Italian, Main Course, Recipes
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Beef shank with borlotti beans

Ah a recipe! And a distinctly un-springlike one at that. I hope you’ll forgive me.

This is something that we cooked during our last couple of weeks in Venice: slow-cooked beef shin with borlotti beans.

osso buco with borlotti beans

I don’t think I’ve talked much about our Venetian kitchen, and when I think of it now it doesn’t seem like a place where all that much cooking happened. Mostly just polished wood and a cranky gas hob. I used to work at the table there until the bench made my legs numb. And in the morning, while waiting for the kettle to boil for coffee, I’d look out at the patchwork of apartments opposite.  There were habits that I learned; the student who was always at her desk by 9; the woman who filled her chilled marble window ledge with groceries; the old couple who ate at 7.30, always with the tv on in the kitchen.

Dried borlotti beans

On the ground, Venice eludes any sense of normality. But up there, up there mornings started with radios and breakfasts and moka pots on stoves. It started with shutters opening and washing being strung on the line; dark apartments being allowed to breathe.

And it was often dark, because that’s the way with Venetian apartments. Labyrinthine they might be, but always set far back from the shadowy light of a canal-flanked calle. So we lit a lot of candles. And on the days when it rained and rained and the kitchen never carried more than a milky film of light, we cooked hearty things. Or ordered in from the local pizzeria.

onions cooked with red wine

This ossobuco is, of course, just a beef stew. The only difference is the borlotti beans. Cooked until fat and tender, their glossy purple bloom turned to brown. If you’re doing anything remotely milanese with your ossobuco, like laying it atop of saffron risotto or smothering it in a buttery cream sauce, it must of of course be veal. But as this is more of a bone marrow infused stew, we used beef  (‘bovino adulto’ – not the most attractive of names). It might not be as sweet and delicate, but it is a lot cheaper. Cooked simply with borlotti beans – bought in bulk from our local supermarket – and this was, like most stews, irresistibly economical. But most importantly, very good. Eat with crusty bread.

ossobuco with borlotti beans

Beef shin with borlotti beans
Feeds Four

4 beef shanks
2 slices pancetta
2 cans of borlotti beans (or 1.5 cups dried borlotti beans, soaked overnight)
1 glass of red wine
2 tbsp tomato puree
1 onion, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
2 sticks celery, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves
2 anchovies
4 ripe tomatoes, chopped
zest of one lemon
bay leaves
500ml beef stock

1. Cut the pancetta or thick bacon into strips and fry in a little oil until crispy. A cassoulet pan is perfect here. Set aside. Meanwhile, season the beef shanks with salt and pepper and dredge in flour. Cook in the bacon fat until brown on all sides – you want a really good crust. Remove from the pan.

2. Fry the onions, celery and carrot (your soffrito) for 5 or so minutes, then add the garlic and cook for a further minute. Add the beef back into the pan. Now it’s time for the red wine, tomato puree, chopped tomatoes and finely chopped anchovies. Reduce for a couple of minutes before adding the beef stock and bay leaves. Reduce to the lowest heat and leave for an hour and a half.

3. Add the soaked beans and cook until everything is tender (around an hour). If using tinned beans, add them 20 minutes before the end of cooking.

4. Before serving, stir in the lemon zest, season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with chopped parsley.

NB. My ossobuco fell clean off the bone, so I removed it and pulled the shank apart, but you can leave the pieces whole and serve atop the bed of beans.

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