Osso buco, if you are not familiar with it, is a Northern Italian classic: Braised veal shank with a tomato sauce, usually served with risotto Milanese. To make it right, you need the shank of a large animal; little lamb shanks don’t cut it.
Even most deer have shanks too small to really do the dish justice. Which is why it’s been a while since I last made osso buco. The last time I brought home an animal large enough was in December 2006, when I shot my last elk.
So I was understandably excited when last fall Holly brought home a fat, 225-pound black bear she’d shot in Northern California. A bear shank happens to be plenty big enough to make osso buco with. I was so certain I’d use the shanks for this dish that I labeled the vacuum bag “osso buco” when I put it in the freezer.
Maybe I should have labeled it “orso buco,” after the word for bear in Italian. Or if I wanted to go Spanish, it could be “oso” buco. Maybe osso bearco?
Bear, if you’ve never eaten it, tastes like beefy pork. Or porky beef. Its flavor does depend on what the bear had been eating, however. Few wild game animals are as variable as bears, which can range from sublime to abominable. Salmon-eating bears are especially horrid; think low tide in August. This was an exceptionally good bear, thankfully, with sweet, neutral-tasting fat.
Making osso buco is straightforward: Dust the shanks in flour, brown in olive oil or butter (or bear fat), saute veggies and braise until tender with white wine and tomato sauce. A veal shank might take 2 hours, one from an old moose or elk maybe 4 hours. This bear shank needed 3 hours to be fall-apart tender.
And you don’t need to serve it with risotto Milanese. Polenta is a great alternative, as is a loaf of good, crusty bread. Just don’t forget the red wine at the table.
Like I mentioned in the opening to this post, you need not use bear shanks for this recipe. It is modeled after Marcella Hazan’s classic recipe in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, and Marcella uses veal shanks. Moose, elk and beef shanks all work, as does a really big pork shank.
One important tip on dealing with large shanks: Use kitchen twine to tie them tightly while cooking — this keeps them together and compact. Mostly it’s for presentation, but if you skip this step you run the risk of the shanks falling apart in your sauce. Not always a bad thing.
Make this dish when you have a little time, as it will always require at least 2 hours, and probably more. Good news is that it reheats beautifully, so you can make it on a weekend and eat it during the week. You will also have more sauce than you need — use it for pasta for a midweek meal.
Risotto Milanese is a standard Italian dish; a good recipe for it is over at Saveur. But you could sub in polenta or just eat some good bread with it. A bitter greens salad is another good accompaniment.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 3 hours or so, depending on the animal.
- 4 cross-cut shanks, about 2-3 inches thick
- Flour for dusting
- 1/4 cup olive oil, butter or bear fat
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 carrots, chopped
- 2 celery stalks, chopped
- 1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms (about a handful), chopped
- 1 cup white wine
- 1 cup chicken, beef or game stock
- 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- Zest of a lemon cut into large strips, white pith removed
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley, for garnish
- Preheat the oven to 300°F. Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven or other large pot set over medium-high heat. Salt the shanks well and dust them in the flour to coat. Brown them well in the pot. Take your time and get a good browning on them, which should take a solid 10 minutes. Remove and set aside.
- Add the onion, carrot, celery and porcini mushrooms, and saute until slightly browned around the edges, about 6 to 8 minutes. Sprinkle some salt on them as they cook.
- Pour in the white wine and use a brown spoon to scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pot. When this comes to a boil, add the stock, crushed tomatoes, thyme, oregano, lemon zest and bay leaves and bring to a simmer. Return the shanks to the pot and turn to coat with the sauce. Cover the pot and move it to the oven. Cook until tender, between 2 and 4 hours, depending on the animal. Serve on top of risotto or polenta, or alongside some bread, garnished with the parsley.