I stopped at the grocery store after a particularly exhausting string of days, with no real plan in mind except that the fridge was looking sparse. While I was wandering through the aisles grabbing necessities, I had comfort food at the top of my mind. It's really no surprise that plans for osso buco began to take shape. Who could say no to tender, braised meat in a rich sauce flavored with wine and vegetables, not to mention that ultra-rich and tender marrow inside a shank?
The only problem was that veal shanks weren't available. However, cross-cut, bone-in beef shanks were—and that wound up being a good (and, frankly, more affordable) thing.
Since traditional osso buco, a braised Milanese dish, is slowly simmered, adapting it for the slow cooker was a logical step.
Tossing the raw shanks into the slow cooker with vegetables is tempting, but it would not be wise. You need to brown the meat, saute the vegetables, and then deglaze the pan with wine before it gets transferred to the slow cooker if you want to maximize flavor—and who wouldn't? And unless you're fine with a thin sauce, you'll want to thicken yours in the end with a little bit of flour as well.
For this recipe, the beef shanks are seasoned and dredged in flour, then seared over high heat in a Dutch oven until nicely browned. They're transferred to the slow cooker, and then diced onions, carrots and celery are sauteed in the same pan the shanks had just been browned in. A bit of tomato paste is added to the mix and cooked just until it starts to concentrate in flavor. After a quick deglaze with white wine, the whole shebang joins the meat, along with stock and a touch of vinegar—a key ingredient that cuts through the richness of the marrow and creates a necessary background note to the gravy. As for aromatics, oregano, thyme sprigs, bay leaves, and a pinch of ground cloves make an incredible difference.
Once the shanks are tender and the sauce deeply flavored, I skim the sauce and give it a quick simmer on the stovetop just before serving. A final shower of parsley, lemon zest, and garlic (the traditional Italian accompaniment to osso buco known as gremolata), and you have a company-worthy affair. Of course, I won't judge you if you want to curl up on the couch with the entire pot and eat it all on your own.
If you want to keep things traditional, feel free to substitute veal shanks for the beef. There's no need to otherwise alter the dish.
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