Sunday, January 4, 2009

Braised Lamb Shanks Provencal

One of the very few redeeming qualities of bitterly cold New York in January is that I have an excuse to make hearty braised dishes. This braised lamb shank recipe is from Molly Stevens' book All About Braising. The Amateur Gourmet has heaped a lot of praise on this book through his food blog and it is well deserved. I was motivated to purchase the book after a success with its Chicken Breast Braised with Hard Cider & Parsnips recipe. Molly Stevens is able to make a cooking technique that often seems daunting accessible. The one mistake I always make with braised dishes is that I underestimate the amount of time the recipes take. For example, this recipe calls for 2 1/2 hours of actual cooking time so I thought that starting at 6:00 meant that I would have dinner ready by 8:30. Uh, not so much as I failed to consider the time needed to prep the ingredients, brown the meat, and create the sauce. All in all, dinner was not ready until 10:30! But, this should not scare anyone from trying a braising recipe. Each step is quite simple (just a little time consuming), the recipes often make use of cheaper cuts of meat, and the results are always stunning -- I'm talking restaurant quality stunning.

This is only the second time that I have ever cooked lamb (the first a rather disastrous shepherd's pie using extremely greasy ground lamb) as I am often wary of the smell of lamb. I was pleased with the result -- fall-off-the-bone tender meat in a very Mediterranean sauce with nary a bad smell. I have halved Molly Stevens' recipe and shortened a few steps below. I served this dish with golden-crusted brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes.

Braised Lamb Shanks Provencal

3 lamb shanks (about 1 pound each)
All-purpose flour for dredging (about 1/2 cup)
1/2 Tbsp plus 1/4 tsp sweet Hungarian paprika
Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper
1/2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion (about 1/2 lbs total), chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 lbs plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped (or 7 1/4 ounces of canned whole peeled tomatoes, coarsely chopped, juice reserved)
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1/2 cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 lemon
1 large bay leaf
1/4 cup pitted and coarsely chopped oil-cured black olives, such as Nyons or Moroccan
2 Tbsp coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley


1. Heat the oven to 325°F.

2. If the shanks are covered in a tough parchment-like outer layer (called the fell), trim this away by inserting a thin knife under it to loosen and peeling back this layer. Remove any excess fat as well, but don't fuss with trying to peel off any of the thin membrane -- this holds the shank together and will melt down during braising.

3. Pour the flour into a shallow dish and stir in 1/2 tablespoon of the paprika. Season the shanks all over with salt and pepper. Roll the shanks in the flour, lifting them out one by one and patting to remove any excess, and set them on a large plate or tray.

4. Heat the oil in a large heavy-based braising pot over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the flour-dredged shanks. Cook, turning the shanks with tongs, until they are gently browned on all sides, about 10 minutes total. Transfer the shanks to a plate or tray, without stacking or crowding.

5. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of fat from the pot and return the pot to the heat. If the bottom of the pot is at all blackened, wipe it out with a damp paper towel, being careful to leave behind any tasty caramelized drippings. Add the onions, tomatoes with their juice, and the garlic and season with the remaining 1/4 teaspoon paprika and salt and pepper to taste. Saute over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the onions are mostly tender. Pour in the wine and stir and scrape with a wooden spoon to dislodge any browned bits on the bottom of the pot that will contribute flavor to the liquid. Simmer for 3 minutes. Pour in the stock, stir and scrape the bottom again, and simmer for another 3 minutes.

6. Meanwhile, zest 1/2 of the lemon, being careful to remove only the outermost yellow zest, not the bitter-tasting white pith; reserve the lemon. Add the zest to the pot, along with the bay leaf.

7. Arrange the lamb shanks on top of the vegetables. The shanks should fit fairly snugly in the pot. Do not worry if they are stacked in two layers. Cover the pot with parchment paper, pressing down so that it nearly touches the lamb and the edges of the paper extend about an inch over the side of the pot. Set the lid in place, slide the pot into the lower part of the oven, and braise for about 2 1/2 hours. Check the shanks every 35 to 45 minutes, turning them with tongs and moving those on top to the bottom and vice versa, and making sure that there is still plenty of braising liquid. If the liquid seems to be simmering too aggressively at any point, lower the oven heat by 10 to 15 degrees. If the liquid threatens to dry out, add about 5 tablespoons of water. The shanks are done when the meat is entirely tender and they slide off a meat fork when you try to spear them.

8. Segment the lemons by removing the entire peel, deseeding, and cutting out the individual segments.

9. Transfer the shanks to a tray to catch any juices, and cover with foil to keep warm. Using a wide spoon, skim as much surface fat from the cooking liquid as possible. Lamb shanks tend to throw off quite a bit of fat: continue skimming (tilting the pot to gather all the liquid in one corner makes it easier) until you are satisfied. Set the pot over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Stir in the lemon segments, olives, and parsley. Taste for salt and pepper. Return the shanks to the braising liquid to reheat for a minute or two. Serve with plenty of sauce spooned over each shank.

Makes 3 servings.

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