Lamb Shanks: Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

As usual, I waited until the last moment to order the lamb. It's grass-fed lamb from New Hampshire, raised by Farmer Bill, a 21st-century shepherd in muck boots and specs. We order a whole lamb at a time as soon as the chest freezer has room, about three months after the beef delivery — a quarter of a whole steer — in the fall.

A Note On Browning

Most braising recipes ask that before you do anything else, you brown the meat, usually in the same pot in which it's going to be braising. I've always found the browning step tedious, because you usually have to do it in batches. After the first batch, you have a nice brown fond (the caramelized brown bits) at the bottom of the pot. But after the second and third batch, everything starts to smoke, and your fond turns into a hard-to-clean sticky burned layer on the bottom. So, instead of browning the meat in a pot, I usually just put it on a layer of foil on a baking sheet, toss it with some oil and run it under the broiler (flipping it after the first side gets its crust). Don't worry about your caramelized brown bits — you'll get them when you saute the onions.

Usually, we get it just in time to roast a half-leg for Easter (or a whole one, if there's company). Over the summer and fall, the cuts exit the freezer in the usual order. First, the kabobs, charred on the grill with sweet peppers on lingering summer evenings. The chops — hoarded up for special occasions (especially the succulent little loin chops), and broiled with nervous attention so as not to waste them. Then the shoulder, braised or roasted with root vegetables during chestnut season.

By late winter, we're down to an ovine miscellany — lamb tongue, lamb liver (why do I even ask for these? I ask myself each year) — and lamb shanks. That's when I think to myself, "Hmm, what do I know about cooking lamb shanks?" A Zen-like mental silence typically follows. Then I get distracted by the laundry, or a parcel at the door, or a snack somebody left out. Half the time, the lamb shanks go back into the deep freeze, to perplex me again a year later.

I'm a master procrastinator. I can put off taking a shower. I can put off writing this sentence. And I can certainly put off learning to cook lamb shanks.

However, the new delivery will be here in two weeks, and the freezer's still too full. So I guess it's time to seize the bull — that is, the lamb — by its nubby little horns and figure it out.

If you're like me, you've come across meat shanks in exactly two contexts: (1) the veal shank in the osso buco, which you like to enjoy with a robust Chianti when you're out, and (2) the lamb shank on the Passover Seder plate, which is usually not eaten, and which actually might be a chicken neck or a yam, depending on family traditions.

About The Author

T. Susan Chang is a New England-based freelance writer and a former Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow. She also is the regular cookbook reviewer for The Boston Globe, and her articles on cooking, gardening and nutrition appear in a variety of national and regional publications. You can find more information at her Web site, tsusanchang.com.

If someone asked you what part of the lamb the shank comes from, you'd probably guess right: It's the lower part of the leg, from the knee down. The kneeward part is the meaty part; there's practically nothing as you get toward the hoof. As in any animal, the most-used muscles are the toughest ones. If you've ever seen a lamb at pasture, its game as nimble and springy as a point guard's, its knees working overtime, you won't be surprised to learn that the shank is one of the toughest cuts you can find on a lamb.

With other cuts of lamb, you have some choices. You can grill them, you can braise them, you can even grind them up and make lamb burgers. With shanks, there is basically no choice. You can either cook them for hours, or you can not eat them.

The same tough connective tissue that makes shanks an impossible cut to saute makes them ideal for braising. First you brown them (under the broiler, on foil, if you don't like the mess and smoke of pot-searing), then you stick them in a pot with some liquid. Over the course of two hours, the rubbery, pale gristle slowly softens and grows transparent, yielding up its collagen. By three hours, it has turned to soft, velvety gelatin, coating the threads of succulent muscle and flavored by the crisp, melting exterior fat. It's sublime with root vegetables and just right for sturdy herbs.

It takes patience to cook a shank. Fortunately, good procrastinators also tend to be patient, because of our special relationship with time. This week, when I finally learned to make lamb shanks, I experienced no impatience and zero boredom as the cold afternoon waned and the smells of meat and onions and wine filled the house. I sewed, played the piano, checked my Facebook, tried to write — exactly the same things I did all those months putting off learning how to make lamb shanks. In the end, it turns out there isn't a whole lot of difference between putting off a thing and waiting around for it to happen.

I thought about the year that had passed since I'd bought the lamb shanks as I prepared the table. I thought about the decade I'd spent not cooking them, and the long hours they'd spent on the stove. Finally, I called the family down to dinner, because isn't the whole point of cooking lamb shanks, the ultimate slow food, to enjoy them with people you love?

In 20 minutes, the shanks were gone, victims of their own deliciousness. But their aroma lingered in the air, and I knew that in the years to come, the wait for lamb shanks would never again be such a long one.

