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