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Leaping into the culinary void

Osso buco dressed with gremolata, served with saffron risotto

I am getting into Xtreme Cooking. This is the committed foodie’s answer to bungy jumping. We like to think we are relatively sane. Where mad people will hurl themselves off bridges the height of Table Mountain with nothing but a piece of elastic wrapped around their ankles to separate them from the hereafter, the foodie will hurl himself into a recipe he’s never had the courage to try before. And if it turns out right, hooboy, what a rush.

Thing is, we are all different. I consoled my grown-up daughter with this thought while we stood in the pub on the cliffside above the Bloukrans Bridge recently, watching somebody we thought we knew fling herself off the top.

‘That’s your mother,” I said as an elongated speck plummeted and then was flung this way and that eight times (I counted) before coming to rest upside down in an undignified pose while, all around, baboons and vervet monkeys shook their heads and sighed.

“I know,” my daughter squeaked as we clung to each other watching a tiny Spider-man descend to rescue this madwoman who has been posing as our wife and mother for all these years.

We were all convinced, Di included, that the experience was more traumatic for us than it was for her. You cannot be prepared for what it feels like to watch somebody you love do that. And it is not for everyone. Some of us can do that. The rest of us do Xtreme Cooking.

This means cooking something you don’t usually cook, or have never made before. Or trying a new cooking technique. It’s a thrill, I can tell you. The anticipation as the big day looms. The headlong rush to the kitchen to check that you’ve got the ingredients. The tension of finding that you’re out of something, and having to make a recce to the supermarket knowing that your quest might be thwarted if they’re out of stock.

The seasoned Xtreme Cook of course will have planned meticulously, as I did when planning to cook osso buco. I’d had the foresight (as one does) to order the veal shank cutlets through a chef contact. I thought it would be really “out there” to cook them the contemporary way, but decided to go for the traditional recipe because it tastes better. When you’re about to fling yourself into culinary infinity, such crucial concerns as taste and texture achieve a particular clarity. (Your whole life flashes before you, actually.)

Osso buco is a Milanese dish of slow-cooked veal shanks, cut into slices about 1.5cm thick, garnished with gremolata – finely chopped parsley, garlic and lemon zest. In the old-fashioned way it cooks in a broth that includes beef stock, white wine, lemon peel, chopped tomatoes and herbs. In the modern version, the tomatoes and herbs are left out. Xtreme Cooking does not require such subtleties.

It starts on the stove top and transfers to a 180degree oven. You need a heavy pot wide and deep enough to hold all the slices of veal side by side –  the pieces stand upright, pressed against each other. Simmer finely chopped onion, celery and carrot in butter until soft. Add garlic and lemon peel (no pith), cook for two more minutes, and remove. In a frying pan, heat olive oil. Dip each piece of veal shank in flour, shake off, and brown well on both sides, placing them upright on the vegetables in the pot.

Add a glass of white wine to the pan, deglaze, scraping up all the bits, and pour over the meat. Add a litre of beef stock (if using stock cubes, go easy, you don’t want the beef flavour to dominate) to the pan, heat and pour over the meat. Put two tins of chopped Italian plum tomatoes in the pan with two bay leaves, chopped parsley and several thyme sprigs (you could use rosemary), season with salt and pepper, heat through and add to the meat.

The liquids should come two-thirds of the way up the pot. If during cooking it seems too dry, add hot water. The joy of osso buco is that it makes a wonderful sauce with help from the bone marrow (osso buco means, somewhat unfortunately, “bone hole”).

This is cooked, covered, in the 180degree oven for two hours (I went for three). Add the gremolata at the end or (as I did) scatter it over each plated serving as a garnish. You can serve it with polenta, pasta such as tagliatelle, or even mashed potato.

The most traditional accompaniment is Milanese saffron risotto, which is what I made. Dead easy: melt butter in a saucepan with olive oil. Gently simmer finely chopped onion and garlic on a low heat. Add arborio or carnaroli rice (do not rinse it first) and stir. Add a ladleful of heated chicken stock at a time, stirring almost constantly, until the rice has puffed up and softened. You can switch from chicken stock to hot water if you like. Add about 10 saffron threads to about 60ml hot water and leave to infuse for 10 minutes. Add this to the rice, stir and simmer for five minutes.

Gather your fellow Xtreme Eaters at the table and serve immediately.

First published in The Good Weekend, Weekend Argus Sunday edition

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