Although the "red-gravy" dishes of Southern Italy formed the backbone of Italian-American cooking, some of Italian cuisine's greatest glories come from the more sophisticated kitchens of the North. A fine example is osso buco, a dish of braised veal shank that's one of Milan's most celebrated traditions. Veal shanks can be costly and hard to find in much of the United States, and cooks sometimes have ethical objections to cooking veal, which comes from calves, but beef shanks can be substituted if necessary.
Shank, Shin, Shred
The shank is the lower or ankle portion of an animal's leg. It's also sometimes called the shin, or the hock if it's pork. In each case, the shank is a dense cut filled with tough muscle, fat and large veins of gristly connective tissue. It's often used, despite its toughness, because if it's slow-cooked for hours in a dish such as osso buco, it gradually becomes mouthwateringly rich and tender. The tightly packed muscle fibers relax in the gentle heat, and the tough gristle dissolves into rich, moist natural gelatin. The meat can easily be pulled or shredded for various uses.
The Beef Shank Redemption
Classic osso buco is made by simmering veal shanks for hours in a tomato-based sauce. Legendary Italian cookbook author Ada Boni recommends having your shanks cut in 2- to 3-inch pieces, which works well for serving family-style, while American-oriented recipes usually favor cuts of 1 to 1 1/2 inches for individual servings. Beef shanks can be substituted with no change in technique, though the end result will differ slightly. Beef shanks are larger, so use thinner 1-inch slices to make reasonable portions. They have a beefier taste than the relatively mild veal.
Making It Happen
Making osso buco requires a lot of prep at the beginning, but the actual cooking is largely hands-off and trouble-free. You'll brown your shanks thoroughly in a Dutch oven or heavy roasting pan, then mop up any excess fat from the bottom. Add a mixture of onion, carrots and celery and stir them until they're softened and translucent, then add chopped tomatoes and enough wine or broth to barely cover the shanks. Cover the pan tightly and slide it into a preheated oven at 300 or 325 degrees Fahrenheit and let it simmer until the shanks are fork-tender. That can take three to five hours, so be patient.
Finishing It Up
To finish the dish, carefully remove the tender shanks to a serving bowl and strain the juices. Reduce the sauce over gentle heat until it's thick, or reduce it by half and then thicken it with a bit of cornstarch. You can prepare the dish to this point a day ahead of time, if you wish, then reheat it for serving. Osso buco is traditionally served with a garnish of gremolata, a mixture of minced garlic, parsley, lemon zest and anchovies that brightens the flavors of the dish and complements its richness, and a side of rice, typically Milan's famous saffron risotto.
- Italian Regional Cooking; Ada Boni
- The Cook's Thesaurus: Miscellaneous Veal Cuts
- Fine Cooking: Osso Buco -- A Velvety-Tender Braise of Veal
- Photo Credit Eising/Photodisc/Getty Images