Hole in One
This winter, coastal California is wholly undeserving of its Golden State moniker. It’s been one dreary day after another, punctuated only by gale-force winds and juicy, wet downpours charmingly called atmospheric rivers. While the state desperately needs water after years of a crippling drought, enough is, well, more than enough. Our Wisconsin-dwelling middle child brought this point home when she let us know that she got a sunburn in downtown Milwaukee during 60-degree sun the other day. In February.
All this weather causes our thoughts to drift across the seas to Puglia. Long bouts of rain are unusual there, even in winter. More commonly, winter skies are an astonishingly robin’s egg blue in our Itria Valley corner of Puglia, made all the more arresting by the rich, red earth, luminous limestone walls and silvery-green olive trees shimmering in the distance. The saturated colors are reflected in the food, too. Deep green cime di rapa (turnip tops), snowy white, achingly fresh mozzarella, rich, red tomato sauce and rose-petal-pink prosciutto exude vitality, at odds with the dormancy that seems to accompany most winter landscapes.
Still, Pugliese winters are cold, often accompanied by snow, requiring a winter playbook in the kitchen. Long, slow braises, the kind that used to be accomplished in a wood-burning oven after the bread was baked in the morning, are the stuff of winter Sunday lunches. Accompanied by handmade pasta, winter greens, braised winter vegetables like fennel, squashes and cardoons and tiny, jewel-like mandarin oranges and clementines, the winter palate is every bit as beautiful as its summer counterpart.
So we’re taking a leaf from the winter canon of regional Italian cuisine, even though we’re on the shore of an entirely different sea at the moment. Today’s braise is a northern Italian classic, osso buco, in the style made famous in Milan. In Italian, osso means bone and buco means hole, which becomes immediately apparent when you encounter a crosscut veal shank. The Milanese version doesn’t include tomatoes and is typically served with a saffron-scented risotto, itself a departure from rigorous Italian menu sequence that requires primi (pasta, rice, soup, etc.) to precede secondi (second courses like meat, fish or poultry). We love this crazy (for Italians) break with the established order of things, so osso buco alla milanese appears regularly in our winter rotation. We also love the addition of gremolata, a bright, citrus-infused relish sprinkled over the finished osso buco before serving.
Other Italian regions make osso buco their own by adding, variously, tomatoes, tomato paste, porcini, basil and anchovies (yes, anchovies). When tomatoes become part of the dish, the resulting sauce is often served with pasta as a first course, followed by the shanks themselves as the second. And in Tuscany, osso buco is typically accompanied by white beans stewed in olive oil because, well, Tuscany. Regardless of the slight variation in ingredients and the preparation method, osso buco is always a hole in one.
This time, though, I’m flirting with tradition to experiment with a fabulous new tool: the Instant Pot (electric pressure/slow cooker). Maybe you’ve read about it in the New York Times or have one of your own. Although I am a little mistrustful of kitchen gadgets, I’ve fallen for this new tool in a big way. But rest assured. A pressure cooker or slow cooker is not required to make outstanding osso buco. It’s a time-honored dish that can be prepared traditionally, even in your wood-burning oven. Just follow the recipe below using a Dutch oven for searing, then braising, covered, in a 350-degree oven for a few hours or more. In theory, the Instant Pot gets the osso buco to the table faster, with every bit of the melting tenderness you expect in this dish. I’ll let you know how it all turns out.
Osso Buco alla Milanese—Milan-Style Veal Shanks
For the osso buco:
6 crosscut veal shank pieces, pasture-raised, if possible, about 1 ½ to 2” thick (ask your butcher to do this)
½ cup flour (Paleo people can omit the flour)
Kosher or sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Extra virgin olive oil or a mixture of clarified butter and extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion
2 celery stalks
2 garlic cloves
1 sprig rosemary
2 bay leaves
4 salt-packed or olive-oil preserved anchovies
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
1 cup dry white wine
1 can (14 oz.) crushed Italian tomatoes
2 cups chicken or beef stock, preferably homemade
For the gremolata:
Zest of two large lemons
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
Tie each osso buco (crosscut veal shank) with butcher’s twine around its circumference. Although this step is not strictly necessary and can be eliminated if you can’t find any twine, it does help keep the shank together as it braises. Pat the veal shanks dry with paper towels, generously salt and pepper them and allow them to reach room temperature. Pour the flour onto a plate, then dredge the shanks in the flour to coat each shank lightly. Paleo/primal people can omit the flour without impacting the dish.
Heat the olive oil (or olive oil and clarified butter) in the instant pot using the sauté function. When it begins to sizzle, add the shanks in one layer. Cook until golden on all sides, removing the shanks as they are finished browning and rest them on a plate. This will take about 10-15 minutes for each piece; you may have to do this in batches to avoid crowding in the instant pot
Meanwhile, chop the onion, celery and carrots into 1/2” dice. Carrots are important, but if you are out of celery and have a fennel bulb hanging around, feel free to substitute. I did. Mince the garlic cloves and anchovies. When all the shanks have been browned, add the vegetables and herbs, stirring to avoid burning the garlic. Add a sprinkle of salt and pepper to taste. Add the minced anchovies; stir until they dissolve into the vegetables and olive oil. Add the tomato paste; stir to dissolve.
Return the shanks to the instant pot (electric pressure cooker), submerging them in the liquid. Pour in the white wine; stir to reduce the wine to half its volume. Add the crushed tomatoes and the broth, then stir well.
Secure the lid on the instant pot and set the timer for 60 minutes under the high pressure setting. Make sure the lid’s vent is closed. Allow the pot to cool on its own for 15 minutes or so, then release the pressure slowly by turning the vent to its open setting. If you’d like to concentrate the sauce, remove the lid and the shanks from the pot, then set the pot to its sauté function until the sauce has reduced to the desired volume.
Serve the osso buco sprinkled with gremolata and accompanied by risotto alla Milanese. Or skip the risotto and serve the sauce with mashed potatoes, slow-cooked cannellini beans or pasta (as a first course).
To make the gremolata, mix the lemon zest, chopped parsley and minced garlic together and reserve. Don’t do this too long before serving. The point of gremolata is its brightness, which fades a little with time. Any extra gremolata can be transformed into a delicious vinaigrette by adding lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil. Or use it as a pre-roasting rub for chicken.