this is aaronland

not so much a recipe as a ritual

Operation Zoso Buco

I've been making osso buco a lot this year and taking pictures along the way. A few times people have asked for the recipe so here it is, such as it is.

The short version is that it's Elizabeth David's recipe for ossi buchi from her book Italian Food. The longer version is that I've been making it with lamb shanks rather than the traditional veal shanks. This is as much a function the local butcher starting to carry fresh lamb shanks as it is living in San Francisco where anything made with veal is treated with the same kind of hushed shame as foie gras. And it tastes good.

Elizabeth David was a revelation for me. She was a wonderful prose writer and it was a habit that carried over in to her recipes which are often maddeningly vague. You would be forgiven for wondering whether there are recipes at all. They are really just a handful of paragraphs that serve as a rough guide in the general direction of the dish you're trying to make. The recipe that follows is much longer than anything she'd write.

operation zoso buco / part one

Here's what you'll need:

A chicken, for roasting (and eating the night before); Beef bones (for making stock); Lamb shanks (the original recipe calls for veal shanks to be cut in 2" slices but lamb shanks are smaller than veal shanks and so I just ask the butcher to cut them in half or thirds; adjust to taste); A bottle of dry white wine; Tomatoes (the recipe calls for three-quaters of a pound of fresh tomatoes, skinned, for two pounds of shanks but I've also used canned tomatoes and I generally just eyeball the amounts to taste; the tomatoes are there to keep the shanks company while they cook so you don't really need to be fussy about it); Fresh Italian parsley and other warm, earthy herbs to taste (I like marjoram and sage and maybe winter savory if it's in the house); Garlic; A lemon for zesting; Salt and pepper and butter; Arborio rice; Saffron.

A casserole large enough to fit all the shanks that can go in both the oven and on the stove top; Something for straining stock (I have one of those fancy fine-mesh strainers but it's not going to be the end of the world if you don't); A medium sized pan for cooking the risotto; Something to zest the lemon with.

That's it.

Operation ZOSO Buco (part two)

The night before you're going to have the osso buco, roast the chicken. Eat the chicken. Carve all the meat off the chicken and use the carcass to make chicken stock. While the chicken is roasting, use the beef bones to make beef stock. If you've never made stock before it basically consists of filling a medium-sized pot with water, adding the bones and any other seasonings or vegetables (I usually leave the chicken stock plain but may add a carrot or stick of celery celery or an onion for beef stock), bringing the water to a boil and then lower it to a constant simmer. At that point there's nothing to do but occasionally skim the foam-y gunk off the top and wait for the water to reduce by about half. Like most things it's a matter of taste. When it's done strain the stock in to a bowl, cool and refrigerate. Some people are super fussy about their stocks and get all bent out of shape if they're cloudy. I'm really only concerned with whether it's full of float-y bits. It shouldn't be and that's the only reason you may want to get a fine-mesh strainer. After the stocks have cooled in the refridgerator there will almost certainly be fatty deposits that will congeal and float to the surface so I always plan to have to strain each a second time.

You should expect to set aside an hour doing prep work and other cooking before you put the osso buco in the oven. I try to let it roast for at least an hour and a half before I take it out and continue to cook it on the stove top while I make the risotto, which takes another 30 or 40 minutes. So, you're basically looking at a minimum three hours from start to finish. It's not really one of those things you just whip up when you come home after work. The longer you can leave the shanks in the oven the better so it's a nice dish to make on a lazy Sunday.

When you're ready to get started pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees Farenheit. If you're going to spend all day cooking the dish then set it a bit lower, like 275. Heat up the beef stock in a separate pot.

tuesday night

Melt the butter in the casserole, then sear and brown the shanks on the stove top. I usually start with a little less than a quarter stick (a stick being a quarter of a pound) of butter but go ahead and add more if you want. I wish I could offer some useful advice on searing meats but I usually doubt myself. The gist of it is to get the pan super hot without also burning the butter. Short of blackening the butter I don't worry about it too much.

Once the shanks are browned pour in the white wine and let cook for, according to the recipe, 10 minutes. The recipe calls for a cup of white wine for two pounds of meat. I suspect that this is one of the places where my version gets weird because I think there's an expectation that the bones will be short enough that a cup of white will come close to covering them. The tall and gangly lamb shanks I use are never fully covered so I just move them around. I probably always add more than a cup of wine.

After 10 minutes add the tomatoes and reduce. I swear to god that's all the original recipe says. I also add herbs and spices at this point.

lamb / shanks

Once the tomatoes have reduced add the beef stock. As with the wine the recipe calls for a cup but I add whatever I need to almost cover the shanks or whatever feels right. Bring the whole thing to a simmer, cover and stick it in the oven.

Leave it there for as long as you can. There's no need to check it for at least the first couple of hours. After that take it out sparingly and only to add any liquid (usually more beef stock) that might be necessary to keep it from drying out. About an hour before you're ready to sit down and eat take it out of the oven and continue cooking it, uncovered, over a low burner.

This is the part where you make the risotto. Before you start heat up the chicken stock in a separate pot and make the gremolata. Gremolata is just chopped (as in diced-but-not-vapourized) garlic and Italian parsley mixed together with the zest of about half a lemon and is sprinkled over the osso buco when served. You can prepare this whenever but I usually do it before I start the rice because everything is usually a bit hectic towards the end.

Friday night

Heat the pan you're going to use to cook the risotto over a medium heat and melt the butter in it. For a cup of arborio I will typically use butter about the size of half a large egg or a bit more. Sometimes I'll saute a small amount of scallions first. Add the rice and stir it around so it gets coated with the butter. Add a little bit of white wine and then start adding the chicken stock. Stir. Repeat. The trick to risotto is the stirring, constant stirring, and there's no getting around it. Turn the radio on. Get a glass of wine (and keep the bottle nearby). Stir. Add more chicken stock. Repeat. At some point, about half way through, I start to water down the stock mostly because I've made it a few times and the flavour of the chicken in the rice has been a distraction. Watering down the stock just means adding some water from the tap to the pot itself and, like most things, don't add too much at once. You can always add more. Taste the rice as you go and when it feels like it only needs another 10 minutes add the saffron. Do this in moderation and add more, as needed. It takes a minute or two to work its way in to things and if too much chicken stock is distracting too much saffron is like your neighbour's annoying kid practicing the drums. In your mouth. This is a good time to warm up bread in the oven. Keep stirring.

When you're ready to serve place the risotto in whatever dishes you're using. I like low bowls. Place the shanks on top of the rice. Pour some of the juice that the shanks have cooked in over the shanks. The reason I like using bowls is that I can pour the juice over the shank and have it seep down into and around (but not over) the rice without all the liquid spilling over the rim or covering (read: drowning) the rice. Sprinkle the gremolata over the shanks.

Eat. Drink. Feel good. Also, don't forget to take the bread out of the oven.