Food: Love me tender

Simon Hopkinson first fell for veal as a young boy and his affection hasn't waned. The meat has continued to beguile and delight him, from the simple purity of osso buco braised in wine to the ultimate pasta sauce

My very earliest memory of veal remains vivid. So delicious it was, so tasty, tender and moist, that I wished I could eat it for ever more. The veal in question, to this impressionable 10-year-old, was a very grown-up escalope Holstein, complete with traditional fried egg (a garnish that perhaps may have clinched the deal, it being my favourite food at the time). This was draped over a thin and hot golden crumbed thing that, to my mind at the time, bore a strong resemblance to a tired and crusty, ochre-hued, prep-school face-flannel. All this was eaten in the plush dining room of The Manor Hotel, Long Bennington, Lincolnshire, a few miles south of Newark, just off the A1.

Incidentally, I note that in The Good Food Guide a couple of years earlier (1961-62 edition - what a good read indeed), and with reference to the entry for The Manor Hotel, Raymond Postgate truly knew the calibre of his readers: "The chef has an impeccable pedigree, having trained at the Mirabelle and the Plaza Athenee (no need to mention that the latter is in Paris!) and the cooking is worthy of it." Even though the hotel was marginally off the route home, my parents knew a good detour.

Veal escalope at this seminal lunch eclipsed all that had gone before, my parents' sublime cooking instantly seeming paltry in comparison. The fact that it was served by cosseting waiters (all waiters, in 1964, found it a pleasure to cosset the excited, privileged lunching child), Pepsi- Cola seemed in endless supply and there were hot lemon pancakes to follow all added lustre, but it was the veal that truly caused this happy boy to whisper from the slippery back seat of the Ford Zodiac, "Mmmm ... thank you ... lunch was brill!" as we wended our way home over the misty Pennines. What I also suspected - knew full well, actually - was that a gorgeous meat and 'tatie pie would be waiting in the Aga for supper. One piping-hot serving would banish the memory of that veal in a mist of savoury steam. Precocious? Fickle? Greedy? Yes, OK, but always enthusiastic.

Osso buco `in bianco'

Serves 4

It was during a quiet morning at Bibendum that I learnt how to braise, in the simplest way of all, shin of veal, cut into those familiar slices known as osso buco. Well, I had often cooked osso buco before, with the usual tomatoes, onion, garlic and the rest, but it wasn't until I discovered the writings of Marcella Hazan that the simple purity of the style known as "in bianco" (literally "cooked plain white") caused a considerable shift in the very soul of my cooking. The edict "less is more" had never been so blindingly obvious. The following recipe is based on that from Marcella Hazan's The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (Macmillan, 1992).

75g butter

3tbsp olive oil

salt and pepper

1-1.5kg veal shin, cut into 8 small pieces, or 4 large ones

flour

1 bottle decent, dry white wine (you won't need all of it, so make it good enough to quaff as you cook)

grated rind of 1 lemon

1tbsp chopped parsley

Melt the butter and olive oil in a shallow pan of a size that will hold the pieces of meat in a single layer. Heat the fats until they start to froth. Season the veal with salt and pepper and dip lightly into the flour.

Shake off the excess flour and put the pieces into the pan. Fry them on both sides until each surface is mildly crusted and golden brown.

Now pour in a glass of wine. Allow to bubble up, then turn down the heat. Partially cover and simmer so gently that the liquid merely trembles. Turn the meat over once the wine has reduced somewhat, then add a little more once the first glass has all but disappeared. Again, partially cover and continue to braise for a further half hour or so. Check on the wine occasionally. If too much has evaporated, add a little more. The total cooking time should be between an hour and an hour and a half, by which time the meat should be meltingly tender and the winey juices golden and deeply savoury. Serve up on to a hot platter and sprinkle with lemon rind and parsley. Very good with mashed potatoes.

Roast shin of veal with paprika

Serves 4

Don Munson was one of the truly great amateur cooks - and presumably remains so, in southern Spain where he now lives - that I have ever had the pleasure to meet. I met him in Kensington and I can see his kitchen now, spacious and light (even though it was in the basement of his sumptuous garden flat), a solid-looking professional stove as the focal point, bowls of fruit, bottles of wine and fresh bread ready to go, together with a mighty fridge stuffed to the gills with all manner of perishables as if a dozen people were always expected for lunch - which, indeed, was often the case. And in my particular case, it happened to be one sunny Saturday in June, 1984.

