By Walter Sanders
All happy families are alike (in their tradition of birthday meals). All unhappy families are different in their own way (I guess they don’t have the birthday meal tradition).
At our house, the birthday recipient gets to choose his or her birthday meal. It’s a great deal. From first course to dessert, from soup to nuts, from music to candles, it’s the whole package. And the advantage at our home is that the meal is prepared by Sharon. So it is flawless, fun, and flavorful.
I was in a bit of a quandary on February 7th, my birthday. I wasn’t sure what I wanted. Sharon and I were out and about that day, and she suggested we go to Wegman’s, the superb, Rochester-based food retailer, to see what “spoke” to me.
I started with dessert…and chose the Wegman’s mini-marble cheesecake. That’s the birthday dessert I always want. Sharon makes the best I ever had, but as empty-nesters I didn’t want a sweet that would be savored for days, and would last on our hips for months.
Next to the meat department: When we lived in Florence, I lusted after grilled Lombatina, the succulent veal chop served at Trattoria Benvenuto. I didn’t see any in the custom case. Not a surprise—it’s not a common cut in the U.S. Then, a brilliant entree concept…“Wait, how about veal shanks for ossobuco?”
Sharon looked at me, and admitted she had channeled that thought into my birthday-meal brain. “That’s exactly what I had in mind!” she said.
The rest was easy. We added lascinato kale and fixings for a risotto alla Milanese. I served a 2001 Castello di Brolio Chianti Classico. It was a perfect complement to the splendid meal.
Ossobucco alla Milanese
(adapted from 1,000 Italian Recipes by Michele Sciccolone, Wiley)
Makes 4 servings
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
4 meaty slices veal shank (about 1 1/2-inches-thick)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 small carrot, finely chopped
1 rib celery, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup chopped canned plum tomatoes with juice
1 cup chicken broth
2 anchovy fillets, minced
1 tablespoon minced fat-leaf parsley
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
Preheat the oven to 300°F. Spread the flour on a piece of waxed paper. Dredge the veal in the flour, shaking off the excess. Season both sides lightly with salt and pepper.
In an ovenproof pot with a tight-fitting lid, melt the butter and oil over medium-high heat. Add the veal.
Cook for about 10 minutes, or until browned on the bottom. Turn and cook for about 5 minutes, or until browned on the bottom. Remove to a plate and set aside.
Add the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic to the pot. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, or until tender.
Add the wine and cook, scraping up any browned bits, for about 5 minutes, or until the wine no longer smells of alcohol. Add the tomatoes, broth, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Bring to a brisk simmer. Return the meat to the pan, pushing gently to submerge in the sauce. Cover the pot and place in the center of the oven.
Bake for 1 1/2 hours. Carefully remove the lid to check the consistency of the sauce. If it is too runny, continue baking, uncovered, for about 30 minutes longer, or until the sauce is thickened. If the sauce looks too thick, add 1/4 to 1/2 cup more broth, cover and bake about 30 minutes longer, or until the veal is fork tender.
Remove the pot from the oven. Place the anchovies in a small bowl. Ladle some of the sauce into the bowl and whisk to dissolve the anchovies. Pour into the pot and stir gently to incorporate.
In a small bowl, combine the parsley and zest. Plate the shanks with the risotto (recipe follows). Spoon on the sauce and sprinkle on the parsley mixture.
Risotto alla Milanese
(from Cooking Up an Italian Life)
Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish
2 1/4 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon butter, divided
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 small onion, finely chopped
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons Arborio or other superfino rice
1/8 teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup (2 ounces) grated Parmesan cheese
Heat the broth to a boil in a saucepan. Reduce the heat to low.
In a heavy saucepan, melt 1/2 tablespoon butter and oil over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes, or until soft. Add the rice, saffron, and salt. Stir to color the rice evenly. Add the wine. Increase the heat to medium-high. Cook for about 4 minutes, or until the wine is absorbed.
Reduce the heat to medium-low. Add 1/2 cup of broth. Start timing the cooking.
Simmer the rice, stirring constantly, until the broth is absorbed. Continue adding broth, 1/2 cup at a time, and stirring frequently. After 18 minutes of cooking, start testing the rice. The rice should be tender but still hold its shape. When it is cooked, remove from the heat. (All of the broth mixture may not be needed.) Add the remaining 1/2 tablespoon butter. Stir. Add the cheese and stir.