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.
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.
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.