This recipe was originally featured in The 30 Second Wine Advisor's FoodLetter on Thursday, March 24, 2005.

Ossobuco bianco

Call me selfish, but I hate it when the comfort foods that I love become trendy. Take ossobuco for instance. It hasn't been that long since the bony, gristly veal shanks that are the soul of this consoling Italian dish were all but thrown away at the butcher shop, available - when you could find them at all - for a few bucks per pound.

Now that ossobuco is fancy bistro fare, you can just about always find veal shanks at any upscale grocery. Just look for the box where they keep the rare meats so valuable that they must be preserved under lock and key. OK, so I'm kidding about that. But it's a fact, at least at my local Whole Foods, that veal shanks now command $12 to $14 a pound, not much below the toll for dry-aged, hormone-free steaks.

This culinary inflation put me off shanks for a while. Then one day, enjoying one of those pricey steaks, it suddenly occurred to me that, after all, I like a comforting dish of ossobuco every bit as much as I do a rare steak. Maybe even more. So who am I hurting with this silly boycott? Off to the grocery I went, and home I came, arms loaded with neatly wrapped packets of bony, gristly, pricey and delicious veal shanks.

The standard form of ossobuco comes cloaked in a hearty tomato-based sauce, and this is the style that you're almost certain to find in most Italian restaurants. Our go-to favorite, though, is the less familiar but even more toothsome Northern Italian ossobuco bianco - "white" ossobuco - the more luscious for its pristine simplicity, shanks long-braised in a little wine and a little broth, finished with an aromatic gremolata, an appetite-whetting blend of finely minced parsley, garlic and lemon peel.

The secret to success in this dish is to allow ample time for very long, very slow simmering, a procedure that turns the tough shank meat into something resembling butter, while its natural sauce becomes rich, silken and intense. Skip the pasta with this one, as the Northern Italians do, in favor of fluffy, white rice - it's traditional to serve risotto, but simple steamed rice is fine - and don't be shy about scooping out and eating the rich, gelatinous marrow from the center bone.

INGREDIENTS: (serves 2)

1-2 pounds (450-900g) veal shanks, cut about 1 to 1 1/2-inch thick (see note in Step 1)
1 tablespoon (15ml) olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2/3 cup dry white wine
1 cup or more chicken broth
2 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon minced parsley
Zest of 1 lemon
1/2 tablespoon cornstarch (optional)


1. Put about 1/2 cup of flour on a plate and season it generously with salt and pepper. Dredge the veal shanks in the seasoned flour and tap them on the plate to knock off any excess - you want them lightly dusted, not heavily crusted, with flour. (NOTE: I've found that veal shanks vary considerably in their size and meat-to-bone ratio. There's a fair amount of waste, so you may need as much as 1 pound of shanks per person to get a good serving. But inspect the shanks at the butcher or grocery; you won't need as much if the shanks are meaty.)

2. Put the butter and oil over medium-high heat in a heavy skillet or dutch oven large enough to hold all the shanks in one layer. (If you're cooking for a larger group, you may want to use two skillets.) Heat until the butter is melted and has stopped sizzling. Put in the shanks and brown them well, turning once or twice until they're golden-brown on all sides.

3. Add the wine - I generally use something Italian for the sake of ethnic solidarity, but any dry white will do - and boil over high heat, scraping the bottom of the skillet to incorporate the browned bits, until the liquid has reduced to a thick syrup. Add the chicken broth, enough to come about midway up the sides of the shanks; when it comes to a boil, reduce heat, cover the skillet tightly, and cook at a bare simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, turning the shanks occasionally, until the meat is very tender and falling off the bone. You can add a little more broth if it starts to dry up, but if you use a tight-fitting cover, this probably won't happen.

4. While the veal is simmering, make your gremolata: Peel the lemon, taking care to get only the yellow zest while avoiding the bitter white pith. Mince the lemon peel, garlic and parsley together.

5. Just before serving, stir the gremolata into the sauce and cook for just a moment or two more. If you wish to thicken the sauce, dissolve the optional cornstarch in a little water and stir it in, cooking briefly until the liquid thickens.

The delicate flavors and gremolata point in the direction of a dry white wine, and the simplest solution is to serve the rest of the bottle you used to cook the dish. I like a fuller-bodied white, such as the excellent Southern Italian varieties Fiano di Avellino or Greco di Tufo. But just about any dry white will be fine. If you prefer a red, look for one that's fruity but acidic ... the Bottega Vinaia 2001 Trentino Lagrein featured in the March 15, 2005 Wine Advisor worked particularly well because its sharp acidity played off the lemony gremolata.