You morons, you idiots, why are you spending so much goddamn money on meat when the best parts are so damn cheap. Here, for instance, are beef shanks, which you can usually buy in a cut that resembles a giant osso buco, which is to say cut across the shank, perpendicular to the bone, usually an inch to an inch-and-half thick. A heavily worked muscle--it's the leg, after all--shanks have a reputation for dryness and toughness, and it is true that you wouldn't want to sear one off and serve it rare. But aside from the organs, the truest expression of the flavor of the animal is in its real flesh, the parts that it uses. I do not know why this is, but it is. Well-seasoned and long-braised, the beef shank reveals something of what the boring domestic cow's ancestor must have tasted like: gelatinous and a little gamey, savory with a slight unctuous texture. Incidentally, the bones are full of the most delicious marrow, which dissolves into the braising liquid to help fortify and thicken it.
3-4 beef shanks, an inch or so thick
1/3 cup pancetta, diced
1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
2 medium shallots, finely diced
4 cloves garlic, crushed and finely diced
1/2 lb button or crimini mushrooms, coarsely chopped
1 medium fennel bulb, coarsely chopped
1 16 oz can whole plum tomatoes (San Marzano, preferably), crushed by hand
several pinches dried basil (note on dried herbs below)
1/2 cup shitty red wine, but not too shitty
juice of 1 meyer lemon
semi-aged sheep's milk cheese (such as Spanish Malvarosa), grated
extra virgin olive oil
Heat a generous pour of the olive oil in a large, deep braising dish over very high flame until very hot. Season the meet with salt and pepper. One at a time, brown the shank cuts until golden brown on either side. Set aside.
Reduce heat to medium high and add the pancetta. It is mostly a flavoring agent. The idea is to render some of the pork fat into the oil. When it has begun to fry, remove the meat with a slotted spoon. Reserve.
Add the onions, shallots, garlic, and fennel, salting as you go. Sweat out until soft and translucent. Add the mushrooms and sauté until soft. Add the tomatoes, wine, lemon juice, and dried basil. (In general, I do not like dried herbs, but dried basil, especially when you grew and dried it yourself, has a deeper, darker flavor than its fresh counterpart, and it makes an excellent addition to a braising liquid.)
Return the pancetta to the braise. Place the beef in the braise, smothering until the tops of the cuts are just visible. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to low. Simmer over low heat for at least 2.5 hours.
After it has simmered, the meat will be nearly falling off the bone. Remove gently. It will naturally divide into several large chunks per cut. I serve this over homemade wide noodles--or you can buy fresh pasta from a good Italian market; or serve over a simple risotto or even over a long-grained white rice. Whatever your starch, lay a bed of it in a wide, shallow bowl. Ladle a portion of the braising liquid over the top as a sauce. Place a piece or two of beef on top. Spoon one more bit of sauce over the meat, and garnish with a nice pile of the grated cheese.