Braised lamb shank


Considering I was vegetarian for so many years, and for largely political reasons at that, it’s perhaps ironic that I have developed a propensity for eating baby animals. In particular, I like lamb. A lot. So I couldn’t refuse a couple of lovely lamb shanks winking at me behind the glass at Prather a few weeks back. But then, straight into the freezer they went to rest in an icy tomb for a future meal.

After all, lamb shanks are not the sort of thing you just whip up on a workday evening. They demand a long, slow braise to break down all the gristle and connective tissue, or else you end up with a plate of tough, gnarly meat. And I don’t love lamb that much.

But Sundays are made for the long and slow. Sundays are the days we typically have a big pot of chicken stock or sauce bubbling away on a back burner for hours at a stretch. This Sunday was no exception — while a mighty pot of stock stewed, my braise was brewing in its own unctuous juices in the oven.

Recipe? We don’t need no stinkin’ recipe. To apply precise measurements to this dish would rob it of its rustic country soul. My meaty shanks got patted dry, generously seasoned and tossed in a powdery bath of flour, then quickly and thoroughly browned all around over high heat. While the bronzed thighs rested off to the side, in went a whole mess of coarsely chopped veggies — your basic mirepoix, plus a little of whatever else was taking up space in the fridge — for a little softening. In went a spoonful of tomato paste, half a bottle of good red wine, maybe almost as much chicken stock. Up to the bubble, and it’s into the hot tub for my mighty hunks of meat. Cover on, into a 325º oven, and the rest is all waiting. Like, three or four hours of waiting.

But it’s worth the wait. Lift the lid to find meat sliding off the bone, swimming in an opaque sauce thickened with the lamb’s own juices. Time to consider accompaniments.

The best complement to slow-cooked food is the contrast of fresh and bright flavors. A little gremolata goes a long way. We had garlic and parsley, but also some basil, and I pulled a glistening rind of preserved lemon out for an added twist. Chop the bejeezus out of it all, together. Voilà.

As for staple, polenta’s lovely, as are egg noodles and mashed potatoes, but for both ease and complementary flavors, it’s hard to beat cous cous. I sauteed up a dash of the gremolata and some finely chopped prunes for the base; in went some stock to boil, then the cous cous. Again, no recipe necessary.

This dish was a study in balance: Fall-apart lamb meat swathed in an unctuous sauce; the faint sweetness of prunes punctuating the savory stew; the bright pop of lemon, herbs and raw garlic to cut through the richness of the braise.

And the best part: leftovers. A fair amount of meat, and a lot of the stew, remained. Tonight it was a pizza topping, and I can hardly wait enjoy it over a nice nest of pappardelle.

One year ago today yesterday … Popeners!

  • Lovely! I’ll remember this one when the weather drops below 90 degrees here on the east coast!

  • Philsey

    Hi Guys,
    My secret additons to the brew are dried mission figs, and sprigs of fresh thyme and rosemary. I use half chicken stock and half beef stock, too. Plop one of those babies down on a heaping pile of yukon gold smashed potatoes surrounded by roasted seasonal whatever, and your done! That and a glass of pinot noir or syrah, or…. I’m off for a week in Hot Springs, Arkansas. YaHoo!

  • I want some! (I love lamb but hardly ever cook it for some weird reason.)

  • Lydia: Yeah, definitely not dead-of-summer material … unless you live in San Francisco. 🙂
    Philsey: I neglected to mention herbs, but herbs there were — several full sprigs of basil left to steep in the braise, plus dry thyme and oregano. And like you, I often add fruit, specifically prunes, dried apricots or figs, to a braise, especially a tagine. I love the way the fruit takes on savory notes to complement the sweetness.
    Kalyn: Probably for the same reason we never cook duck at home — no discernable reason whatsoever. I hope this will compel you to try it. It really is completely easy.

  • I love lamb shanks. They’re economical too! They can be a weeknight thing, if you have a pressure cooker. It only takes 40 minutes under high pressure. Some may say you don’t get the depth of flavor, but I can’t tell the difference. This is the recipe I use, often varying it with different liquids and additions. Lamb Shanks with Garlic Sauce

  • That lamb has me drooling, it looks perfect.

  • The pressure cooker is a great idea. I’ve still never used one, but have heard repeatedly how easy and quick it makes slow-cooked foods. I also hear tell of 15-minute risottos.

  • Oooh, you’re getting all Moroccan on me! Me like! Now that the blistering sun has disappeared behind the clouds (hurray, hurray!), I just might give this recipe a go.

  • I suppose it is kind of a Moroccan-French-Italian kind of thing. Let’s just call it fusion. 🙂
    Oh — and for the record, it was AWESOME with pappardelle.

  • Yeah, risotto only cooks 6 minutes. Of course it takes a few minutes to come up to pressure. Also nice is boiled corned beef dinner in about an hour. Braised red cabbage for a side to pork chops only takes 8 minutes. I love my pressure cooker. I inherited the one I have now from my mom. It’s the ultra heavy duty kind that you can broast chicken in. If only I can get up the nerve to deep fry under high pressure!

  • Margaret Morley

    I love brased lamb shanks! I like to use white beans with them. Delish!