Saturday, January 5, 2008

January 5: Osso Buco

I first heard the work of former poet laureate Billy Collins in 2002, when he read the poem "The Names" before a joint session of Congress on September 6, 2002 held to memorialize the victims of the September 11th attacks. It was a moving moment for me--I remember sitting still in my car and listening, what National Public Radio calls a "driveway moment."

Collins talks about making poetry accessable and discouraging overinterpretation of poems, something, incidentally, I think is important when it comes to food as well. I love his line in the poem "Introduction to Poetry" about tying a poem to a chair and torturing a confession out of it. He also says this:

"As I'm writing, I'm always reader conscious. I have one reader in mind, someone who is in the room with me, and who I'm talking to, and I want to make sure I don't talk too fast, or too glibly. Usually I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem. Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong."

I think this is a perfectly lovely sentiment. It reminds me of a good dinner party, how just having the lights on your porch on when your guests walk up can help set the tone for the evening.

In his book The Art Of Drowning, there is a poem called "Osso Buco." I heard him read it on Terry Gross's wonderful show on NPR, Fresh Air, on a Saturday afternoon. Dan and I had just moved in together and he was at work. I'd been up late the night before and had laid down to take an afternoon nap and I woke up to the author reading this:

Osso Buco

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 swallowed 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 tablewith 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 bedand 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.

Really beautiful, and not so much about braised veal shanks. But it's a wonderful meal too, for a cold Saturday night at home with your own poet laureate or for a small group of friends. The Silver Palate Cookbook, one of my much-used kitchen tools, suggests serving it with saffron rice. I think that it is wonderful with mashed potatoes as well. I think that a full stick of butter is a little too much in this recipe. I use 1/2-1/3 of what is called for and am always very happy with the results.

Serves 6-8

Osso Buco

1 cup unbleached all purpose flour
salt & pepper to taste
16 sections veal shank, 12-14 pounds, 2 inches thick
1/2 cup olive oil
1 stick sweet butter
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
6 large garlic cloves, peeeled & chopped
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
28 ounces canned tomatoes, drained
2 cups dry white wine
2 cups beef stock
3/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
grated zest of 2 lemons

Season the flour with salt and pepper and dredge the pieces of veal shank well. Heat oil and butter together in a large casserole or Dutch oven and brown the veal well on all sides. Transfer veal to paper towels to drain.

Chop onions and garlic and add to Dutch oven/casserole pan along with basil and oregano. Stir occassionally. Cook for 10 minutes. Add tomatoes, salt and pepper to taste and cook another 10 minutes. Skim excess fat. Add wine and bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 15 minutes. Preheat oven to 350 F. Return veal shanks to the casserole & add beef stock just to cover. Cover and bake for 1 1/2 hours. Remove lid and bake uncovered for 30 minutes, or until veal is tender. Sprinkle with parley & lemon zest and serve.

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