Thursday, March 18, 2010

Osso Buco

Making osso buco this week was the first time I've actually ever had veal. Growing up decidedly middle class (with a mother who didn't like red meat), an expensive cut like veal shanks was never entering our kitchen. Further, even as my palate was expanding in college and after, I had so many vegetarian friends that eating baby animals seemed a little gauche even to me (I was/am a pretty unrepentant meat eater). Veal (along with foie gras), is something I have in my head as being "especially" cruel... and certainly the standard practices of 20 years ago were that indeed (and are still favored in the US and Continental Europe unfortunately) ... but nowadays you can buy veal from calves that are raised much more humanely. As long as you avoid the bone white classic "milk fed" veal, and instead go for the pink/rosy veal your Whole Foods or high end butcher is selling... you're getting veal from a calf that's walking around in a pen and has some grass or grain in its diet at least (ask your butcher to be sure, of course). Another factor is that if you do dairy in your diet, you should realize that the male calves of the diary herd have to go somewhere. That, of course, is one of the main reasons for being a vegan... even if you don't think milking a cow is cruel, the entire practice has repercussions on down the line... and if you're drinking milk or eating cheese, there is some baby cow blood on your hands no matter what. Not saying that to turn anybody vegan, but I am just sayin'.

So... the moral implications of osso buco have been laid out, and you're either fine with them or not... and I admit it still weirds me out a little... but let us move on to the actual cooking of osso buco. The nice thing about the classic recipe is that you don't really need to make much effort to scale it per person. It's basically just as easy to cook it for two as it is ten (pan size permitting)... just buy as many veal shanks as you want servings. You might have to add more or less broth before you put it in the oven to make sure your shanks are "almost covered"... but otherwise proportions of everything else doesn't really need to change, since you'll just adjust the consistency of the braising liquid once it comes out of the oven anyway.

I followed the Cooking for Engineers recipe with no significant substitutions or alterations. The main thing I did differently is that once the osso buco came out of the oven and I had thickened the sauce, I put the shank pieces back in the pot and let it all cool down before putting it into the fridge to serve the next day. Allegedly it's actually superior the day after (and reheats really really well as long as you keep it in its braising liquid)... but the actual reason I put off serving it is that I was making it on a weeknight and didn't want to eat after 10 pm because of a cooking project(again). Regardless of your reasons, if you do decide to serve it the next day, you can scoop off the solidified fat and bring it all back up to a simmer (covered) over medium heat. While that is going, you can make your gremolata and your side (traditionally saffron risotto). Just like Mr. Ruhlman says, you do not want to skip the gremolata. It's hugely important to balance the very very rich taste of veal.

In fact, I was pretty overwhelmed by the richness of the osso buco at first... and wasn't sure I really liked it that much. I had been too lazy to make the risotto, and was surprisingly stingy with the gremolata, which I think made a whole shank piece too much to take. The lemon, parsley, and saffron in the gremolata and risotto bring much needed brightness and freshness to the plate... or even in the dead of winter osso buco might come across as heavy.

So I liked it, but I don't think I'd call myself a huge veal fan at this point. Probably a little too fatty and rich for me to have all that often... but I'm glad I made it.