If you’re anything like me, you avoid recipes that involve string as a matter of principle. String is fiddly and fussy and it never stays on the lump of meat you are supposedly trussing (and I know how to tie a knot, all right? I was a boat builder for years, dammit). The ultimate annoying culinary string wankery is the bouquet garni.
A bouquet garni is a bundle of herbs tied up with string. The idea is that it sits daintily in your soup or stew stock without untidy herbs getting all over the place, and is removed at the end, which makes it doubly worthless: firstly that it involves string, and secondly WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG with having herbs floating in your stew? If you want a clear soup, strain the sucker. I have tried using bouquet garni, and have always been underwhelmed with the pallid results (not to mention slightly repulsed by the soggy clot of vegetable matter I had to pick out in the end). I thought it French fussiness at its worst.
UNTIL, of course, I happened upon Thomas Keller’s recipe for bouquet garni in The French Laundry Cookbook, which instantly appealed due to the use of three leek leaves to make a triangle-sided tube stuffed with herbs and painstakingly lashed together. How incredibly neat is that? It seems the traditional variety just wasn’t fussy enough for me.
This is a recipe for osso buco, braised veal shanks. About veal: yep, it’s a cruel way to raise a calf. The good news is that public pressure and the new national hobby of finding out where food comes from is forcing the industry to change its ways. The Washington Post reports that from 5% of veal calves being raised outside of a crate in 2007, the stat is now 35%, and crates are being banned state-to-state. I feel so sorry for veal calves. Cruelly raised in little pens with no proper room to move, fed an unnatural diet, and slaughtered at six months. Anyhow, here’s how you cook them:
2 veal shanks, about two inches thick
1 carrot, diced small
1 celery stalk, also diced small
1 medium onion, also also diced small
2 cups white wine
2 cups chicken stock
1 Tb tomato paste
bouquet garni a la Thomas Keller
tie into a triangular tube-shaped polyhedron:
3 green leek leaves, about 6-8” long
3 sprigs parsley
1 sprig sage or thyme
1 sprig rosemary
2 bay leaves
Veal shanks are crosswise slices of cow shin. The appeal of osso buco, another triumph of peasant cuisine, is to turn the toughest cut into something meltingly tender. It does this by virtue of long braising, as well as having the bone cut cross-section, allowing access to marrow.
Traditionally, you are expected to tie the veal shanks with a loop of string so they will hold their shape during the long, slow, braising period. This is another lie perpetuated by the string industry, because it doesn’t work. You might as well try tying a loop of string around a water balloon. However, I was all jacked up on my bouquet garni and thought I’d give it a try.
Heat oil in a dutch oven or casserole and brown the shanks well on all sides. This should take about 10 minutes. (At this point, the first loop of string I had tied around the shanks came off as the shanks changed their shape. Ah ha, I thought, now that they are seared I should tie them again. So I did, with fresh string.) Remove them to a plate while you prepare the stock. Season them with salt and pepper.
Add the vegetables to the pot and sauté until soft, about 5-10 minutes. Add the tomato paste, return the shanks to the pot, and add the wine and stock. The bone will have a wide end and a narrow end, and you want to keep the wide end up during the braising period so the marrow doesn’t fall out. The liquids should come at least half way up the shanks – add more stock as necessary. Put in the neat-as-heck bouquet garni.
Cover the pan and cook on the lowest setting for two hours, or until the meat is falling off the bone. (About ten minutes into this process, the second loop of string fell off.) It may take longer, but it won’t take shorter. When they are done, remove them and put them somewhere to keep warm, throw out the bouquet garni, and reduce the stock until it is thick and saucy.
Osso buco is traditionally seasoned with a little heaping of gremolata on top. This is a wondrous touch. Lemons are exciting. A little juice or zest brightens any meat dish.
Finely chop a few sprigs of parsley, zest a whole lemon, and mince a garlic clove. Mix them.
Having made osso buco for the first time last night, I can report it was one of the finest meat-eating experiences I have had. Like the best examples of its kind, it was slightly squalid, very animal and tactile, dirty and sexy, and the only way to eat it was to abandon all pretence of civilization and pick with your fingers.