The Polar Opposite of Beige Food

Recipes kindly sponsored by Flahavan’s

It has been years since I cooked ossobuco Milanese, that most comforting dish, partly because you need a hearty appetite to tackle it but mainly because cross-cut veal shanks are not readily available in our part of the world. So, when I found some in Fallon & Byrne in Dublin (where the meat counter is delightfully different), I grabbed them.

In terms of recipe, I always consult Marcella Hazan on Italian matters but on this occasion I decided also to invoke the imprimatur of Elizabeth David in her A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950). Her instructions are vague enough but include a suggestion to sprinkle the finished dish with finely chopped celery and lemon zest; there’s no mention of the classic gremolata, but this sounds like quite a pleasant alternative.

She also refers to a “plain risotto” as the traditional accompaniment, this presumably being how she considered the saffron flavoured Milanese version.

Anyway, if you have the right things to hand, this is a dish that is refreshingly light on skill if rather heavy on time. It’s also one of the most delicious things you can eat. It simply dances with contrasting yet cooperating flavours, and in terms of colour it’s the polar opposite of beige food.

Ossobuco:

4 thick slices of veal shin with the bone in (We bought ours in Fallon & Byrne)
Plain flour
1 glug of olive oil
1 very large knob of butter
1 onion, peeled and chopped
½ stick of celery, finely chopped
1 small carrot, peeled and finely diced
2 plump cloves of garlic (not Chinese!), peeled and chopped
1 tin of chopped tomatoes
Enough white wine to one-third fill the above tin
2 bay leaves
1 moderate bunch of fresh thyme
A piece of lemon zest roughly the size of an average Bandaid
Sea salt
Black pepper

Dust the meat pieces lightly with flour as the butter melts with the oil in a heavy pan. Now cook the meat slowly and gently until it starts to colour; you will need to manoeuvre it around a bit so that the sides and all surfaces get some contact with the heat. This takes about ten minutes and it’s not something that should be rushed. This is a slow-cooked dish, and the slowness starts here.

When the meat is lightly browned, take the pieces from the pan and place them in a casserole and leave aside. Now add the onion, celery and carrot to the pan and cook gently in the butter (which by now contains some lovely meaty juices) until they soften and start to caramelise. It’s now time to add the garlic.

Do make sure that your garlic is not the awful musty-smelling (and tasting) stuff that seems to come, in my experience, from China. At the moment, we use Spanish garlic from Aldi; it’s sweet and smells of garlic, not of the back of disused wardrobe.

The garlic goes in at this stage because you don’t want to overcook it and make it bitter. Keeping the heat low, stir it around with the other contents of the pan for two to three minutes until it starts to soften. There’s no rush. At least, there shouldn’t be.

Add the tin of tomatoes. Now rinse out that tin by filling it two-thirds full of dry white wine. Soave is good for this; in fact, it’s all that most Soave is good for. Now, when I say rinse, I mean swish the wine round the tin and then into the pan, not down the sink. This is important.

Turn up the heat and let the pan bubble fairly frantically for about three minutes until the alcohol has vapourised and you can place your nose in the steam without it twitching in irritation.

Turn down the heat, add the bay leaves, the thyme (tied with string if you want to be able to retrieve it all at the end of the cooking) and the piece of lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper and let it all simmer away gently for 10 minutes or a little more.

Then pour the mixture into the casserole, around and under the veal shank pieces. At this stage I give the casserole a few minutes on a high heat to get everything up to cooking temperature before covering it and popping it into the bottom oven of our two-oven Aga for 4 hours. The temperature in there is about 140ºC.

Risotto Milanese:

A pinch of saffron strands (roughly ¼ of a teaspoon) rubbed between your fingers and stirred into 2 tablespoons of boiling water
700ml chicken stock (but also have some hot water to hand)
25g butter
1 onion
175g arborio rice (we get ours from Dunne & Crescenzi)
1 glass of dry white wine
75g Parmesan, 24 month aged (we get ours in Aldi), finely grated

Our next task is to make the risotto. There are two things to be aware of here. First, if you have everything ready and waiting to go, it should take between 20 and 25 minutes. The second is that the amount of stock required will vary depending on how hot the pan is and the nature of the rice. However, if you run out of stock, you can supplement with hot water.

Risotto is very easy to make but it does require patience and constant stirring. When I say constant, I mean that you can stop stirring for as much as, say, thirty seconds without running into difficulties but my advice, after many years of wielding the wooden spoon in such circumstances, is stir and stir and stir. Until the damned thing is done.

Delia Smith, I am told, has a recipe for a risotto made in the oven. Let us draw a veil over the poor woman’s shame.

Heat your chicken stock to a point rather lower than a simmer and keep it like that, or thereabouts.

Melt the butter in a pan and, over a low heat, add the onion and let it soften and start to colour. You want it to be soft, buttery and a little sweet before, after as much as ten minutes, you add the rice. Turn up the heat and stir the rice to ensure that every single little grain in thoroughly lubricated.

Now throw in the wine which will sizzle like mad. Keep the heat high and let the wine almost completely evaporate before adding the first ladle of stock.

Turn the heat right down at this stage and keep stirring. The instructions get a bit tedious at this stage because what you need to do for the next 20 minutes or so is to add more stock, ladle by ladle, as the last lot has been almost completely absorbed. Don’t be tempted to pour in all the stock at once. There’s no reason why this should not work, but it doesn’t. It’s a mystery. Trust me.

You want the rice to be cooked through but not mushy. There is a fashion for al dente risotto, i.e. where each grain of rice has a chalky centre. In my view there should be penalty points for this kind of malarkey.

When you think your rice is almost there, stir in the Parmesan and a big knob of butter. The consistency needs to be creamy and the risotto, when placed in a bowl, should slump, not level out like soup. In other words, it should just about have peaks and troughs, not be a plateau.

Gremolata:

The zest of 1 unwaxed/organic lemon
2 plump cloves of garlic (not Chinese!), peeled and chopped
A bunch of flatleaf parsley

Life is much easier for the gremolata maker who has a mezzaluna (a crescent shaped chopper with a little handle at both ends) and a board from which a saucer-shaped depression has been excised. The mezzaluna fits into the depression and can be used, with a rocking motion, to chop as finely as chopping can be done.

Otherwise, it’s a sharp knife on a chopping board.

Anyway, remove the zest from the lemon in thin narrow strips (there’s a tool that will do this with the greatest of ease; otherwise use a grater) and chop them roughly. Add this to the chopped garlic and then take your bunch of parsley. It really does need to be the flatleaf kind as the commoner curly sort simply doesn’t taste the same.

Cut off the stalks of the parsley so that you have about 40g of leaves left. Chop these roughly and add to the other ingredients before attacking the whole lot with your mezzaluna. Don’t plan on doing anything else for while. This will take time and can’t be rushed. Chop and chop, change the angle and chop, chop again, until you have a greenish mixture that’s starting to take on an almost powderlike texture. That’s gremolata.

You can make the gremolata up to a couple of hours ahead. The risotto waits for nobody so your timing will depend on that; and don’t forget that the veal will take 4 hours or a little more to start falling off the bone. On the other hand, the meat will hold while you deal with the rest of the meal.

When all is ready, serve the veal in warmed bowls with the tomato mixture poured over each and a generous dollop of the risotto on the side. Sprinkle all lavishly with gremolata before tucking in.