Julia Child and I became good friends late in her life, when I moved to Boston and met her in person for the first time. Of course, I had known about her for a very long time — she was the first television food personality I ever saw. One summer, when I was on home leave from an overseas assignment, my mother called me into the television room. “You’ve got to see this,” my mother said. I remember exactly what Julia was making that day — swordfish, which she seared in a pan, then finished in the oven with cherry tomatoes and herbs, and fresh green beans that she tipped into a pan of boiling water, then brought the water back to a boil with a kitchen tool called a “buffalo.” Heated and plunged into a pan of water, the tool quickly brought the water back to a boil. I have never seen or heard of anything similar since.
Julia and her husband, Paul, were still living in their beautiful, old Victorian on Irving Street in Cambridge, and I lived up on Prospect Hill, almost around the corner. I was working then for the American Institute of Wine & Food, Julia’s baby, so we met often as I groused about the blind men in San Francisco who controlled the purse strings. “We all just have to bite the bullet, dearie,” she would chirp across the kitchen table as Paul mixed his famous gin-and-it cocktails before dinner.
Julia and I did not agree about a lot of things. In fact, she reminded me strongly of my recently deceased mother, who clung to her own opinions with the same dogged determination with which Julia clung to hers. One of the things we disagreed most strongly about was veal. When I think back on it, it seems ridiculous, but Julia believed the only genuine veal came from calves that had been raised in strict confinement. Meanwhile, I was made dreadfully uneasy by the information that those calves had to be fed massive doses of antibiotics to keep them alive until they could be slaughtered. “Pink veal is not veal,” she would contend, shaking a finger at me. “It’s baby beef” — each word separated by a slight pause for emphasis.
Well, Julia went on to the great kitchen in the sky and I left Boston for other climes, and the veal controversy was never settled between us. But I cling to the belief today that the best and most traditional veal is not raised in a box, and even if the flesh grows a bit pink from the occasional bit of grass consumed (it’s iron in the grass, I’m told, that turns the flesh from white to pink), it is nonetheless much better for our health to eat meat that has not been contaminated by antibiotics and other medications.
This recipe is in memory of Julia, but please note you could do it with lamb shanks instead of veal.
Italians think of ossobuco as a Milanese dish, to be served with saffron risotto — one of the few times on the Italian table when rice (or pasta, for that matter) is served as an accompaniment rather than as a separate course. True Milanese cooks often add tomatoes to the cooking medium. I prefer it without.
For presentation purposes, use a single slice of shank, bone and all, about 1 1/2 inches thick, for each diner. Be sure there’s enough meat on the bone — as you move down the leg of the animal, you get more bone and less meat. You want the total to be not more than one-third of the weight in bone, and the rest in meat. If you can’t find a butcher who will cut you proper ossobuco (“hole-bone”), you could also make this with whole veal or lamb shanks. It won’t be alla Milanese, but it will be very good.
Prep time: 35 minutes
Cook time: 4 hours
Total time: 4 hours and 35 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
2 celery sticks, as green as you can get, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
3/4 cup olive oil, divided
2 3-inch strips lemon zest
2 to 3 pounds ossobuco
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cups beef or chicken stock
Several sprigs of fresh thyme
2 or 3 bay leaves
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
Sea salt to taste
1. You’ll need a deep, heavy saucepan or stock pot that can go in the oven and is large enough to hold all the pieces of meat in one layer. Combine the onions, carrots, celery and garlic with half the olive oil in the pan and set over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring, until the vegetables are soft, then stir in the lemon zest and remove from the heat while you prepare the meat.
2. Dry the ossobuco slices with paper towels. Combine the flour with plenty of pepper and dredge the meat in the flour.
3. Heat the remaining olive oil in a skillet and when very hot, quickly brown the ossobuco slices on both sides. As they brown, remove with tongs and set them on top of the vegetables in the saucepan.
4. When all the meat is done, remove and discard most of the fat in the pan. Add the wine and bring to a boil over high heat, scraping up all the brown bits. Let the wine bubble and reduce, then transfer the skillet contents, with all the brown bits, to the vegetables.
5. Turn your oven on to 300 F.
6. Add stock to the skillet, bring to a boil and transfer to the saucepan. Stir in the thyme, bay leaves and parsley, but don’t add any salt until the end of cooking. Let the liquid in the pan come to a simmer over medium heat, then cover and transfer to the oven. Cook the meat, very slowly, for about 3 hours, turning the pieces from time to time — three or four times over the course of the baking. When the meat is done, it will be very tender — falling off the bone — and the sauce will be thick.
7. Remove the meat to a heated serving platter and taste the sauce. If necessary, add salt. If the sauce seems too thin, reduce it by simmering. If it’s too dense, on the other hand, add a little more stock, wine or water and bring to a simmer. Spoon the sauce over the meat and serve immediately.
Note: A traditional garnish for ossobuco alla Milanese is a gremolata, made by finely mincing together lemon zest, garlic and flat-leaf parsley, sprinkling it over the meat just before it is sent to the table.