Crazy Thursday = Braised Lamb Shanks? What?!

Thursday is too crazy. Volunteer work in the morning, multiple kid commitments in the afternoon – all overlapping of course, sometimes all of us five plus my dad for dinner, sometimes only half the family. So why would I decide to braise lamb shanks on a day when it really should be quesadillas and guacamole? I don’t know. I bought them on the weekend and the thought of them 2 days after the Thanksgiving gourmet gauntlet kind of put me over the edge so I tossed them, already seasoned with s & p into the freezer. But there they sat niggling at me. I thought I might forget about them there and that I would come across them in May under a thick coating of freezer burn. So I pulled them out of the freezer and now find myself on crazy Thursday with a braise and gremolata to play with. Also, my father-in-law brought a bottle of St. Germain home and I’ve been DYING to try some, so I popped a bottle of champagne in the fridge as a mixer for drinks before dinner. What’s going on? I don’t drink drinks before dinner – not on crazy Thursday.

I was wrong to be overwrought about this. Stew – which I love – drives me nuts; getting the deep caramelized browning on all those pieces of meat without steaming them (by overcrowding the pan in the zeal to complete the task), or the possibility of burning the fond because of the desire for deep browning. Also there is a fair amount of chopping involved. Carrots, potatoes, onions. I love stew but I rarely make it Monday-Thursday.

The shanks turned out to be a lot easier! They’re large and I’m making 6 so I did have to do two batches, but because they’re big it’s actually hard to crowd them into the pan. You wouldn’t want to prop them up on each other. The entire side of each shank should lay flat on the bottom of the pot, maximizing the area to be browned. Twelve minutes of browning for each batch with very little attention from me seems reasonable. While they were browning, the peeling and rough chopping of carrots, onions and a head of garlic (whacked in half) was very straight forward. With the addition of a can of peeled tomatoes, a little wine and chicken stock, the whole thing came together in less than half an hour. Not too bad. The cooking time is long, plan on 2 1/2 -3 hours. There is about 10 minutes of work on the serving end, skimming off the fat and straining the sauce, making the gremolata. But, I can see myself – elderflower scented champagne glass in hand – blithely chopping parsley, garlic and lemon rind. I hope I don’t chop one of my fingers off.

Braised Lamb Shanks

  • 4 lamb shanks trimmed of excess fat
  • Salt and Freshly ground pepper
  • Olive Oil
  • 2 onions. peeled and cut into 1/8ths
  • 2 carrots – peeled and cut in 1″ pieces
  • 1 head of garlic, cut in half
  • 1 small dried chile pepper
  • 4 black peppercorns
  • 1 sprig of rosemary
  • a bay leaf
  • 3/4 cup white wine
  • 1/2 can of whole peeled tomatoes, chopped
  • 2 cups chicken broth

Season the lamb shanks with salt and pepper. Best if you can do this the night before, leaving them covered with parchment in the refrigerator overnight.

Generously cover the bottom of your dutch oven with the olive oil and heat on medium high. When the olive oil shimmers add the 4 shanks – if they fit flat on the bottom of the pan; if not, do them in two batches. Brown them well on all sides – this will take about 12 minutes. If you know your pan and your stove, don’t hang about watching them brown, get chopping! This will be over very quickly if the vegetables are ready. When they are deeply browned, remove them from the pan and pour off the fat. If the residue in the pan is blackened or bitter smelling, wipe the inside of the pan carefully before continuing with the recipe.

Add more olive oil to the pan, and again over medium high heat add the onions, carrots, garlic, chile pepper, peppercorns, rosemary and bay. Cook until the vegetables are slightly soft, about 3 or 4 minutes, then add the wine and tomatoes. Turn up the heat to high.

When the wine has reduced by half, put the lamb shanks back into the pot and add the chicken broth, arranging the shanks so that they are mostly covered by liquid. Bring to a boil and pop the whole thing into the oven at 325 for 2 1/2-3 hours. Remove the cover during the last 20 minutes of braising to allow the lamb to brown a little.

When the lamb is very tender and is falling away from the bones, take the meat out of the liquid and put on a plate. Skim off all the fat with a flat serving spoon. The clear, viscous liquid on the surface of the braise is what you are looking for. Skim it all off! It won’t add to the finished dish. Take the remaining skimmed liquid and put it and all the vegetables through a food mill – it will catch any rough pieces of the garlic, bay and chiles and turn the vegetables into a beautiful smooth sauce. You may need to thin it with a little more broth. Taste, then add the lamb back to the sauce.

Gremolata

Near the end of cooking time, you will need to make gremolata.

  • parsley
  • lemon
  • garlic

Get out a chopping board and a sharp chef’s knife.

Chop washed and carefully dried parsley to make 3 tbsp then chop one clove of garlic. With a microplane grater, take the rind from an organic lemon. Mix it all up and you’re good to go.

The shanks go nicely with polenta or mashed potatoes, but because it’s crazy Thursday I am making buttered egg noodles and calling it a day. Steamed broccoli rabe on the side.

My house smells inviting and deliciously wintery. I, on the other hand, smell like browned lamb shanks, which is weird but worth it. For this recipe I have to thank Alice Waters again and The Art of Simple Food.

P.S. It is worth noting that Crazy Thursday might not be the best time to introduce an unfamiliar dish to kids. Thursday is over-programmed enough at our house without adding meltingly tender and flavorful meat that has, unfortunately (for them), a modicum of visually-unappealing-to-kids-connective-tissue and fat on it. The little guy didn’t eat one bite and the biggest one was coerced into three. If she hadn’t been so tired I really believe she would have eaten the whole thing though…I really do.

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