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At One Market Restaurant in San Francisco, chef Adrian Hoffman enthuses about his braised veal short ribs with morel velouté and English pea ragout, his take on the classic blanquette de veau. He seasons it richly with nutmeg, vermouth and shallots and swathes it in a robe of whipped cream and hollandaise. ìVeal short ribs are one of my favorite meats for braising. They're really flavorful and something a lot of people aren't used to,î he says. ' Chefs love working with veal. When David Burke was looking for a signature dish for the Smith & Wollensky restaurants, he too went for veal, creating a 2-pound osso buco braised in sage and Marsala and topped with fried sage leaves and julienned prosciutto.
Whether it's savory short ribs, a delicate scaloppine alla piccata, a meaty grilled chop or a he-man osso buco, veal is delicious. Yet Americans aren't eating it much. Annual U.S. consumption is just 0.8 pounds per person, compared with 68.1 pounds for beef, says the American Meat Institute. For many, veal remains a mystery meat.
Veal is closely linked to the dairy industry -- veal comes from the male calves, or non-milk producers -- which is why dairy states Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New York are among the nation's largest producers of the meat. The bulls, primarily of the Holstein breed, are sold to farmers who raise them to a maximum of 600 pounds over a period of up to six months. Most are formula- or milk-fed, raised on a diet of milk by-products, vitamins and nutritional supplements and kept indoors in small, individual pens. This method was developed by the Provimi company in Holland and brought to the United States in 1962. Provimi, located in Seymour, Wis., remains the best-known producer of this type of veal, though other companies such as Plume de Veau use similar systems.
The Provimi method produces a tender veal that is pale pink, almost white, which is why it is sometimes called white veal. It has also drawn a fair amount of criticism from people who claim that the calves are treated inhumanely. However, Dean Conklin, executive director of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, defends the practice, saying that many pens have been enlarged and the use of antibiotics reduced in the past 10 years.
If you still have objections, grass-fed, free-range veal is an appealing alternative. This meat comes from calves allowed to roam in pastures and graze on grains and grasses after they have been weaned off mother's milk. Summerfield Farm in Culpeper, Va., produces free-range veal from calves raised in Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina. "Consumers have been told that all veal must be white," says owner Jamie Nicholl. "[But] because they exercise, my calves produce redder, more flavorful meat."
Lobel's Prime Meats,
Perhaps the best-known cut of veal is scaloppine (also called cutlets), thin slices normally cut from the leg and sautéed in a skillet. When cooking scaloppine, the cooking oil and skillet should be hot, and the seasoned and floured meat should be sautéed only a minute on each side, which keeps it from toughening. This method will also develop a quick caramelization for flavor, with which a sauce can be made by deglazing the pan with white wine, Madeira or Marsala. Additions to the pan can include mushrooms, shallots, bits of asparagus, chopped tomatoes or herbs. You can also enrich the sauce with a touch of cream or a knob of butter. But go easy. "The biggest mistake people make is overgarnishing or oversaucing it," Burke says.
I made veal piccata (with lemon, capers and white wine) with scaloppine from Summerfield, Provimi and Lobel's, which is New York's premier butcher. The Summerfield veal, cut from the more delicate loin instead of the leg, looked like minute steaks. Though slightly chewier than either Lobel's or Provimi's scaloppine, they were still plenty tender, with a robust flavor belying the common notion that veal is bland. The baby-bottom pink Lobel's scaloppine were smaller and thinner than were the other two's. They sautéed beautifully and reminded me of what you'd find in a topflight Italian restaurant. The Provimi veal was the least uniform in size, but it was tender and had enough flavor to hold up nicely to the sauce.
Veal chops are the veal equivalent of beefsteaks, which is why they are popular in steak houses. Loin and rib chops are the most common. Loin chops look a bit like T-bone steaks, rib chops like small rib steaks. But I'm in agreement with Bruce Aidells, co-author of The Complete Meat Cookbook, who told me, "Veal chops are the most overrated cut of veal. I'd never serve one unless it [received] a serious marinade or spice rub to give it more flavor."
To get the most out of these chops, season aggressively, as Aidells suggests, then grill or broil. Chops should be 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 inches thick so that a rich color can develop on the outside while the inside stays medium rare.
The 12.5-ounce Summerfield loin chop I tried was a dead ringer for a New York strip steak. It was richer and juicier than Lobel's 20-ounce behemoth and held up better to the charred flavors of the grill than did the paler, more delicate meat from Lobel's. The Provimi loin chop was a shade better than Lobel's, tasting like a welterweight beefsteak. Lobel's wan-looking rib chop was buttery tender, but not as meaty as the Summerfield. And although sweet-tasting, the Provimi rib was a bit too chewy.
Veal roasts can be problematic. Shoulder roasts are toothsome, and usually require braising to soften. Boned loin roasts are tender but can easily dry out, as I discovered with Lobel's pale, thin 2-pound tube of meat. However, Summerfield's brawnier roast was more compact, making it easier to cook to medium rare. It was juicy, with elements of lamb and beef. A better roast alternative to a boneless loin is a rack of veal (somewhat like a rack of lamb). Provimi's rack came out superbly, succulent and delicious.
¸he Provimi veal was the best value among the three. Provimi's $10-a-pound scaloppine were about half the price of Summerfield's and a quarter the price of Lobel's. Their $12-a-pound chops were a few dollars less than Summerfield's and less than half the cost of Lobel's. The Provimi rack (with bones) was $10.50 a pound compared with $22 a pound for the boneless Summerfield loin roast and a whopping $50 a pound for Lobel's boneless.
Veal shanks and veal breasts, because they have more muscle development, need to be braised to soften up. But braising yields more flavor, too. The shank comes from the foreleg and is typically cut into sections weighing 10 to 14 ounces. Osso buco is the most famous veal shank dish; it's braised in the oven with vegetables, wine, stock and herbs.
The breast comes from the lower side of the calf, and looks much like a rack of pork spareribs. While it can be cooked like pork ribs, I prefer to have the bones removed and a pocket made for stuffing. My favorite stuffing includes Italian sausage, marjoram, nutmeg, peas, parmesan cheese and milk-soaked Italian bread. Aidells, who keeps the bones in, likes mushrooms, spinach, ground veal and matzo. Either is a great buffet dish.
For lighter veal preparations such as veal piccata, Pinot Grigio is a good choice. A white Burgundy matched up well with Lobel's loin roast, though a Sonoma Bordeaux-style blend red worked better with the fuller-flavored Summerfield loin. An Oregon Pinot Noir was my choice for the veal chops, more compelling than a cru bourgeois Bordeaux. For richer dishes such as osso buco or a braised veal shoulder, try an earthy Rhône or a super Tuscan.
Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of the recently published Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock.