Braised Breast of Veal with Polenta Cakes, Glazed Vegetables, and Sweet Garlic

posted in: Cooking, Savory | 21

veal breast polenta cake

What the hell is a breast of veal? Breasts come from squab, ducks, chickens, and plastic surgeons, commonly. The average chap doesn’t often think of the breast of a baby cow, but Thomas Keller is no average person, I’m coming to find out. It turns out veal does have a breast, and it’s a pretty hefty thing indeed. I chose to make this recipe for my awesometastic toddler Bentley Danger’s 2nd birthday, occurring on the intriguingly-auspicious 08.09.10. Why Linda, don’t you think he would have been happy with tater tots and easy cheese? Mayhaps, but I’m doing my best to cultivate a little urban gourmand, so I see no better occasion to make a multi-day feast than on the anniversary of Bentley’s birth. It is also a reminder of how far we’ve come in the last two years. Two years ago I was laid up in a hospital bed after 72 hours of 2-week overdue labor that included a crash cart scare and eventually being completely put to sleep for the birth of Bentley due to unforeseen complications. Everything is dandy now and I chalk it up to the little monster not being quite ready to enter the big, bright world, nevertheless it wasn’t the greatest few days. That is in stark contrast to our life now. Bentley is an aspiring sous chef, assisting me in the kitchen with all the dexterity he can muster. He has a surprising attention to detail (at least when it comes to licking the ice cream-churning beaters).

veal breast rack

In lieu of a big party this year, we decided to keep his fete to family, since it was on a Monday. The reveler tally totaled 13 adults and four little ones, so I thumbed through The French Laundry looking for something that would feed a small crowd. It turns out the veal breast was what TK served the original crew of TFL a week before it opened, thus it’s a very meaningful recipe to him. I figured it would be an ideal dish to commemorate a momentous day, and so set out to gather my ingredients. TK suggests asking the butcher for a Bobby veal breast which is smaller than a regular breast, but I was unable to locate one. Just locating a veal breast itself proved challenging. Turns out we are not big veal eaters in this country, and least of all as strange a cut as a breast. No matter though, I planned to double his original recipe anyway since I had a larger crowd, so the butcher and I figured about half a regular-sized veal breast would do the trick. The whole breast weighed in at 20 lbs, of which I took 10.


The breast has ribs running up its length. The butcher compared it to pork spare ribs. I also came to find out it is full of cartilage and fat, which I suppose make it tender and delicious after a low and slow braise, but nothing turns you off of eating more than pulling a 10” long cord of cartilage out of a freshly-cooked piece of meat. The node-like tendrils looked like something out of a sci-fi film: half animate, half spare computer part. I wanted to share a picture but I couldn’t bring myself to ruin the magic of the final dish (it was definitely magical). About the time I was done braising and I was separating the rib rack from the meat, I started to seriously doubt this dish. There was a ton of fat, sinew, bone, cartilage, and all manner of odd thing interspersed between the flesh of the breast. How on earth would it ever taste good, and how could I serve my guests something so strange?


The next step calls for doubling the breast upon itself and weighting it so that it compresses together to form a solid, thin mass. I did this overnight, and the next day when I pulled the breast out to cut it into rounds for serving, the genius of the dish was apparent. The cutter wouldn’t cut through the fat, so it was easy to separate it at that time from the meat, and in the end I would up with perfect circles of meat the texture of tuna in a salad Nicoise with the flavor profile of well-braised veal. Every time I cook a TK recipe I go through a touch-and-go period where I firmly believe the dish won’t come together. Each instance so far, he’s proven me wrong. The steps are actually so clear and concise that any doubt and second-guessing is really a product of my own mind. I feel comfortable enough in the kitchen that I trust myself, but I guess I’m learning that I have to trust someone else too, if I respect them enough to cook from their book.


The grueling detail-focus in this recipe is maddening. For instance, he specifies shapes for the various vegetables that top the meat; the beets must be Parisienne balls, the carrots are 1” turned (whittled into miniature footballs), the celery are 1×1/4 batons, and the turnips are fluted ovals. If there is a soul among you who can scoop Parisienne balls from a raw beet, speak now! I wound up sous viding my beets, then perfectly cubing them- I think they were plenty beautiful. I spent roughly an hour chopping up a few vegetables for the dish. Had it been a creation from my own head, the same vegetables would have taken me 15 minutes and looked good enough to be served at a restaurant. Good enough is not TK’s style. They must be the best. My knife skills improved considerably in that hour.


