Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Tender to the bone

I am tempted to declare lamb shank the most perfect food for a winter dinner party. Nested on top of a pile of buttered Moroccan couscous, the glistening shanks stopped conversations and drew lustful stares when they were brought to the table at the little Christmas party J and I threw a week ago.

I was glad that the glamour shot had been taken in the kitchen as we wasted no time in claiming our respective bones. I also secretly congratulated myself for making the wise decision to provide each person with his or her own shank. We are definitely not generous enough to share these beauties. Thanks to inspirations from Nigel Slater, one of my most admired food writers of all time, I garnered major praise with minimum effort.

The shanks had absorbed the better part of the bottle of Zin in which they were marinated and then slowly braised. The two whole heads of garlic, which accompanied the shanks during the two hour braising, had turned into a delicious mush that spread easily atop toasted farmhouse bread. The best part of it all is that this showstopper came together in the oven while I enjoyed a few glasses of champagne with the guests.

Lamb Shank Braise –Inspired by a Nigel Slater recipe in Appetite

Lamb shanks – 6
Olive oil – just enough to cover the bottom of your roasting pan
Flour – a little for dusting
Onions – 6 medium red or golden
Carrots – 3 large. Add this if you love the richness that carrots acquire when braised with red meats.

For the marinade:
A bottle of red wine – I used a Zin for its fruitiness
Sherry vinegar – about 4 T
Garlic – 2 whole heads, cut horizontally
Thyme – a small bunch
Bay leaves – 3 or 4
Black peppercorns – 9 or 10
Juniper berries – a small handful, crushed. Add this if you have juniper berries on hand or enjoy the extra fragrance. These berries are used to make Gin.
Salt for rubbing on the shanks - I didn’t do this, but after reading the Zuni CafĂ© cookbook, I intend to try the pre-salting method on meats from now on.

Marinade the lamb shanks for a few hours. You could do this overnight. I didn’t because J and I were out too late the night before. I believe this would further imbue the meat with flavor and perhaps shorten the cooking time.

Preheat the oven to 400◦F. While the oven is heating up, dust the shanks with flour and brown them in a roasting pan on the stovetop. Make sure there is enough oil in the pan to cover the bottom of the pan and be sure not to crowd the shanks.

While the shanks are browning, peel and roughly chop the onions and carrots. When the shanks are browned on all sides, remove them to a plate and cook the onions and carrots in the remaining oil in the roasting pan. You may need to add a bit more oil if you add carrots. Stir the onions and carrots now and again to stop them from burning, but not so regularly that they are discouraged from caramelizing.

When the onions and carrots are soft and golden, after about twenty minutes, put in the garlic and herbs from the marinade and reintroduce the shanks. Cover the roasting pan with foil and place in the oven.

The braising time may be between 1 ½ to 2 ½ hours depending on your schedule. Just make sure not all the braising liquid evaporates so you will have a base for a sauce. The sauce could be pulled together as easily as adding salt and pepper to the braising liquid and reducing it to the right consistency. If you don’t have enough liquid, you could also add a bit of stock to reach the desired consistency. You may pour the sauce over the shanks before serving or allow the guests to help themselves. I found the shanks tasty enough on their own without any additional embellishments.

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