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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Ossobuco: The Italian Song of Winter

There are few things more comforting on a raw winter day than the preparation of a hearty braised dish: the apartment toasty from hours of slow-cooking, the air redolent with the fragrance of herbs and aromatics being released from the confines of a pot out into the atmosphere. Such savory delight can never be contained to one room, it wafts from the kitchen outward, perfuming every room in your home, reaching further still, until it permeates your pores and baptizes your soul singing the Italian song of winter.

Do I sound hyperbolic? Well, I assure you I am not exaggerating. Nothing immediately relieves our sense of deprivation as the bite of something delectable; the lion of contentment purring like a kitten, especially when we have been anticipating our first taste of that something delectable for several hours. It becomes all the more rewarding when our own hands are the creators of such gustatory satisfaction.

Ossobuco is arguably one of the best known Italian words in the world.  Osso is Italian for bone. Buco means hole. Granted, "Bonehole" doesn't immediately conjure up imagery of an appetizing nature, but once you've tried the dish, you'll have a sense-memory to draw from that will give the word delectable connotations forever afterward.  Ossobuco served with gremolata alla milanese is braised veal shank; more specifically, the middle part of the hind shank, which has lots of tender meat around the marrow bone; the fore shank doesn’t.

Ossobuco emigrated from Italy with migrants, possibly, but not necessarily, with those coming from Lombardy, its origin. The recipe, at least in the 19th century and thereafter, has become well-known and is pan-Italian, so even emigrants from the South of Italy could have brought it with them as they crossed country borders. Its low cost and unfussy preparation made it a popular dish, in and out of restaurants - an ideal dish for families. Served with risotto or polenta, ossobuco made and makes a delicious and satisfying meal.

It was originally a seasonal dish, to be cooked in winter time on charcoal or wood stoves, which in the past, also had the function of warming the household. A notable contribution to the popularity of Ossobuco was the inclusion of its recipe in famous collections published outside Italy. It was featured in France, for example, in the famous Art Culinaire Moderne by Henri-Paul Pellaprat , since its first edition in 1935; as well as in England in Elizabeth David’s book Italian Food at the beginning of the 1950s.

Food historians in Milan claim Ossobuco was born there. Its City Council, in 2007, solemnly declared the oss (or òs) buss, ossobuco in Milanese dialect, as part of the De.Co. (Denominazioni Comunali in Italian, or “community denominations”), which is an official public acknowledgement that a certain dish or product belongs to a certain territory. When one considers that Italy was not a "united" cohesive country until the late-mid 19th Century, one can understand why each region remains a bit touchy about safeguarding its own cuisine. There is no dispute that Ossobuco originated in Lombardy. No one, however, can say exactly when. The use of marrowbones and veal shanks was common in medieval cuisine but there is no evidence of the presence of ossobuco (alla milanese) as a dish, at that time.

Allegedly, during The Illuminist Revolution, lemon – in this case the rind used in the gremolata – radically replaced more expensive spices such as cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. The dish didn’t originally include tomatoes, which only became widely used at the end of the 18th century. Some historians believe that Ossobuco has a very recent history, since it doesn’t appear in the popular cookbooks of the 19th century, such as La Vera Cucina Lombarda (The True Lombard Cuisine, a sort of Joy of Cooking for Italian housewives) published in 1890 by an unknown author. American food writer Clifford Wright believes that Ossobuco was likely created in some osteria – the small, family-ran eateries catering to neighborhoods in Milan. In 1891, the recipe was included by Pellegrino Artusi in his La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene, the first collection of Italian national cuisine ever published, a celebration of both home cooking and well known dishes from all over Italy.

The classic recipe starts off by making a simple soffritto of chopped onion sautéed in butter or butter and oil until translucent. The ossibuchi, lightly floured, are then to be browned adequately on both sides in the same pan with the onion (or without, to avoid the risk of burning it). White wine should be then added and the cooking should continue with the heat lowered and the pan covered.

