There were a couple of nights a few weeks ago, before the heat decided to come and make itself comfortable, in which the air sweeping from the harbour carried an unusual chill. One night, on our usual evening walk along the water – the ritual that separates the working part of the day from that of leisure, contemplation and unrushed time in the kitchen – we had to put an extra layer over our t-shirts. We walked hugging ourselves the whole way, wondering where such breeze was coming from, dark clouds gathering swiftly over our heads.
We rushed home just in time before the first downpour started. Another followed shortly, and then another, at seemingly regular intervals, as if the sky was emptying itself by the bucketload, taking a break between each. We thought it a good night for a robust bottle of red and for lingering in the kitchen and around the table while waiting for a warming dinner.
We made ossobuco. Ossobuco, you see, isn’t exactly the sort of dish I’d whip up on a weekly basis, not for lack of affection for such Northern Italian culinary gem, but because we tend to give meat a somewhat marginal (though not less-cherished role) in our diet. Still, the passion I nurture for any dish involving meat slow-cooking in a sweet bath of stock, mild tomato sauce and a seasoning of its own shiny juices overshadows any other meat-cooking technique. The reaction I get in cutting into my saucy, tender serving is vivid and unchanged over time: I feel emotional.
I suspect it has something to do with the wait. Expectations build up as the house fills with the faint, sweet scent of stew. You might have a glass of wine to kill the wait only to become even more impatient and eager for dinner. And then you finally get to eat the fruit of so much trepidation, the result of so much patient cooking and realise at first bite that what you got in exchange couldn’t be further away from wasted time. The tenderness of the meat is, to me, moving, its sweetness uncomparable to anything else. It’s a rare pleasure in our home, but one I am blindly enamoured with.
That all said, I am Venetian, and I my ossobuco is somewhat untraditional compared to the classic recipe from Lombardy. There, ossobuco is traditionally served with saffron-scented risotto and holds a sorts of gravy rather than a sauce. My preferred way to cook it, on the other hand, involves tomato. Keeping a bed of polenta or buttery mashed potatoes in mind, I make it on the saucy side, with a few pelati (peeled tinned tomatoes) supporting the fatty juices released by the meat. The lot receives a stir back in the ‘right’ direction by means of a sprinkling of gremolata at the end – a mix of garlic, lemon zest and parsley, and a conventional marriage for ossobuco. Used in not-too-zealous moderation, gremolata indeed can uplift the dish without stealing anything in terms of depth.
Ossobuco with Gremolata
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
4 veal cross-cut veal shanks (beef or turkey works, too)
3 tablespoons plain flour or cornstarch
1 carrot, peeled and finely diced
1 stick celery, trimmed and finely diced
1/2 golden onion, peeled and finely diced
125 ml (1/2 cup) dry white wine
200 g (1/2 tin) peeled tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
500 ml (2 cups) beef or chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
For the gremolata:
1 small bunch flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
Zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
Preheat the oven to 200°C / 390°F. Pat dry the ossobuchi with some kitchen paper, then roll them in flour (or cornstarch) and set aside. In a heavy-bottomed pan (possibly oven-proof) or dutch oven , heat the oil. Ease the meat onto the hot oil to seal it, turning it after 3 minutes, until brown on both sides. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Add the chopped vegetables (soffritto) and fry gently until soft and translucent, stirring them every so often and checking that they don’t burn. Pour in the wine and allow to evaporate, then add the chopped tomatoes, bay leaves and spices. Place the meat back and cover with hot stock. When the stew begins to simmer, place a lid on it and transfer to the oven.
Carry on cooking for about 2 hours, checking every half hour to make sure there is enough liquid left in the pot; if not, top it up with more hot stock. Past this time, remove the ossobuchi from the oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes or so. Season to taste.
Meanwhile, prepare the gremolata by mixing the minced garlic, lemon zest and chopped parsley. When ready, serve the ossobuchi with a bit of their cooking juices, topped with a generous sprinkle of the gremolata.