Once, tomato, garlic and herbs were used in southern Italy to disguise the flavour of meat that was not, perhaps, as fresh as it might be. However, the same basic technique works well even with the best, freshest cuts of meat, if cooking times are reduced to bring out all the flavour and freshness of the other ingredients. A word on balsamic vinegar: there are some extraordinary, concentrated traditional Modena balsamic vinegars out there, but in this case, chef Matteo Temperini recommends using a lighter, salad-quality version, so as not to upset the delicate balance of flavours. To approximate the thick Italian 'tagliata' cut, ask the butcher for boneless rib-eye or sirloin veal steaks; these should be around three-quarters of an inch thick.
First, find a traditional, non-coated iron or steel frying pan – this is one recipe where the meat needs to stick to the bottom a little. Warm the oil on a medium heat, then sprinkle a little salt and a lot of black pepper over one side of each veal chop, and place them seasoning-side down in the pan. After 5 minutes, check – the chops should just be turning golden brown in patches – and if they’re done, turn and brown the other side. Don’t forget to do the sides too: use a couple of forks, turning the chops in the olive oil slowly until they colour.
At this point, add the knob of butter to the pan and, when it has melted, put in the unpeeled garlic cloves and the sprig of thyme. Lower the heat slightly and cook for another ten minutes, spooning the oil and butter back over the chops. At this point, remove the chops, discard the cooking juices, and add the balsamic vinegar to the pan, together with a drop of water or, if you prefer, a light vegetable stock. Reduce until the sauce resembles a thin treacle, then add the tomato fillets. Adjust the seasoning, add the basil and spinach leaves, turning as they wilt a little. Return the veal to the pan, heat it through, and you’re done. Serve topped with the tomatoes, basil, spinach and cooking juices.
Pictures © Oliviero Olivieri