense that ossobuco alla milanese features in many of her books. It’s a matter that she takes to heart. In Secrets from an Italian Kitchen, and then again in Amaretto, Apple, Cake and Artichokes, she writes:

Two important characteristics distinguish a milanese ossobuco from other versions of this dish. Firstly it is flavoured with lemon rind, which is incorporated in a sauce called gremolada, and secondly it is cooked in bianco, without tomato. To some extent the one explains the other, since the flavour of the gremolada would be swamped by a tomato-based sauce. Another reason for excluding tomatoes is that ossobuco alla milanese is eaten with risotto alla milanese, and this delicate saffron-flavoured risotto could not survive alongside an ossobuco with a strong tomato flavour.

What’s more, the origin of the dish is likely to precede the arrival of tomatoes in Italy, making their exclusion from the traditional ossobuco recipe all the more sensible.
Anna also warns us that the type and cut of meat do make a difference. Ossobuco, she says, should be cut from the middle of the hind shin of a milk-fed calf –a part that has a rich marrow and a good deal of meat attached to the bone– into 4cm-thick discs. Any more or less and the meat may not cook properly.
Rather than in a tomato-based sauce, the shins are slow-braised in white wine (for acidity) and meat stock until the liquid boils down to a glistening gravy and the meat is so tender that it comes off the bone. And although everything about a properly-done ossobuco is lip-smacking, the best part has to be the melting marrow. Don’t discard it. Instead, use a coffee spoon to pull it out and eat it as is, in all its shiny glory.

Before I move onto sharing the actual recipe, a word on the appropriate accompaniment. According to Anna, a saffron-scented risotto (alla milanese, just like the ossobuco, just like Anna herself) would be the only acceptable way to serve ossobuco. It’s fair enough. However, this Venetian believes, in her unorthodox views, that some soft serving polenta (white, in this case) can also be appropriate in mopping up the juices. Ultimately, the choice rests with you. And either way, arm yourself with patience: there’ll be some stirring to be done, but be reassured that reward sure awaits.

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Ossobuco alla Milanese

I report Anna’s recipe here, as there’s nothing I have changed, save for the fact I added a small carrot to the battuto. I’d say serve it as you please: with risotto alla milanese if you want to go traditional; otherwise with polenta, or even (why not) with mashed potatoes.

4 ossobuchi (veal shins, 3cm thick)
30ml / 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Plain flour, for dusting
Sea salt
40g butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
½ celery stick, finely chopped
150ml dry white wine
300ml meat stock (veal or beef)
Freshly ground pepper

For the gremolada:
Grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
½ garlic clove, peeled and very finely chopped
1 tablespoon  finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Tie the ossobuchi around and across as you would a parcel. Choose a heavy sauté pan, with a tight-fitting lid, large enough to hold the ossobuchi in a single layer. Heat the oil, and lightly coat the ossobuchi with some flour in which you have mixed a teaspoon of salt. Brown the ossobuchi on both sides and then remove to a side dish.

Add 30g of the butter to the sauté pan together with the onion and the celery. Sprinkle with a little salt, which will help the onion to release its moisture so that it gets soft without browning. When the vegetables are soft, return the meat, and the juice that will have come out, to the pan.
Heat the wine and pour over the meat. Turn the heat up and reduce by half, while scraping the bottom of the pan with a spoon.

Heat the stock in the pan you used to heat the wine and pour about three-quarters over the ossobuchi. Turn the heat down very low and cover the pan. Cook for 1½-2 hours, until the meat has begun to come away from the bone. Carefully turn the ossobuchi every 20 minutes or so, taking care not to damage the marrow in the bones. If necessary, add more stock during the cooking. If, by the time the meat is cooked, the sauce is too thin, remove the meat from the pan and reduce the liquid by boiling briskly.

Transfer the ossobuchi to a heated serving dish and remove the string. Keep warm in a cool oven. Meanwhile, cut the remaining butter into 3 or 4 pieces and add gradually to the sauce. As soon as the butter is melted, draw off the heat, as the sauce should not boil. This addition of the butter will give the sauce a glossy shine and delicate taste.

Mix the ingredients for the gremolada together and stir into the sauce. Spoon the sauce over the ossobuchi and serve at once. You can prepare the dish in advance up to removing the string and then reheat.

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  1. Mimi March 13, 2017

    Wow. That is absolutely beautiful ossobucco! Very interesting story on in bianco. Love your plating. And your photos!!!

    • Valeria March 24, 2017

      Thank you so much, Mimi! Very glad you enjoyed the post. Yes, the in bianco recipe is very much worth the leap of faith! x

  2. Agnes {Cashew Kitchen} March 14, 2017

    You managed to put into words exactly how I feel about food as well. The simplicity and straightforwardness is what attracts me. It’s easy to wanna add in too many things, but just like you (and Anna) says, it is perhaps equally important what you leave out. It makes what’s left in the recipe stand out even stronger and bolder.
    You are a very good writer btw! I’m impressed by how eloquent you are in English 😀

    • Valeria March 24, 2017

      My feeling exactly, Agnes. As cliché as it might sound, the ‘less is more’ concept is very much applicable to cooking, too. And thank you for your kind words, I’m humbled. x

  3. Valentina @Hortus March 14, 2017

    I actually think that your argument for white polenta instead of risotto is so valid. I can’t imagine something as dense as ossobuco to go with something like risotto, which is just as dense. Then again I know very little about Lombardy but, even though I have never been a fan of ossobuco, the pairing with polenta sounds so perfect! I was in S. Stino a couple weeks back and had the MOST delicious white whole polenta of my life, made by some farmers in a god-forgotten part of the countryside. Next time I’m there I’ll definitely go out of my way to go look for it! 🙂
    I love your writing, as always, and love the photos! You’re the best V!

    • Valeria March 24, 2017

      You know, I thought the same, but then again, as you say, I’m not Milanese so they might as well have their good reasons! White polenta is so undervalued – possibly because it looks very bland, or because it’s just so hard to find outside of Veneto – but I find it even better than the yellow. When you come back, I’ll take you to a place where you can get the ‘biancoperla’ – a real treat. x

  4. Such a beautifully shot post. I’m not eating meat but still this looks really delicious!


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