In other recipes, such as those appearing in Artusi’s La Scienza in Cucina and Marcela Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, chopped carrot and celery join the onion, to make what is known as the classic “Italian soffritto” and includes a single clove of garlic to be lightly browned in the butter and removed before adding the ossibuchi to the soffritto, which according to some recipes may use prosciutto or pancetta. Flouring the veal, which was a way to tenderize the meat in the past as well as thicken the sauce, appears only in some recipes , but not in Artusi, nor in Hazan. Traditional recipes call for dousing the browned veal with wine and then letting it evaporate. Then the ossobuchi are seasoned with pepper and salt and cooked at low heat in the covered skillet, turning them over from time to time and dousing them with broth as needed. That is the original Italian technique called arrosto morto “dead roasting” or stove-top braising, which in the past few decades has been replaced by a way of cooking very common in French cuisine, after the wine evaporates the ossibuchi are covered with broth and placed in a hot oven to braise. This technique became popularized in Marcela Hazan’s Essentials (1974).

The gremolata (‘gremolada’ or ‘cremolata’), in its basic and traditional version, is prepared out of parsley, garlic and lemon zest finely chopped together. Gremolata comes from the Milanese word “gremolà”, ‘reduce to grains’ and it was used in the past also to season scaloppine and dishes made with rabbit. It is added to ossobuco as a condiment, just prior to serving.

 The veal should braise until the meat falls off the bone and can be eaten with a fork alone.  The veal shank should be from a very young, milk-fed calf. According to the American poet Billy Collins, who wrote a poem named Osso Buco, “something you don't hear much about in poetry
 that sanctuary of hunger and deprivation” the meat should be “soft as the leg of an angel / who has lived a purely airborne existence

Tenderness and juiciness are the key to the best ossobuco. The marrow is a delicacy on its own and is traditionally dug out, in Lombardy, with a small, long-handled spoon called esattore (tax collector).  A brief sidenote about the essatore: roasted bone marrow was considered a great delicacy in the Queen Anne period (1702-1714) , when meat was rare and expensive, to accommodate the extraction of the marrow from the bone centers, silver spoons with a long narrow scoop at one end were used, the earliest on record c1690. These marrow spoons were quickly superseded by marrow scoops, which had a large scoop at one end, and small scoop at the other - suitable to differing widths of bone. Scoops were made only until the late 19th century, though, of course, you can find them in antique shops. I use a knife and then transfer the marrow from knife to fork. It does the job admirably.

Ossobuco is traditionally served surrounded by risotto alla milanese but goes beautifully with mashed potatoes or crusty bread. One thing is sure, after eating it, it should generate a feeling that Collins describes as “the lion of contentment” placing “a warm heavy paw” on the chest of those who have dined on Ossobuco.

Osso Buco By Billy Collins

I love the sound of the bone against the plate

and the fortress-like look of it
lying before me in a moat of risotto,
the meat soft as the leg of an angel
who has lived a purely airborne existence. 

And best of all, the secret marrow,
the invaded privacy of the animal
prized out with a knife and wallowed
down with cold, exhilarating wine. 

 I am swaying now in the hour after dinner,

a citizen tilted back on his chair,
a creature with a full stomach-- something
you don't hear much about in poetry,
that sanctuary of hunger and deprivation.  

You know: the driving rain, the boots by the door,

small birds searching for berries in winter. 
 But tonight, the lion of contentment
has placed a warm heavy paw on my chest,
and I can only close my eyes and listen to the drums
of woe throbbing in the distance and the sound
of my wife's laughter on the telephone in the next room,
the woman who cooked the savory osso buco,
who pointed to show the butcher the ones she wanted.
She who talks to her faraway friend
while I linger here at the table
with a hot, companionable cup of tea,
feeling like one of the friendly natives,
a reliable guide, maybe even the chief's favorite son. 

 Somewhere, a man is crawling up a rocky hillside

on bleeding knees and palms, an Irish penitent 
carrying the stone of the world in his stomach;
and elsewhere people of all nations stare
at one another across a long, empty table.
But here, the candles give off their warm glow,
the same light that Shakespeare and Izaac Walton wrote by,
the light that lit and shadowed the faces of history.
Only now it plays on the blue plates,
the crumpled napkins, the crossed knife and fork.
In a while, one of us will go up to bed
and the other will follow. 
Then we will slip below 
the surface of the night into miles of water,
drifting down and down to the dark, soundless bottom
until the weight of dreams pulls us lower still,
below the shale and layered rock, beneath the strata
of hunger and pleasure, into the broken bones of the earth itself,
into the marrow of the only place we know. 

