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.
To make the veal shanks: 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). Once the onion is well softened and translucent, place rounds of veal shank, lightly floured and trimmed (see 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.) Then splash the veal shanks with 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.
To make risotto alla milanese: A risotto alla milanese is made in the same way as any other risotto, with the addition of two key ingredients: bone marrow and saffron. You begin as usual with a soffritto of onion in butter, but adding finely chopped bone marrow and allowing it to melt completely. Then add your rice and proceed as for a normal risotto until the rice is almost cooked. Meanwhile, soak some threads of saffron in hot water or broth. When the rice is almost done, add the saffron liquid to the rice and continue until done. Finish off, as usual, with a mantecatura using abundant parmesan cheese. Since this risotto will serve as a ‘bed’ for your ossobuco and its pan juices, the risotto should be rather more stiff than runny.
NOTES: 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.
The use of bone marrow, called midollo in Italian, is consider by most to be a must for an authentic risotto all milanese. You can sometime find it in stores, but more often you’ll need to buy marrowbones (also called ‘soup bones’) and remove the marrow yourself. There are various way to do this. You can scoop out the marrow raw, with a sharp small knife. This can be fiddly work, and not very practical if the bone has not been cut into short enough lengths. To make things easier for yourself, you can either blanch the bones in boiling water or roast them in a hot oven until the marrow has softened up. I often just use the marrow from bones left over from making broth. Marrow that is pre-cooked in this way melts much more readily as well.
Risotto alla milanese is also a dish with some variations, albeit perhaps less profuse. You can, for example, omit the bone marrow if you cannot find it in the store. The result will be less rich and, for many, not a true risotto “alla milanese”, but it will be very nice. Some will use the grease from a veal roast instead of, or in addition to, the bone marrow. When not paired with osso buco, some people will top this risotto with some drippings from a roast. (I had this version once in Milan and can tell you the results are superb.) Some recipes call for omitting the wine, which for some give the dish too much acidity. Some even call for red wine instead of white, reportedly a custom imported from nearby Brianza. Perhaps most unusually, the famous iconoclastic Milanese chef Gualtiero Marchesi suggests adding the onion soffritto, mixed with cold butter to form a cream, at the very end of cooking, as part of the mantecatura. Some authors, like Allan Bay, call for using powdered saffron instead of threads, to ensure that they dissolve properly into the dish; saffron is one ingredient that cannot be spared.
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!