Monday, February 18, 2008

A Just Reward

Sometimes my husband and I ask ourselves if all of the effort that we put into some meals is worth it. We can spend a great many hours on a single meal, and for seemingly no special reason or occasion. The other day, while shopping for lamb racks for a special dinner we prepared for a friend, some veal shanks jumped into my shopping basket. "Jumped in!" you say "That does not happen to me. Exercise some restraint!" Great meals begin with the unexpected. If a particular thing you see in the store looks great, smells great or is bursting with other superlatives, it needs to be eaten. We decided to prepare the quintessential veal shank dish Osso Bucco, with the quintessential accompaniment Rissotto Milanese.

We have been perfecting the classic combination for a few years now. Every time we make it, some nuance reveals itself that helps us the next time. When you make dishes again and again, you only improve your technique and results. Everyone has their prize spaghetti sauce or chili that gets better every time. This holds true for all dishes. People get disappointed with the results of a new recipe and then never return to it. Good cooks get good results from repetition.

We always turn to our old friend "The Classic Italian Cook Book" by Marcella Hazan. First published in 1973, these recipes have not gone out of style, as traditional Italian cooking has always relied on fresh ingredients and a sense of reverence in their preparation. A quote from the preface of her book says it beautifully.

Nothing significant exists under Italy's sun that is not touched by art. Its food is twice blessed because it is the product of two arts, the art of cooking and the art of eating. While each nourishes the other, they are in no way identical accomplishments. The art of cooking produces the dishes, but it is the art of eating that transforms them into a meal.
Through the art of eating, an Italian meal becomes a precisely orchestrated event, where the products of the season, the tradition of place, the intuitions of the cook, and knowledgeable joy of the participants are combined into one of the most satisfying experiences of which our senses are capable.

Marcella Hazan

Here are the recipes for the dynamic duo. It is perfect winter food, as rice, canned tomatoes, pancetta and root vegetables abound in the winter.

Osso Bucco
For 6

1 cup finely chopped yellow onion
2/3 cup finely chopped carrot (1 large)
2/3 cup finely chopped celery (1 stalk)
1/4 cup butter
1 tsp minced garlic
2 strips lemon peel
1/2 cup vegetable oil
6-8 pieces prepared veal shanks
flour for dredging the veal
1 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cups beef stock
1 398 ml can of whole tomatoes , chopped with their juice
1/4 tsp dried thyme
Fresh basil (optional, but a good addition)
2 bay leaves
3 stems fresh parsley
Salt & Pepper

In a casserole dish large enough for all ingredients:

Saute the chopped vegetables in butter for 8 to 10 minutes add the garlic and lemon peel. remove from heat.

In a large skillet, heat oil. Dredge the veal pieces on each side, in the flour on a plate. Shake off any excess. Brown the veal on each side, making sure you don't crowd the pan too much. Once the pieces are browned on each side, place on top of the vegetables in the casserole dish. Once the veal has been all browned and placed in the skillet, tip off any excess oil in the skillet.
Add the wine to the pan and stir up any brown bits. Pour this over the veal. Bring the stock to the boil in the same skillet and pour over veal. To the casserole, pour over the chopped tomatoes and juice, herbs and a little salt. Check later for salt and add more if required. Bring casserole to the boil , cover tightly and place in a preheated oven for about 2 hours, turning the veal pieces every half hour or so. They should be very tender when pricked with a fork to be done. Remove veal pieces and spoon sauce over top. Sprinkle with Gremolada if desired (recipes follows)


This traditional garnish offers a lemon, parsley and garlic tang to the dish. Some find it a tad too much for the rich dish. (I enjoy it with or without)

1 tsp grated lemon peel
1/4 tsp minced garlic
1 tbsp finely chopped parsley
Mix together and sprinkle over top when serving.

Risotto alla Milanese

1 litre chicken stock (approx and unsalted or homemade)
2 tbsp diced pancetta (italian bacon)
2 tbsp finely chopped shallots or yellow onion
5 tbsp butter
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 cups raw Arborio rice
1/3 tsp saffron
salt (taste first!)
Fresh ground pepper
1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese.

Heat the stock to a simmer and keep warm. Saute the pancetta with the oil and butter until cooked through. Add the shallots and cook until translucent. Add the rice and stir until it is coated with oil. Saute for a few minutes.

Add about 1/2 cup of the hot stock and simmer slowly until all the liquid is absorbed. Continue slowly adding the stock a ladle full at a time, taking care that all the rice is coated with the stock. ( smooth it out on top after each addition) Adjust your heat so that is gently bubbling, and stir, stir stir. Dissolve the saffron in some warm stock and add about half way through the 30 minutes. The later you add it, the stronger the flavour. The risotto is done when the rice is tender but al dente. It takes approx 30 minutes. When you get closer to that time, put in less stock at a time to ensure you don't swamp it. When you get it right you will know. It is creamy, not dry or not runny. Add the parmesan at the end and salt if necessary.

Marcella gives this advice:

The quantity of the liquid given should be considered an approximate amount . You may end using less or slightly more than indicated. What is important is never to cook risotto with too much liquid at one time, and to bring it to it's final tender but firm to the bite state so that it is creamy but not saturated.

Sounds scary but it is not. Practice this dish and you will never regret the time and effort you put into it.

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