Braised Lamb Shanks

This is a very basic formula for braising lamb shanks, adapted from The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters (Potter 2007). Like many Alice Waters recipes, it's simple but perfect. Using nothing but the same aromatics you usually have around the house (onions, carrots, bay leaves and so forth) and some minimal prep time, you can get this braise started, have an excellent nap and wake up to a nearly ready dinner. It takes two minutes to make the gremolata, so don't skip it. It's aggressive and herbal and pungent — the perfect foil for every soft and mellow bite of lamb shank.

Braised Lamb Shanks
T. Susan Chang for NPR

Makes 4 servings

4 meaty lamb shanks, about 1 pound each

Salt

Fresh-ground black pepper

Olive oil

2 onions, peeled and cut into large pieces

2 carrots, peeled and cut into large pieces

1 head of garlic, cut in half

1 small dried chili pepper

4 black peppercorns

1 rosemary sprig

1 bay leaf

3/4 cup white wine

2 medium tomatoes or half of a 14.5-ounce can organic whole tomatoes, cored and chopped

2 cups chicken broth

For The Gremolata

3 tablespoons chopped parsley

1 teaspoon grated or finely chopped lemon zest

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

Trim any excess fat from the shanks. Season liberally with salt and pepper, the day before if possible.

Into a heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat, pour enough olive oil to generously cover the bottom of the pan. Add the shanks and brown them well on all sides. This will take 12 minutes or so. When the shanks are brown, remove them from the pan, pour out most of the fat, and add the onions, carrots, garlic, chili pepper, peppercorns, rosemary and bay leaf. Cook for a few minutes, stirring now and then, until the vegetables soften.

Add the wine and tomatoes. Turn up the heat to reduce the wine and scrape up any brown bits from the bottom of the pan. When the wine has reduced by half, put the shanks back in the pan and pour in the chicken broth. The liquid should come about halfway up the sides of the shanks. Bring to a boil and immediately turn down the heat, cover and cook for 2.5 to 3 hours at a bare simmer, on the stovetop or in a 325-degree oven. When braising in the oven, remove the cover for the last 20 minutes of cooking to brown the meat a little. The lamb should be meltingly tender and falling off the bones. Take out the lamb shanks.

Skim off all the fat. Pass the sauce through a food mill or puree it briefly with a stick blender, regular blender or food processor. If it is very thick, thin it with a little chicken broth. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. Return the shanks to the sauce

To make gremolata, simply mix together the parsley, lemon zest and garlic.

Warm the sauce and shanks and serve sprinkled with gremolata.

Lamb Shanks With Wheat Berries And Parsnips

Sweet, nutty parsnips and earthy, chewy wheat berries turn this just-beyond-basic version of classic shanks into a one-pot meal. There is some advance preparation. The recipe is adapted from Cooking with Shelburne Farms by Melissa Pasanen and Rick Gencarelli (Viking Studio 2007).

Lamb Shanks With Wheat Berries And Parsnips i i
T. Susan Chang for NPR
Lamb Shanks With Wheat Berries And Parsnips
T. Susan Chang for NPR

Makes 4 servings

1 1/2 cups hard, red wheat berries, soaked overnight in water*

2 sprigs fresh rosemary

6 sprigs fresh thyme

1 bay leaf

4 meaty lamb shanks, about 1 pound each

1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt, plus more to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

2 large carrots (about 1/2 pound), peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

2 medium parsnips (about 1/2 pound), peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 medium onion, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

1 large celery stalk, coarsely chopped

4 garlic cloves, smashed with the flat side of a knife and peeled

1 1/2 cups dry red wine

14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes with their juice

2 cups chicken stock, preferably low sodium

* Wheat berries are available at most natural foods and specialty stores and in the natural foods section of some supermarkets

The night before cooking the lamb, put the wheat berries in a large bowl and cover them with cold water.

Tie the rosemary, thyme and bay leaf up in a cheesecloth bag and set aside. Pat the lamb shanks dry and season them with the salt and pepper to taste.

In a large Dutch oven set over medium-high heat, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. When the oil is hot, brown the shanks, in batches if necessary so as not to crowd the pan. (Or, brown the shanks on a foil-lined baking sheet under the broiler. See "A Note On Browning," above, in story inset). Cook, turning periodically, until a nice crust has formed, 8 to 10 minutes total. Remove the browned shanks to a plate.

Add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil to the pan and add the carrots, parsnips, onion, celery and garlic cloves. Cook, stirring, for 7 to 9 minutes until the vegetables are turning golden. Add the wine and deglaze the pan, stirring to scrape up any brown bits. Simmer 5 minutes and then add the herb bundle, tomatoes with their juice, and chicken stock to the pan, along with the drained wheat berries. Bring the pot to a simmer and cover. Simmer on the stove for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Return lamb shanks and any accumulated juices to the pot. Put the covered pot in the oven and cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until the lamb and wheat berries are tender (the wheat berries should still have a little bite to them).

