Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Lamb shanks: the ultimate comfort food

Braised lamb shanks are wonderful. To my taste, they are the best part of the animal. Both cooking and eating them is very soothing on a cold dark night. They get better the next day, so you can cook them tonight, reheat and eat them tomorrow, and you get two nights of comfort out of one dish.

The hardworking leg muscles develop a deep flavor. When cooked slowly with liquids and aromatic vegetables, the gelatinous connective tissues in the shanks melt and add to the body of the sauce. The shape is natural and beautiful. And one shank per person is a perfect serving size.

I like the Australian lamb shanks the best: they are in season just when we get the shortest days and the weather that requires braised meat for dinner. They did cross the ocean, and probably spent some time sitting in a warehouse and then in the store, but they got to my kitchen just in time anyway. I mean, I love California lamb too, but it's best when I think about grilling, not braising.

One can create endless combinations of vegetables, herbs, and spices for the lamb braise. I usually do a simple classic variation with onion, garlic (a lot!), rosemary, thyme, bay leaf, juniper berries and black pepper. Sometimes I would add oregano, parsley (leaves with the stalks and/or root), celery stalks or root, mushrooms, or canned whole tomatoes. This time I added selery, them, as an afterthought, I threw in a handfull of supermarket "baby" carrots. These packaged carrots are actually small carrot shapes machine-cut out of regular large carrots, and they don't add much flavor to the braise, but they are a nice color accent.

The liquids are cognac or brandy, red wine, and chicken stock (this time it was duck stock since I had so much of it). If you have lamb stock, it's even better (you roast a leg of lamb on the bone - don't through away the bone, it's your stock!).

Braised lamb shanks
Serve 2
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 lamb shanks, rinsed and dried with paper towels
kosher salt
1 large onion, peeled, cut in sections
1 head of garlic, split into cloves, unpeeled
2 celery stalks, cut into large pieces
10 baby carrots, or 1 large carrot cut into chunks
1 sprig rosemary
3 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
8 juniper berries
10-12 black peppercorns
1/4 cup cognac
1/2 cup red wine
2 cups chicken stock, or as needed

Select a deep, heavy pan with lid that would accomodate the shanks and have some room for vegetables left. Add olive oil to pan. Heat over medium high heat. Rub the lamb shanks with salt. Brown the shanks on all sides, turning with tongs or two forks, until evenly brown on all sides. Remove to a plate. Add half of the chopped vegetables to the bottom of the pan, return the shanks to pan on top of the vegetables, spread the remaining vegetables on top and around the meat. Add rosemary, thyme, bay leaf, juniper berries and peppercorns. Pour cognac and wine over the meat. Add enough stock to cover the meat by 2/3.

Reduce the heat to a lightest simmer, so that the surface of the liquid barely moves.
Cover the pot. Cook slowly for about 3 hours, or until the meat almost falls off the bones, turning carefully once or twice.

Remove the shanks, taking care not to disturb their shape (the meat is tender, and would separate from the bone and fall to pieces easily). Strain the braising liquid into a bowl, and refrigerate for 1-2 hours (or overnight). When the liquid is cool, the fat will float to the top and solidify. This makes it much easier for us, modern health freaks, to remove and discard it. A XIX'th century cookbook would recommend to give the fat to the children and the infirm.

The brasing vegetables have given all their life to the liquid, there is not much flavor left in them, so I usually discard all but a few good-looking pieces that I keep for decoration. I also take out all the garlic cloves and squeeze the soft flesh from them over the meat - it's still flavorful.

After removing the fat, reheat the liquid. It should be rich enough to serve as a sauce, but you can reduce it even more, if desired. Adjust the seasoning. Return the shanks to the sauce and reheat.

Serve with a lot of warm good bread to pick up the sauce, or over mushed potatoes or bean puree. Knives are not required, but a shellfish pick or a small fork comes in handy for picking out the marrow from the bones.

Australian Shiraz advisable.


Michael Walsh said...

The pictures in this post are exceptional. I especially like the lighting in the pic with the raw shanks.

amarillo said...

Thank you, Michael! I am actually using a much better camera now. I got it used from an officemate and I'm very happy with it.

Michael Walsh said...

do tell...what kind?

amarillo said...

Cannon Rebel XT. I only used it in the automatic mode so far.