Sunday, February 11, 2007

Shank Shack

We hadn't seen my parents for a while, so we booked them for a Sunday dinner at our place.

And so began the discussions of what to cook. Mom -- easy. Anything but soft-shell crabs and Brussels sprouts. (Weird, I know. In my heart I still believe I'll find a way to get her to like Brussels sprouts.) Virtually any nationality is fair game. Dad, though -- tough. He claims he likes just about everything, but I say there's a shade of distinction between eating everything and actually liking everything.

"I love Indian food," he'll say. "But only the best." First of all, it's hard to love Indian food if you can't stand cumin. Secondly, the idea of "the best" -- somehow, improbably, an objective standard in my father's mind -- can get pretty muddy outside the largely European concept of fine dining, where more stars often mean higher prices and more reliable quality. Is "the best" Indian food found in the most opulent restaurants? Not in my experience. Even after all these years it's hard for me to follow my dad's reasoning when he goes down this path. To his credit, it probably harks back to the time when there were only a handful of decent Chinese restaurants in New York City ("decent," I can work with). He hunted for them, and he found them, while all I have to do is open a Zagat's.

Anyway, Dad is actually pretty open-minded. He really will eat anything, which I greatly admire. It's just that when you're his son and daughter-in-law and you have him over for dinner, you're wise to stick pretty close to Italy and France. And if you make a salad, you should probably skip the balsamic.

Since we don't really do much French food around here, and since a visit from the food-savvy parentals is hardly the time to experiment, we settled on Italian, which led quickly and easily to the idea of osso buco. After all, I needed something that isn't in my mom's bag of tricks (not much to choose from there), and I don't remember her ever making osso buco, while I'm pretty comfortable with it. It's not hard to be comfortable with something that doesn't need much coaxing to melt itself into the most rich and velvety and tender and delicious substance known to humankind.

So yesterday morning I headed over to my favorite butcher to get the meat. I was a bit worried, because sometimes they're out of osso buco, and I didn't want to have to get it at the supermarket, where it's not as pristine. I tried to drag myself out as early as I could.

I walked through the door and made a beeline to the pork/veal/lamb case. Standing right there, holding an overflowing basket of assorted meats, was my mother.

We laughed, and hugged, and she said to the guy who was buying short ribs, "My son!" He remarked that the resemblance was clear.

"I'm shopping for you," I said to my mom, who of course protested. Wait till she sees what I have in mind, I thought. There was no point in hiding it. I told her, just as the guy in front of me said to the butcher, "I'll take those last three osso buco."

I nearly fainted. Then I saw another whole shank sitting in the case. Phew.

I asked for four pieces, and the butcher went to cut them for me. They were absolutely beautiful, and even he couldn't help but admire his fine product. He weighed them -- at $13.99 a pound, the quartet came to $52.75. Yikes. My mom had to be standing right there, didn't she? "You're worth it," I insisted.

We walked together to the register, and Mom, with her lamb chops, sausages, chicken, and roast turkey -- and probably a few other things I missed -- rang up around $40. She asked if she could pay for the osso buco. "Please, Mom, don't worry about it. We want to make you guys a nice dinner!" I was concerned that she would overcompensate by bringing a case of wine instead of the bottle or two we'd asked them to pick out.

Then I walked her to her car and said see you tomorrow.

This morning, Margy got to work on her incredible raspberry bars while I chopped vegetables and patiently browned the osso buco, which I first dredged in a little flour. Okay, not so patiently. But it's a crucial step, and I saw it through, all 40 minutes or so of it (I had to do it in two batches). Once those two things were out of the way, I was basically home free. I splashed some white wine in the Dutch oven I was using, and I scraped up the precious remnants of the browning process.

Then I added a bit more olive oil to the pot, threw in finely chopped onion, carrot, and celery, and let the vegetables soften. A few minutes later I added a minced clove of garlic and a minced chile, and I let that go for a minute. Then came the braising liquid -- white wine, chicken stock, and canned tomato, plus salt and pepper. In went the meat, and I adjusted the liquid so it came up about halfway around the shanks. I brought the stew to a boil, turned off the heat, and put the covered pot in a 375-degree oven for two hours.

The 53-dollar veal did not let us down. Sticking to tradition -- a most tasty tradition at that -- I served the osso buco with risotto alla Milanese. Broccoli too (no salad). My parents were impressed. But I tried to deflect the credit. Yes, I didn't mess anything up, but really I didn't do anything all that snazzy. It's the shanks themselves. The melting fat has a magical effect on the flavor and texture of the sauce, and who can resist meat that's so tender and juicy that it falls apart? Add the wonderful bonus of the luscious marrow -- spread it on bread, on a forkful of risotto, or, in the ultimate move of meaty audacity, on a piece of the osso buco itself -- and forget it. Osso buco rules. I'm just the middleman.

We all managed to save room for Margy's raspberry bars, which have a shortbread crust and a streusel topping. They're crumbly, chewy, and crunchy all at the same time, and they were the perfect end note to our operatic feast.

Oh, and my parents brought one bottle of wine. And a giant basket of assorted treats from the Italian store -- olive oil, dried beans, imported tomatoes, ladyfingers. Aw, my mother. No way was she coming to an osso buco party empty-handed.

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