I popped into my neighbor's house yesterday to relieve the boredom of a chilly, constantly raining day. She was making venison stew. We chatted and carried on for a time and as I was leaving, she tossed a large plastic bag at me.
"Here." She said. "You take these. I have no idea what to do with them." She made a comical gag-face.
Intrigued, I peered into the bag. Sliced beef shank bones.
"Oh NICE!" I exclaimed. "Thanks!"
"That's part of the cow I got for painting the inside of my friend Sally's house," she explained. "Well, it was only half a cow, really."
"Just half a cow?" I giggled.
"Yes, but it was part of their organic herd. Local and grass fed!"
"...and free for me!" I was delighted to take this wobbling bag of clear vacuum-packed shanks. Seven big, thick disks of beautiful beef rested at the bottom of the white plastic bag, looking back at me and asking what I was going to do with them. My brain started to smoke.
"Ok thanks so much!" I waved at my neighbor as I bounced down her porch steps. "See you later!"
"Wait!" She stopped me. "What are you going to do with those things? She made the comical gag-face again.
"Osso buco!" Came my reply as I skipped back to my cottage.
Osso buco finds it's roots in the northern Italian city of Milan. The classic recipe uses veal shanks, white wine and tomato, and is topped with a gremolata- a condiment made from lemon zest, garlic and parsley. That would have been delicious, if I had had any of those ingredients in my kitchen. But "osso buco" simply means "bone with a hole". These shanks were not veal, and I did have garlic, a bag of onions and a big box of Cabernet Sauvignon. I also unearthed a half a bag of corn meal. Perfect. I would run with that.
I went down to the cellar and dug around for my gigantic use-only-at-Thanksgiving pot. I set the pot on the stove and turned the eye on medium, mildly vexed that one end of the pot wanted to hang off the end of my glass-top stove.
I washed the meat and patted it dry. The dry meat browned well and left a nice, even brown crust on the bottom of the pot. Known as "fond" this dark residue is the caramelization of sugars present in the food that is browning. Fond is a key contributor to a richly flavored dish.
I removed the meat and tossed in my chopped onions. They sizzled and popped as they slowly became clear with nice, even brown edges. I returned the shanks to the pot. Reaching up to the top of the fridge, I grabbed my box of red wine, held it over the cooking meat and turned on the spigot. I let the wine barely cover the meat and topped it off with a quart of tap water. I smashed 6 or 8 cloves of garlic and tossed them in. Salt and pepper finished off the hodgepodge. I set the lid on top and turned the heat down to low.
The chilly, rainy day droned on. Darkness closed in and I returned to the pot that was bubbling away on the stove. Steam billowed up as I lifted the lid to see that my version of osso buco was ready to eat. I knew it was time to make the polenta to go with it.
Polenta is a gruel made from cooking a grain with boiling water. In recent years, it has come to mean cooking cornmeal in boiling water. It can be eaten immediately as a soft, flavorful porridge, or cooled, sliced and fried. It could not be easier to make and is an economical way to feed a large crowd. Just bring the water to a boil and sprinkle in the cornmeal, whisking as you pour. Use 3 cups of water to 1 cup of meal. Today I used 6 cups of moderately salted water to cook 2 cups of cornmeal.
|I stirred in butter, lots of salt and a little pepper.|
Osso buco and polenta are part of the darlings of the modern food scene. Trendy, urban restaurants charge big dollars for this kind of food. Ironically, many members of this group of current favorites are the descendants of dishes that were born from poverty and necessity. That is the beauty of food. The most humble bit of edible leftover bits can be transformed into a rich, flavorful and satisfying meal for all of those you love.
Try it. You'll be surprised what you'll be capable of!