Braise, and the whole world braises with you.
Note: I know that the formatting in this post is f’ed up, but either my computer or WordPress is stubbornly refusing to allow me to fix it. And I’d really like to go to bed. So if you’re reading it before tomorrow morning, sorry about that.
Braising offers excellent bang for the cooking buck: prep is usually quick and non-arduous, and then the braisee sits in a pot in the oven for a few hours, becoming moist, tender and flavorful and making the whole house smell like comfort. Braising can also be quick – fish and veggies, especially leeks, are super yummy braised – but my favorites will always be the cuts of meat that go into the pot tough as hide and emerge hours later all melty and shredded, with a braising liquid that becomes a rich, flavorful sauce.
Also, if you’ve having guests over, they’ll think you went to a great deal of trouble to prepare the meal and will never realize that you spend 10 minutes throwing some wine and onions and meat into a pot and 4 hours watching a Project Runway marathon*. Something about braising is impressive, maybe that most people don’t take advantage of it as a cooking method or because things like pot roast or brisket are associated with big family dinners and special occasions.
*Also acceptable: an America’s Next Top Model or Animal Cops: Houston Marathon. Not acceptable: Real World/Road Rules Challenge, Animal Cops: Phoenix or Little People Big World.
I’d never braised lamb shanks before and have been wanting to give them a try. I love them, and the word itself is fun to say, always a plus: Shank. Shank! Try it yourself: Shank. “What’s that your munching on?” “Oh, just some shanks.” There’s also something a bit medieval about them; I imagine that shanks were a popular post-joust nosh.
I bought two hardy specimens and lugged them home, still mulling my approach. One of the many great things about braising as a technique (for more on technique, check out Molly Steven’s awesome All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking) is that once your understand the building blocks of a good braise – the liquids, the veg, and herbs and spices – you can pretty much paint the braise red, as it were. I wanted a little guidance for my first run-in with the shanks, so I adapted a recipe from The Bon Appetit Cookbook that I selected using the extremely scientific criteria that I happened to flip open to a page with a picture of it and it looked really good.
The dish is simple but has an interesting flavor combination, and the braising technique has a slight twist that produces a lovely final dish. The lamb is browned on the stove to develop some color and flavor, and then braises in the oven for about 2 1/2 hours in a mixture of red wine, stock, orange and fennel. Unlike most braises, which are done in a closed pot, this one is done open so that the lamb can continue to develop a crust as it cooks. You do have to flip and baste the shanks periodically to ensure an even glaze, so you may want to watch a marathon of 30-minute shows so you’ll know when it’s time to do that.
Objects in photo may taste better than they appear.
Some fresh fennel gets cooked in the braising liquid, which also becomes a sauce that gently naps the shanks. (“Naps the shanks.” Heh. “What have you been doing in the shower all this time? Are you napping the shanks again?”) I served it with the sides suggested in the recipe, roasted butternut squash and red chard. The flavors are warming, and the lamb melts off the bone.
Best of all, two large lamb shanks make more than 2 people of above-average appetites can consume at a single meal, leaving enough leftover shredded lamb to make a lamb and eggplant ragu to be served over polenta at some later date (read: Monday night). Stay tuned for that; same braise time, same braise channel.
Braised Lamb Shanks with Orange and Fennel, for 2 with leftovers
adapted from The Bon Appetit Cookbook
2 1- to 1 1/- pound lamb shanks
1 tbsp. veggie oil of your choice
1 tbsp. butter (optional)
1 large onion
2 medium carrots (or 1 large)
2 medium parsnips (or 1 large)
4 sprigs of fresh thyme (or substitute 2 tsp.dried)
1 head garlic
2 1/4 c. red wine (I used a Cab Sav to great effect)
3 c. chicken stock, plus additional cup if needed
1 large orange, zested, otherwise guts and juice only (NO PITH. I mean it.)
1 cinnamon stick
2 1/2 tsp. fennel seeds
1 bulb fennel
1 tsp.arrowroot, if needed
Preheat your oven to 350. Salt and pepper your shanks. Get your mind out of the gutter.
Put a heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add the veg oil and brown the shanks, turning them so they color on all sides; about 10 minutes. Remove them from the pot and set aside.If there’s not much fat from the meat left in the pot, add the butter. Then toss in the onion, carrot, parsnip, garlic and thyme. Cook for 5-6 minutes, until the veggies start to brown. Pour in 2 cups of the wine, and let it cook down until it’s quite reduced and has become glaze-like.
Add the lamb, orange guts and 1 1/2 teaspoons of the fennel seed, bring the whole shebang to a simmer, and stash – uncovered – in the oven. Braise for 2 1/2 hours, turning the lamb and basting it every 20-30 minutes. If it seems like too much liquid is evaporating and there’s not enough left to come at least 1/3 of the way up the lamb, add a bit more stock (unless it’s late in the cooking process, in which case just let it go).
You can do everything up to this point and then stick the whole thing in the fridge to finish and eat the next day, making this a nice thing to do on a weekend for weeknight dinners. Or, you can just press on.
Remove the lamb from the pot and set aside. Strain all the veggie detritus out of the braising liquid, and put the liquid through a fat separator (Or just skim it off. Or just leave it in. I’m not the boss of you.). Return the liquid to the heat and add the rest of the fennel and wine and the zest from your orange, along with the fresh fennel, which you’ve trimmed and cut into eights.
Simmer until the fennel is cooked through and the sauce thickens a bit. Adjust the taste with s&p if needed. If it’s not as thick as you’d like, mix the arrowroot with a splash of water and stir in it; this will immediately tighten and add gloss to the sauce.Return the shanks to the sauce and heat through. Done and done.