On that day, Munson's brace of entire veal shins were already proudly displayed in a heavy, solid copper roasting dish. (An equally impressive, similarly forged diamond-shaped vessel could also be seen hanging above the range - this for the poaching or braising of very grown-up whole turbots.) Each muscular joint had been smeared with olive oil, flour, salt and paprika. It was the first time I had ever seen this preparation, or witnessed such impeccable mise-en-place in the home of someone whose working life revolved around the global price of crude, rather than the fruity olive oil he had used to lubricate the impending roast. Naturally, I warmed to Munson in minutes, finding much to talk about as we tore up lettuce leaves together over a deep, porcelain sink.

1 shin of veal, the bony end knuckle removed by the butcher and chopped into manageable pieces

4-5tbsp olive oil

salt and pepper

1 heaped tbsp good quality Hungarian paprika

1tbsp flour

75g softened butter

1/2 bottle white wine

200ml water

2 cloves garlic, bruised with the back of a knife

2 sprigs rosemary

squeeze of lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C/gas mark 6. Using your hands, lubricate the veal all over with the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Mix the paprika and flour together in a small bowl and rub into the now glistening surface of the meat. Put the joint into a roomy roasting tin, place the butter on top and arrange the chopped veal bones around it. Pour in the wine and water and put into the oven. Roast for 30 minutes or so, basting with the buttery liquid occasionally and then turn the heat down to 325F/170C/gas mark 3. Continue to roast for a further hour, or until the joint is golden and crusted and the liquids in the pan have reduced somewhat.

Switch off the oven, remove the veal to a serving platter and put to rest for at least 20 minutes in the oven's waning heat.

Tip the juices and bones into a pan together with the garlic and rosemary and put to simmer on a low heat for 20 minutes: if necessary, top up with more water to just cover. Strain the liquid through a fine sieve into a clean pan and reduce until well flavoured and turning into a syrupy, albeit richly oleaginous gravy. To serve, carve the veal lengthways into thick-ish slices and spoon over the gravy. Eat with plainly boiled potatoes or soft polenta.

Veal ragu (with pasta)

Serves 4

I remain convinced that the majority of those who still like to cook a Friday night spag bol continue to regard it as nothing more than an easy, filling meal, dismissing in the shake of a colander its integrity and fine tradition. The two main points that are of the greatest importance to the success of this ubiquitous dish are that the meat ragu (the mince) is cooked very, very slowly over a long period of time, so creating an essential fondancy and richness, and that the chosen pasta is merely dressed with the ragu, rather than swamped by the familiar pinky-brown cow-pat. D'you get? No? Then read on.

2 medium onions, peeled and finely chopped

75g butter

1 large carrot, peeled and finely diced

3 celery stalks, peeled and finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

300g coarsely minced veal

100g chopped chicken livers

200ml dry white wine

freshly grated nutmeg

salt and pepper

200ml passata (fresh, pasteurised and sieved tomato pulp)

200-300ml milk

100ml whipping cream

2tbsp freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley

250g box of Cipriani brand tagliardi pasta, green or white, or a mixture of the two

freshly grated Parmesan to serve

Note: tagliardi pasta is an uncommon, though simple, shape, perfect for this dish; it resembles tiny square sheets of lasagne, about the size of the large Christmas postage stamp.

In a heavy-bottomed, cast-iron cooking pot, fry the onions in the butter until soft. Add the carrot, celery and garlic and fry for a few minutes further until all are pale golden. Add the minced veal in small amounts, turn up the heat a little and fry carefully, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon as you go. Tip in the livers, stir for a moment and introduce the wine a little at a time with the heat turned up full. Allow the wine to bubble away to almost nothing, so being absorbed, before adding more. Once all the wine has been used up, season with nutmeg and salt and pepper and pour in the passata. Stirring constantly, bring the ragu to a simmer, reduce the heat and leave to cook gently for 30 minutes. Now stir in 200ml of the milk and continue to cook at the lowest possible temperature (use a heat-diffuser pad if you have one or cover the pot and cook in a very low oven). Allow the ragu to merely "blip" for at least two hours, stirring from time to time and adding more milk when necessary.

Add the cream, stir in and continue to simmer for a further half hour. Check the seasoning, stir in the parsley and set aside. The result should be unctuously creamy and deeply savoury. Cook the pasta in salted boiling water until al dente (the Cipriani brand cooks very quickly), drain, tip into a heated bowl and dress with just enough of the ragu to cling sparsely to it in dribs and drabs. Serve freshly grated Parmesan at table. (By the way, any left-over ragu can be frozen for another time.)

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