Sundown on the evening of April 14 marks the first night this year of Passover, the eight-day celebration of the Jewish people’s freedom from bondage in ancient Egypt. Tradition holds that the holiday is observed with a Seder, from the Hebrew word for “order.” With the help of such food items as springtime greens dipped in salt water (representing tears shed), horseradish (for the bitterness of slavery) and the unleavened bread called matzo (for the loaves baked in haste before the exodus from Egypt), the Seder recounts the Passover story for everyone assembled around the dinner table.
Although I was not born or raised in the faith, I have long appreciated the significance of Passover and participate in its observance out of deep respect for my sons’ Jewish heritage, as well as that of many of my friends. So, over the years, my fellow chefs and I at Spago Beverly Hills and several of my other restaurants have learned to cook traditional holiday dishes for the abundant Passover meal, including the poached fish dumplings called gefilte fish, chicken soup with matzo balls, and an array of special sweet treats.
As for the main course, you’ll find a variety of opinions on what is traditional. I know many people who swear by a braised beef brisket smothered in caramelized onions. Other families might prefer a whole roast chicken or turkey, or maybe a bone-in leg of lamb. At the Seders we’ve held for many years now at Spago, one of the most popular dishes is our boneless short ribs braised in red wine.
One way that I’ve found to surprise and delight everyone, however, is to serve a delicious main dish that no one is probably expecting, like the recipe I share here for Braised Veal Shanks with Dried Fruit and Port-Red Wine Sauce. Veal is a meat that, in recent years, many people have turned away from, due to ethical concerns about how it was produced. But, for that very reason, the veal you’ll find in many mainstream markets and butcher shops today is produced to much higher humane standards, making it possible for you to cook, serve and eat it with a clear conscience. By all means, I urge you to ask your butcher about the meat you’re considering purchasing before you buy it; and if you have any doubts or hesitations, opt for an equivalent amount of lamb shanks or beef short ribs.
Whichever kind of meat you use, the result of my recipe’s slow braising will be absolutely tender and rich, enveloped with a sauce that is at once savory, sweet and tangy, reflecting the central European cooking styles that inspire many Jewish holiday meals.
Have a happy, meaningful Passover!
BRAISED VEAL SHANKS WITH DRIED FRUIT AND PORT-RED WINE SAUCE
2 cups assorted dried fruit such as apricots, figs and prunes
1 bottle Port
8 veal shanks, each 12 ounces to 1 pound, cut 1 1/2 inches thick
1/2 cup fine matzo meal (or all-purpose flour, if you aren’t making this recipe during Passover)
Freshly ground white pepper
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup onion cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 cup organic carrot cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 cup organic celery cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 cup whole blanched almonds
1 bottle dry red wine
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
2 to 4 cups organic beef broth
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
Put the dried fruit in a small nonreactive mixing bowl. Add enough of the Port to cover the fruit. Cover the bowl, and refrigerate overnight.
Put the matzo meal in a heavy-duty plastic food-storage bag. Put a piece of veal shank in the bag, close the bag securely, and shake to coat the veal with matzo meal. Remove the veal, shaking off excess matzo meal back into the bag. Put the coated veal on a large, clean platter or tray. Repeat with the remaining veal pieces and matzo meal. Lightly season the coated veal pieces all over with salt and white pepper.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Meanwhile, in a large ovenproof roasting pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Working in batches if necessary to avoid overcrowding, add the veal pieces and brown them all over, turning them with tongs, about 10 minutes total per batch, removing them when done to a clean platter or tray.
Add the vegetables, almonds, the dried fruit and its soaking liquid, the remaining Port and the red wine. Bring to a boil, stirring and scraping with a wooden spoon to deglaze the pan deposits. Continue boiling, stirring and scraping occasionally, until the liquid has reduced by about half.
Return the veal shanks to the pan, nestling them in among the vegetables and dried fruit. Add enough beef broth to cover the veal, and add the thyme and bay leaves. Cover the pan and transfer it to the oven. Cook until the veal is fork tender, about 45 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven. With a large slotted spoon, carefully transfer the veal to a platter, and cover with foil to keep warm. Remove and discard the thyme and bay leaves. Over medium-high heat, boil the cooking liquid in the pan, stirring frequently, just until it reduces to sauce consistency.
To serve, transfer the veal shanks to individual heated serving plates, or leave them on the platter. Spoon the sauce over and around them, evenly distributing the dried fruit and almonds. Garnish with parsley.