Perhaps the most emblematic dish of the cuisine of Lombardy, the northern Italian region of which Milan is the capital, ossobuco (or oss bus in Milanese dialect) is veal shank, cut into thick rounds of shank meat around a marrowbone. It is typically served with risotto alla milanese, one of the few examples in traditional Italian cooking of the piatto unico combining both a primo and secondo on a single plate.
There are numerous versions of ossobuco, but most Milanese recipes call for making a simple soffritto of chopped onion sautéed in butter (or butter and oil).
- 4-6 veal shanks
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- Butter, or a mixture of butter and olive oil
- Flour, q.b.
- White wine
- A few canned tomatoes, chopped or puréed, to taste
For the gremolata:
- A few sprigs of fresh parsley
- 1 or 2 cloves of garlic, peeled
- The zest of one lemon
- Salt and pepper
Sauté the chopped onion in butter, or a mixture of butter and olive oil, under soft and translucent, taking care not to let it brown.
Then place rounds of veal shank, lightly floured and trimmed (see Notes below), and brown nicely on both sides. (Some recipes call for removing the onion to prevent its browning, but I find that simply shifting it to the edge of the pot works fine.)
Next, splash the veal shanks with white wine, scraping up the sucs that will have formed at the bottom of the pot, lower the heat and cover. (Most modern recipes call for some chopped or puréed tomatoes—which I like to add—but the original recipe is in bianco.) Simmer until quite tender, generally anywhere between 1-1/2 and 2 hours or more, depending on the age and quality of the veal. Add wine or water from time to time if necessary to prevent the pot from drying out, although some veal actually gives off quite a bit of liquid as it braises. At the end of cooking, the juices in the pan should be fairly abundant but thick.
Serve on a bed of risotto alla milanese, topped with gremolata—a mixture of parsley, garlic, lemon zest finely chopped together (a food processor comes in handy here) and mixed with salt and pepper—then nap each shank with the pan juices. You can, if you prefer, mix the gremolata into the sauce at the last minute before pouring over your veal shanks.
Ossobuco is one of those traditional dishes that has evolved many variations over the years. The above classic recipe appears in La cucina lombarda by Alessandro Molinari Pradelli, one of the excellent “Quest’Italia” series, and, with some minor variations, in Cuochi si diventa by Allan Bay (who, despite his Anglo-Saxon name, is a well-known contemporary Milanese gastronome) and many other cookbooks. One variation—which you will find in Artusi but also in Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, is the use of the so-called soffritto italiano, made with the ‘holy trinity’ of onion, carrot and celery rather than just onion. Perhaps it is just coincidence, but both Artusi and Hazan were romagnoli, not lombardi. Artusi, in fact, concedes that he is not an expert and the making of ossobuco should be left to the Milanese. That does not stop him, however, from offering his version of the dish. Still, made this way ossobuco is very, very good—perhaps more delicious than the more austere original version. In another version, in Le ricette regionali italiane, a single clove of garlic is very lightly browned in the butter and removed from the pot before veal shanks are added. Il cucchiaio d’argento suggests adding carrot and celery not as part of the soffritto but to the braising liquid. As mentioned above, the addition of tomato, which is very common today, is not original to the dish, but, again, it adds a lovely extra layer of flavor.
Recipes also vary widely as to the type and amount liquid in which to braise the veal shanks. White wine is perhaps most common braising liquid, but some recipes call for broth or even just water. The classic recipes call for adding only a bit of liquid to the pot at a time, a typically Italian technique of braising meat called ‘arrosto morto’, literally ‘dead roasting’ but more commonly referred to as ‘pan roasting’ in English. Hazan’s version, on the other hand, has you adding white wine and allowing it to evaporate completely (in the usual Italian fashion) before adding enough broth almost to cover the shanks, then placing them, covered, in a hot oven to braise in the typically French manner. This “Frenchified” version is quite good, and I may like it even better than the original.
The gremolata sometimes includes anchovy, as suggested by Ada Boni in Il Talismano della Felicità. I have also seen recipes that include rosemary and/or sage along with the parsley, and some include a bit of meat such as pancetta or prosciutto. I am not a fan of these variations, but try them if they appeal to you. And while risotto alla milanese is the classic accompaniment, ossobuco also goes very well with a plain risotto in bianco or mashed potatoes, or even just with some nice crusty bread.
The veal shank should ideally be from a very young, milk-fed calf, or it will lack the tenderness and delicacy of a true ossobuco. In fact, Allan Bay suggests foregoing ossobuco altogether and cutting older veal shanks into pieces and using it for stew. If you are less fastidious than Bay, just braise the veal for a bit longer until it is quite tender and almost falling off the bone. For older veal—which is most veal sold in the US—the Hazan method of braising the meat in abundant broth rather than the usual Italian arrosto morto method works better. You should trim the shanks by cutting slits in the membranes that hold the shanks together; otherwise, they will tend to curl up on themselves rather lay flat in the pot. Some cooks then tie the shanks with trussing string to prevent them from falling apart—a step that I normally skip do unless I’m making the dish for company.
There are a number of stories in circulation about the origins of the dish. If you read Italian, this page gives you some of the most common ones. The dish has ancient antecedents, but the modern recipe as described here dates from the very early 19th century.
The word ‘ossobuco’ comes from ‘osso‘ meaning bone and ‘buco‘ meaning hole. It refers to the ‘hole in the middle of the shank’—the marrowbone. A special treat for the diner is to scoop out the soft marrow from the bone and savor it. The operation is done with a tiny spoon sometimes jocularly called an ‘agente delle tasse’ or an ‘esattore’—a tax collector!