By MELISSA CLARK
Published: September 24, 2008
SOME dishes are so iconic that it would never occur to me to tinker with them. When I want leg of lamb, I picture it roasted with garlic and rosemary. Brisket? I braise it Jewish style, the way my mother does. When veal shanks with molten hearts of marrow pop into my mind, I dream of osso buco nestled in a saffron-tinged risotto.
Veal shanks were what I was thinking about recently when planning what to make for Rosh Hashana dinner. My first inclination was the brisket, swathed in wine and onions. But the doldrums of many decades immediately set in. It was time for something new. Not to say osso buco is new. But as a centerpiece for a meal usually built around sweet things like apples and honey (to welcome in a sweet new year), the choice of a tangy, tomato-based braise seemed potentially radical. The perfect compromise would be to sweeten the osso buco a little, and to skip the Parmesan-filled risotto. So what if I added dried apricots and maybe some orange to the meat, and replaced risotto with kasha, a staple from my Ashkenazic upbringing? Would that meld into something marvelous, or be a disastrous experiment wrought on $100 worth of protein?
I called Marco Canora, the chef of Hearth and Insieme, to see if he had any words of wisdom. Although he was polite, I sensed that he was cringing. The subtext behind ''interesting'' was: ''Why would a nice cook like you want to ruin a perfectly good, traditional dish like osso buco?'' Nonetheless, he gave me some pointers: If I wasn't adding demi-glace, I should simmer down the liquid I was using to help thicken the sauce. Even if I wasn't going to use tomatoes, I should stir in some tomato paste for body. He cleared my plan to use a roasting pan instead of a Dutch oven so I could brown in one step enough shanks to feed 12.
Thus mentally armed, I proceeded to my parents' house to cook. (My own kitchen is being renovated.) As a bonus, my parents have enough freezer space to store the dish until the holiday. As I chopped up fennel bulbs, a last-minute addition that I hoped would lend a sweet complexity to the onions and carrots, I told my mother about Mr. Canora's tepid response. ''Why call it osso buco at all, she asked, ''when you're really coming up with a whole new dish?'' She was right. There was nothing wrong with braising veal shanks in wine, orange juice, apricots and fennel. The problem was that the Italian designation gave the dish an identity crisis. Was it Jewish? Or Italian? Or some Brooklyn melange? When it emerged from the oven, fragrant with citrus, browned meat and caramelized fennel, I knew it didn't matter whether it was served on Rosh Hashana or Columbus Day. It was, by itself, a good enough reason to celebrate sweet times.
Recipe: Braised Veal Shanks with Apricot, Orange and Fennel
Time: 45 minutes plus 2 hours' braising
12 veal shanks (osso buco), about 1 1/2 inches thick
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 to 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 large red onions, diced
4 carrots, diced
3 ribs celery, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 fennel bulb, diced, fronds chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup dry white wine
1 quart chicken broth
1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
6 anchovy fillets (optional)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
1 bay leaf
2/3 cup dried apricots, sliced
Kasha pilaf, for serving (optional).
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Pat shanks dry with paper towels and season very liberally with salt and pepper.
2. Place a large, heavy roasting pan across two stove-top burners over high heat. Add 4 tablespoons of oil and heat for 30 seconds. Add veal and sear until well browned on both sides, about 15 minutes. Transfer veal to a platter. If pan looks dry, add another tablespoon oil, and onion, carrots, celery, garlic, diced fennel bulb, 1/2 teaspoon salt and a generous pinch of pepper. Saute over medium heat until onions are translucent and tender, 7 minutes. Add tomato paste and continue to saute for 2 minutes longer.
3. Pour in wine and bring to a boil, scraping up browned bits. Let simmer for 2 minutes, then add broth and simmer until liquid is reduced by a third, about 5 minutes. Stir in orange juice, anchovies (if using), sage, thyme, bay leaf, half the apricots and 2 tablespoons fennel fronds. Nestle meat into vegetable mixture and pour in any meat juices from platter. Cover pan with foil, leaving a corner turned up so some steam can escape, and braise in oven for about 2 hours, turning shanks two or three times as they cook.
4. When meat is quite tender, transfer it to a platter (on top of hot kasha if desired). Cover with foil to keep warm. Remove bay leaf from pan. Using a slotted spoon, transfer about a third of the vegetables to a blender or food processor and puree.
5. Add puree back to pan juices. Add remaining apricots and bring to a simmer for 3 minutes. Taste and correct seasonings. Spoon sauce over meat, and serve garnished with more fennel fronds.
Yield: 12 servings.
Note: You can make shanks up to 4 days ahead. Store in refrigerator and skim fat that rises to surface before reheating in a 300 degree F oven.
Time: 20 minutes
3 cups kasha
2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
6 cups chicken broth or water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper.
1. In a large saucepan, toast kasha over medium high heat, stirring constantly, until it darkens and starts to smell nutty, about 2 to 3 minutes.
2. Add oil, heat for a few seconds, then add onion and saute about 3 minutes, stirring. Pour in broth or water, add salt and pepper, and bring to a simmer. Cover pot, turn heat to low, and cook until kasha is tender, about 10 to 12 minutes. Fluff with a fork before serving.
Yield: 10 to 12 servings.