Ossobuco alla Milanese, Risotto alla Milanese
Thick meaty cross-sections of veal shin from milk-fed calves, beloved as much for the delicate sweet flavour and melting texture of its flesh when correctly braised (which is to say slowly braised) as for the unctuous marrow that nestles within the "bone with a hole" (ossobuco, literally), are surely the ultimate meat cut for slow cooking. There is plenty of debate, as is often the case with any iconic Italian speciality, over whether an authentic ossobuco alla Milanese should include tomatoes. There certainly exist traditional ossobuco recipes (say those from Emilia-Romagna) that are flavoured with tomatoes, just not ossobuco alla Milanese, argue those in the bianco camp. Having tried recipes both with and without, I must say that purely on the grounds of flavour (as opposed to authenticity) I much prefer the veal shanks in bianco (the recipe I loosely follow comes from Anna del Conte's Gastronomy of Italy), particularly when I'm eating it with risotto alla Milanese, the soft subtleties of which languish when pitted against the tanginess of a dish imbued with tomatoes.
This archetypal pairing is truly special occasion food. While not something to whip up at a moment's notice, the entire process is something I really savour. My favourite part, apart from the eating of course, occurs towards the end - sprinkling on the pungent gremolada of lemon zest, garlic and flat-leaf parsley which is aromatized by the heat of the sticky braising juices to give the dish an appetizingly heady lift, and swirling the lump of butter and cupful of freshly grated parmesan into the steaming pot of rice off heat, the mantecare flourish essential to the hallmark creaminess of a great risotto.
Last Saturday was definitely a special occasion - one of W's oldest friends from his years at Vassar was in town for a few days with her husband on a business trip. As it turns out, she is not just a foodie but a hardcore Italophile - the couple, currently based in the UK, have pretty much eaten their way through every region of Italy over the years. Below, the other courses we had at dinner.
Soup of Pea, Tortellini of Ham Hock
This recipe is based on one found in the incredibly detailed Formulas for Flavour by John Campbell, the Michelin-starred chef at The Vineyard at Stockcross, one of Britain's most acclaimed country house hotels. The plump little tortellini are filled with finely diced ham hock, previously simmered, bound by a light chicken mousse - having gone through the effort of making the pasta dough and stuffing, it's well-worth shaping extra tortellini to freeze in anticipation of an impromptu pasta meal later in the week. To finish, a drizzle of mint oil and a parmesan tuile.
Wild Mushroom Ravioli with Thyme, Truffle Oil, and Pancetta
No matter how many new titles I buy on a whim, I tend to turn to the same old trusty books when it comes to Italian food. For once, I ventured beyond my comfort zone (I know, not exactly the wisest thing when cooking for company) - I simply couldn't resist this dish, found in Scott Conant's New Italian Cooking, a recent release chockfull of vibrant, sumptuous Italian cooking with a modern twist. An intoxicating mixture of mushrooms (I combined field mushrooms with dried porcini as W and I adore porcini) is finely ground and enveloped by slippery smooth squares of homemade egg pasta. The ravioli are cooked then finished with more mushrooms and pancetta flavoured with thyme and shallots, the whole dressed with a splash of white truffle oil and a generous shower of freshly grated parmesan. I definitely plan on making this frequently now that I've given it a go - it is that delicious.
Triple Chocolate Parfait
A frozen dessert from Fran Bigelow's wonderful book, Pure Chocolate, which she describes as possessing "the velvety, melt-in-your-mouth consistency of the richest ice cream". Are you sold? I was. Dark, white and milk chocolate layers (made by folding each type of chocolate, melted and cooled, into a custard base, which is then lightened with whipped cream) sit atop a sweet chocolate cookie crumb crust for a sweet ending that's as elegant as it is delectable.