The waste present in most of TK’s recipes is a little staggering as well. In order to get perfect batons, balls and ovals, roughly 50% of the vegetable in question is peeled or pared away. In a commercial kitchen this would not be a problem, I wager, since stocks and sauces welcome the addition of wanton veggies. In my own kitchen I find myself scrambling to come up with clever ways to serve the unwanted bits, thus I make one recipe from TFL then eat remarkably unphotogenic (though usually delicious) meals for two days afterward. I have witnessed this phenomenon with vegetables, but also bones, duck breast, fish scraps, polenta remnants, et cetera. It’s something to be aware of, and I consider it a good and bad thing. It’s god in that it forces me to think outside the box to come up with alternative uses for the imperfect scraps. It’s bad because I imagine people across the country tackling the daunting recipes in TK’s books yet being busy enough in their lives that they simply boot the waste into the compost bin. I wish he would have addressed this issue by stating what he actually personally does with all the excess instead of the occasional “can be frozen for future use.” Future use in what? Let’s keep the food revolution going with inspired ideas for scrap foods. Maybe I’ll write that book. Hmmm, Goin’ Gourmet with TFL’s Tatters?

using every burner

Last week I wrote about how TK inspired in me a love for strainers, chinois’, China caps, and the like. This week it’s got to be my round cutters of all sizes. He’s got me thinking I can make anything pretty by simply plopping it into a little round form. It really did the trick for this dish, however. Braised meat dishes tend to be among the most heart-warmingly delectable around, but they also tend toward unsightliness on the plate. A slop of stew, a smattering of spaetzle, and you are left with a full belly in front of a skid-marked plate. By packing the strands of meat into a round, pan-frying them, then serving them on equally circular cakes of polenta, the mess is virtually eliminated. It’s a fine thing indeed when the beauty of the plate matches the beauty in your belly, and this dish achieves that rare balance.

tight shot

Bentley gave the dish the ultimate seal of approval when he unceremoniously (read: beseechingly, with sticky hands grabbing at the platter) requested a second veal breast round along with more polenta. He ate so much dinner he wasn’t overly obsessed with the chocolate/peanut/cajeta cups I made him for dessert, although they did end up all over his face during the manic unwrapping of gifts portion of the evening.

sit n spin

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21 Responses

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  5. […] added. But I took my blogging buddy’s advice and added nothing to the simple list of ingredients. Salty Seattle was recently discussing the difficulty in following recipes to the letter as essentially an issue […]

  6. Speechless food.

  7. Happy Bday to our little play date.

  8. Beautiful — and Mr. B looks dapper with his suiting and adorable food-mustache. What a lovely way to celebrate a birthday! I haven’t made anything from TK’s books recently, but looking forward to digging in again when the weather cools off!

  9. Joanna Kenney

    Now that I’ve looked around a little more…i saw the MC post. @Joanna Kenney

  10. Joanna Kenney

    Lovely. Looks delicious. You should enter the next season of Masterchef.

  11. Food waste like that also really troubles me. I’d love to see some of the things you do with it. Also, this is a beautiful dish. I’m really impressed you took the time to perfect those vegetables. I think I would have cut myself and then just cut the veggies.

  12. @Matt
    Curiously, once I posted this, the American Veal Council (or something similar) started following me on twitter. I asked them where to find their products retail and they said anything can be ordered through Whole Foods. Wonder if you have one close by?

  13. @Jessica
    Hmmm, once the circles are formed I would say it takes about half an hour for the rest of the saucing, sauteeing,& glazing & plating to come together. It’s a fairly frantic half hour, too:)

  14. This was a great story and great post. Your hard work is impressive. Bentley is a lucky boy.

  15. Fabulous. Everything looks quite delicious! I’m curious…once you had your perfect little circles of meat cut out, how long did it take to pull the rest together?

  16. Looks fantastic. I really need to find me a good butcher that can actually supply me a cut like that. Closest good one I know is an hour drive. I will have to keep this in my mind in a year and a half when my little guy turns 2.

  17. This sounds amazing, and yes please write that scrappy book!

  18. marisa miller

    Comment: you are a better woman than I, Linda Nicholson. Keeping my kid clean in that suit alone would have been a all-day task, no one would have been eating stacked ANYTHING!
    It looks beautiful and I’m sure it was even better!!!
    Tourning is my biggest nightmare. Glad it was one quarter in school and done.
    See you soon!

  19. Beautiful presentation! I could use a lesson or two from you! Looks amazing!

  20. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Barbara Kiebel, Ken Leung and Ken Leung, Linda M Nicholson. Linda M Nicholson said: {Ummm, yeah baby} Braised Breast of Veal with Polenta Cakes, Glazed Vegetables, and Sweet Garlic […]

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