 From "The Art of Drowning" by Billy Collins


A Dutch oven or braiser is essential for this. Cast iron is the best, I use Le Creuset but there are many dependable brands. It is a worthy investment, buy a good one. The ingredients are so basic and I've made it so many times, I  never use a recipe, but I promised a new friend on Facebook I'd sit down to write a proper one out for her, so here we are. I like to dice my mire poix (celery, onions, leeks, carrots, etc) into perfect little cubes, but I was feeling lazy and opted to go more rustic with the cut of the veggies. When you chop it finely, it makes an excellent sauce for pasta. I brown a bit of tomato paste with the vegetables for a deeper color, before adding wine and stock, but I didn't have any on hand, and because this was going to be a chunky braise anyway, I just added lovely canned Strianese San Marzano cherry tomatoes into the braising liquid which I had in the pantry. Fennel bulb is usually value add, too, but I didn't have any. Instead of chopping my herbs finely, I opted for a bouquet garni. Bouquet garni is a French herbal sachet. It consists of a collection of herbs, gathered and tied into a bundle or sachet in cheesecloth, or directly tied together when using fresh herbs. Bouquet garni is used to enhance the flavour of stews, broths, or stocks. I didn't bother tying the sprigs together, I let them float free. Somehow, the dish survived the translation of my improvisations. A classic dish always does. You can serve this with polenta or risotto, if you want to be more traditional. That being said, a mound of freshly mashed potatoes provide a wonderful foil for this dish, better than any other. The earthiness of potatoes, along with their toothsome texture and mild flavor make them the perfect canvas. Any leftover sauce is wonderful over buttered wide flat egg noodles like tagliatelle. 


  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • 1 sprig marjoram
  • 1  bay leaf
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 2 lbs veal shanks (cut into short lengths)
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 TBSP of paprika
  • All purpose flour, for dredging veal
  • 1/2 cup olive oil 
  • 1 small onion, diced into 1/2-inch cubes 
  • 1 small carrot, diced into 1/2-inch cubes 
  • 1 stalk celery, diced into 1/2 inch cubes 
  • 1 large leek, white part only, cut into coins
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 15 oz. can of San Marzano Cherry Tomatoes 
  • 1 cup dry white wine 
  • 3 cups veal or chicken stock 
  • 1 small handful of fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley, chopped 
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest (optional)


  1. Place rack in center of oven & preheat oven to 375 degrees
  2. Pat veal shanks dry with paper towels to remove any excess moisture.
  3. Veal shanks will brown better when they are dry. 
  4. Season each shank with paprika, salt and freshly ground pepper.
  5. Dredge the shanks in flour, shaking off excess. 
  6. In a large Dutch oven pot or braiser, heat vegetable oil over medium high heat
  7. When the oil is shimmering (about 1 minute) add veal shanks to the hot pan
  8. And brown all sides, about 3 minutes per side. 
  9. Remove browned shanks and reserve. 
  10. In the same pot, add the onion, carrot, leek, and celery.
  11. Season with salt at this point to help draw out the moisture from the vegetables.
  12. Saute until soft and translucent, about 8 minutes.
  13. Add garlic and saute until it loses its raw look.
  14. Add the tomato paste and mix well. 
  15. Return browned shanks to the pan and add the white wine
  16. Reduce liquid by half, about 5 minutes. 
  17. Add the bouquet garni (the sprigs of herbs & clove), the canned tomatoes and 2 cups of the stock,
  18. making sure the shanks are covered 3/4 of the way up and bring to a boil.
  19. Reduce heat to low, cover pan tightly and place in oven.
  20. Lower heat in oven to 325 degrees
  21. Simmer for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until the meat is falling off the bone. 
  22. While it's braising, check every 30 minutes, turning shanks and adding more stock as necessary. The level of cooking liquid should always be about 3/4 the way up the shank. 
  23. Carefully remove the cooked shanks from the pot and place in serving dish.
  24. Remove and discard bouquet garni from the pot.
  25. Ladle sauce from the pot over the shanks.
  26. Garnish with chopped parsley and lemon zest. (optional)

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