He sat on the scaffolding suspended from the cupola and shook his wrist for a few seconds, trying to ease the cramping of his fingers. He had been working on this window depicting St. Joseph for an hour, or maybe more he decided looking through the beautiful stained glass at the sun, which had moved considerably higher since he had last checked. Vincenzo had arrived from Leuven, Flanders with many others from all over Europe to work in the Venerable Factory of the Duomo, the construction site for the enormous gothic cathedral that was being built in the wealthy Duchy of Milan. The colors of his glass were renown because they were particularly striking, especially the yellow inserts. His secret was that he always added a touch of saffron when preparing the glass. He decided to stop for a quick lunch, suspended in the air because there was always much to do and little time to climb down and chat with the others. He had brought a bowl of rice, which grew plentiful in the countryside surrounding the city and was cheap to buy, to work. He untied the knot in the cloth that he had wrapped his lunch in and just as he was moving his work utensils to the side, a fellow worker hollered from the scaffolding above.
"Perfundavalle! Buon appetito!".
Startled, he knocked over a tiny jar of the precious saffron he carried with his tools at all times and a little fell into the wooden bowl of rice. Vae! he mumbled in Latin, this was not good. So much waste of prized saffron and a ruined lunch! His stomach grumbled as he thought about what to do. He decided to taste the rice anyway, he was too hungry to wait till sunset and he had some wine to wash it down with. After all, saffron was a plant, how bad could it be? He stuck his fingers in the bowl, took a few kernels of rice, closed his eyes and stuffed them in his mouth. He chewed slowly, ready to spit out the offending bite. He chewed some more and sides of his mouth turned up into a big smile. This was delicious! Who would have ever thought saffron was so good? And the rice looked as beautiful as it tasted, with its yellow hue.
That is how the legend goes, regarding the birth of Milan's most famous dish, risotto giallo or allo zafferano. It is a versatile dish that can be eaten many different ways, as a first course or as a main course served with ossobuco, like the recipe I posted. It is always good to make in abundance so you have leftovers for riso al salto the next day, a crunchy, thin, pan-fried version of the rice beloved to all Milanese.
As you may or may have not have noticed, it has been a while since I last posted. I was offered a very interesting work opportunity last week that I couldn't turn down, despite the deadline being atrociously near, the amount of work being quite daunting and the fact that I have a full time job and pretty noisy children. This job involves writing, translating, researching to a certain extent. I am reading a lot on historical and artistic facts about the Duomo, Milan's cathedral.
It just so happened that when I received the file on the Duomo in my mailbox, I had 4 ossobuchi defrosting in my fridge. The more I read and wrote about the past glory of this town and the immense human and artistic effort made for decades, even centuries, to build the cathedral, the more I was excited to be preparing this dish for my family. Besides being one of F's favorite dishes, it somehow just made sense with its perfect timing, it made me feel connected to this city that often seems unattractive but that has some beautiful hidden secrets if you are willing to scratch a little beneath the surface. And so here is my ode to Milan, Oss bus a la milanesa con gremolata.
4 ossobuchi (veal shanks)
meat or vegetable stock
1 glass of white wine
a cup of chopped fresh or canned crushed tomatoes
a pinch of salt and pepper
For Risotto giallo
plenty vegetable or meat stock
250gr small grain rice (preferably arborio or vialone nano) butter approx. 3 tbsp
1 cup grated parmesan
2 sachets (a little under half a 1/2 tsp) saffron
zest of 1 lemon
a bunch of parsley
1 clove of garlic
Start by making a pot of stock, because you will need it to make the ossobuco and the risotto. I threw in some carrots and carrot peel, the tougher stems of a celery stalk and its leaves, an onion and a little salt and I let approximately 2 liters of water simmer for about an hour.
Chop an onion and set half of it aside for the risotto. Melt some butter into a heavy-based pot with lid or a Dutch oven and start sweating the onions. Until recently, butter was the main fat used for cooking in this area of Italy. Dry the meat, cut the outer membrane so the meat won't curl whilst cooking. Coat in flour. When the onions have softened, add in the meat, sprinkle with pepper and salt and brown nicely on both sides. Add a glass of wine, let it evaporate and pour in a ladle of stock before covering. You can also add a chopped fresh tomato or a little tomato paste for colour, but when the recipe originated tomatoes were not common in Northern Italian cuisine, so I tried making it without this time. Cook for an hour and a half on a low flame, until meat is tender. If it dries out while cooking, add some more stock and make sure the meat doesn't stick.
In the meantime you can start preparing the gremolata, a chopped condiment you sprinkle over the meat. Mix the zest of 1 lemon with a bunch of chopped parsley, one chopped-up anchovy and some grated garlic. Set aside.
When the meat is almost ready you can start making your risotto. Follow the basic instructions I posted here. Use butter to sweat the onions, toast the rice for a few minutes, add the stock and then the saffron half way through. Don't forget some butter and cheese a few minutes before taking off of the stove.
Serve the risotto on a plate with the ossobuco and sprinkle some gremolata over it. Make sure you taste the bone marrow, because it is undoubtedly the best part, 'il boccone del re' (the king's bite)!