To serve, present the shanks whole, or shred the meat off the bone in the kitchen and serve plates of wheat berries and vegetables topped with the shredded meat and cooking liquid.

Fall-Apart Lamb Shanks with Almond-Chocolate Picada

This is the lamb shank recipe (adapted from The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen by Paula Wolfert (Wiley 2003)) to make when you have winter company (in other words, many hands to wash the dishes), but it's no quickie. You'll have to start a day ahead, and instead of a 3 hour stovetop braise, the pot goes into a low oven for 4 1/2 to 5 hours. And it takes a half-dozen pots and pans to prep. But the thickly textured, mole-like sauce with its overtones of brandy and cocoa will have guests licking from the bowl until you make them stop.

Fall-Apart Lamb Shanks with Almond-Chocolate Picada i i
T. Susan Chang for NPR
Fall-Apart Lamb Shanks with Almond-Chocolate Picada
T. Susan Chang for NPR

Makes 6 servings

For The Shanks

1 bottle full-bodied red wine

2 carrots, coarsely chopped

1 onion, thickly sliced

1 large leek (white and tender green), halved lengthwise and thickly sliced crosswise

1 head of garlic, halved horizontally

1 lemon, quartered

1/2 cup drained and chopped canned plum tomatoes

1 tablespoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon cracked black peppercorns

2 bay leaves

5 pounds lamb shanks (4 to 6 shanks)

Salt and freshly ground pepper

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

Chopped flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

For The Almond-Chocolate Picada

24 blanched almonds

4 garlic cloves

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 slice of stale country white bread, cut 1-inch thick and toasted, crust trimmed

1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder

1 tablespoon brandy

2 teaspoons cooking juices from the lamb shanks

In a large saucepan, boil the wine until it is reduced to 2 cups, about 10 minutes. Add the carrots, onion, leek, halved garlic head, lemon, plum tomatoes, thyme, oregano, peppercorns and bay leaves and simmer for 5 minutes. Let the marinade cool completely.

Put the lamb shanks in a large glass bowl or a sealed heavy-duty plastic bag. Add the marinade. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

The following day, let the meat return to room temperature. Remove the lamb from the marinade and pat dry. Discard the lemon quarters and strain the marinade, reserving the vegetables and wine separately.

Season the lamb shanks generously with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large heavy skillet. Cook the lamb shanks in batches over moderately high heat, turning, until browned all over, about 8 minutes per batch. (Or, brown the shanks on a foil-lined baking sheet under the broiler. See "A Note On Browning," above, in story inset.) Transfer the browned lamb to a large enameled cast-iron casserole, preferably with about a 7-quart capacity. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.

Add the reserved vegetables to the skillet along with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and cook over moderately low heat, stirring frequently, until deep brown and tender, about 15 minutes. Press the vegetables to express the oil, tilt the skillet to remove with a spoon, and transfer to the casserole.

Pour off the oil in the skillet. Add 1/2 cup water to the skillet and bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits that have stuck to the bottom. Boil until reduced to a syrup. Add another cup of water and bring to a boil, then scrape the contents of the skillet into the casserole. Pour the wine from the marinade into the skillet and heat to a bare simmer, and add to the casserole. Cover the meat and vegetables with a sheet of wet crumpled parchment paper directly on top of the meat.

Cover the casserole with the lid and cook the lamb in the oven for 4 1/2 to 5 hours, or until the meat is very tender. Discard the paper. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the lamb shanks to an oiled shallow baking dish large enough to hold them in a single layer. Season the lamb shanks with salt and pepper and cover loosely with foil.

Strain the cooking juices through a strainer set over a saucepan, pressing hard on the solids to extract the liquid. Skim off as much fat as possible from the cooking juices. Boil the juices over high heat, skimming frequently, until reduced to 2 cups, about 15 minutes. (Up to this point, the recipe can be prepared in advance. Refrigerate the meat and sauce separately.)

To prepare the picada, toast the almonds. In a mortar or food processor, grind the almonds and garlic to a coarse paste. Add the parsley, toast, cocoa, brandy and 2 tablespoons of the lamb cooking juices and process or pound until smooth.

If refrigerated, let the meat return to room temperature. Gently reheat the meat and sauce separately. Scrape the picada into the sauce and cook over moderately high heat until the sauce thickens slightly, about 2 minutes. Correct the seasoning. Pour the sauce over the lamb and bake for 30 minutes. Garnish with parsley and serve.

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