22 August 2007

Benito vs. the Hotel Room: Osso Buco

First off, a view outside my hotel room at sunset, looking westward towards the Rockies. Now on to the food!

I've always wanted to cook osso buco ("bone with a hole"), the succulent shank cut of beef or veal, typically served in a savory sauce alongside a starch like beans or chickpeas. But I haven't seen it often in Memphis grocery stores, and the one or two times I did it was more expensive than ribeye. This is a tough cut (from the equivalent of the shin or forearm on a cow) that requires long braising time. I'm not paying $15 a pound for it.

However, while here in Denver I got to stop by a Whole Foods for the first time. When you walk in and see everything that's available, you just about want to cry. Four different kinds of beets? A sushi bar where you can either get takeout or sit on a stool and have a meal? A farmer's market with fresh local produce on the front steps on the weekend? A butcher counter where there's not only five different cuts of buffalo but everything is fresh--no steaks slowly graying in plastic packages on a shelf? Amazing. And while some wonks have referred to it as "Whole Paycheck", I found the prices to be quite reasonable, even for some of the seafood that had to be flown in.

My hotel suite has a two-burner stove and some basic cooking supplies. I spied the thick $5/lb beef shanks in the butcher case and determined that it was my best chance to make some osso buco. It's not exactly roughing it, but I don't have access to my enameled cast iron Dutch oven, nor my herbs, nor any actual utensils. My only seasonings are salt and pepper packets swiped from the lobby. In this picture you see everything that I had: an aluminum pot as thin as a Coke can, a vegetable peeler, and some assorted ingredients. Hell, I've had cauliflower soup cooked on the engine manifold of a Ford van. I've cooked breakfast using an old coffee can and a candle. Give me a heat source and a piece of metal, and I can fix dinner.

It's a virtue to be resourceful, and it often makes for good stories. Whether you're talking about fixing a leaky head gasket with a half dozen raw eggs in the radiator or the chick I saw eat a salad with two pencils held like chopsticks, such innvoative thinking drives the human race forward.

I'd like to point out the tomatoes: those are locally grown Cherokee Purples, dark heirloom varieties that were ripe to the point of bursting. I peeled them and had to hand crush them for the dish. The onions are sweet little cipollini since I didn't have a knife to dice bigger ones for a mirepoix. Or aromatici since we're talking Italian.

About four hours of low-heat braising later, here's the finished product with cannellini beans (warmed in the microwave), served alongside a spinach salad with dried cranberries, walnuts, and mandarin oranges from the salad bar. Oh, and a sunflower seed-studded roll for good measure. The beef shank turned out luscious and tender--this is the epitome of "falling off the bone". And the marrow was sinfully delicious. I'm surprised that it hasn't been condensed and offered in tub form at $20 a pop as a gourmet spread for toast.

This is peasant food: it's not supposed to be beautiful. Cooks in Europe struggled for centuries to find the best way to prepare the leftover scraps after the wealthy had helped themselves to the most rare, most tender cuts. Some of these scraps like shanks require a bit of extra time or extra care, but often the flavor is well worth it.

For the wine, I decided to "drink local" and try a Colorado bottle: the 2003 Plum Creek Cabernet Franc from the Grand Valley AVA. About a third of it was used for the osso buco, but the rest was enjoyed along with the meal. Blueberry and cherry aromas, tannic but not bitter. Full fruit profile with a touch of vegetal flavors.

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So if I've got a craving for some beef marrow, why not just go to a restaurant? If you do a lot of traveling, eating out gets old. At least a mini-fridge and microwave will let you enjoy a few meals in the room. And if you enjoy cooking and have the facilities, it's a nice way to relax. I cooked this meal barefooted in shorts and a Guinness Beer T-shirt, while watching mindless stuff on TV and catching up on e-mail with friends. I'm better rested now than if I'd gone out for a meal in a restaurant.

And the best part? The hotel room now smells like home.


fredric koeppel said...

Fantastic post. You are one incredible guy. A Colorado cab franc? Who knew? Hard to believe though that you hadn't done veal shank before.

pmjones said...

Dude, simply astounding. Great story, and now I'm hungry.

Big Mike said...

One of my favorite meals. I, like Fredric, find it hard to believe you had never climbed this mountain. What a wonderful post. You are one of the first people invited over when the new kitchen gets completed. We are in the final stages the hood osbeing hung next week. Then I finish out the window opening and the 2 large case opening and you are invited my friend. Might even include Mom and dad if we can keep him in town long enough!
Great job as always.
You need to let me know how you keep all of your ducks in a row.
Talk to you soon

Big Mike

Allen said...

A great story, reminds me of Big Mike and I cooking doughnuts in your grandmothers 100 year old dutch oven over a home made buddy burner(poor man's sterno-strip of cardboard wrapped in a tuna can and filled with wax) in the rain to feed a bunch of fellow boy scouts.
Whether it is warm sand or hot lava as the heat source and if the only choice is hubcap to cook with, good prep, simple spices, time and love will present food worth enjoying.
Live to eat, eat to live.

home owner insurance company rating said...

Very interesting, thank you.

Nancy & Gary said...


This sounds AWESOME! Your Dad has been telling us what a GREAT 'chef' you are!

Great job!