Lamb shanks used to be an overlooked cut of meat. If you were lucky, your mom served them at home, when she was trying to stretch the budget. You almost never saw them on a restaurant menu -- too low off the hog (actually, of course, the lamb) for that.
Today, restaurants around the country proudly serve lamb shanks -- and charge hefty prices for the dish.
"It's hard to get them at the supermarket to cook at home -- they're all gobbled up by restaurant trade," complains cookbook author Barbara Kafka. "It is a wonderful piece of meat, very full-flavored," she adds. And properly cooked it provides a lot of gelatin, which means you get a lot of richness in the sauce."
Full of sinews, the shank is one of the hardest-working muscles on the animal -- it holds up the entire weight of the creature. Shanks are tough unless they're simmered low and slow. Then the meat becomes tender as connecting tissues melt into a luscious sauce. Just about any lamb shank recipe will also work for veal shanks (osso buco) or fresh pork hocks.
Although restaurants are grabbing them up, they are nevertheless available in many supermarkets and are relatively cheap, depending on the season.
Braising is the key method here. David Waltuck is the owner-chef of New York City's Chanterelle restaurant and author of "Staff Meals From Chanterelle" (Workman, 2000), a cookbook that explains why anyone would love a job at the restaurant. Each day, the chefs and staff sit down together -- as a family -- to eat fare such as Moroccan lamb shanks.
Ming Tsai, chef-owner of Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Mass., and star of "East Meets West With Ming Tsai" on the Food Network, counts lamb shanks as one of his favorites.
Tsai learned their possibilities when he was sous-chef at Natacha in Paris in the mid-1980s. The chef there amazed his apprentice by adding a banana to a lamb shank curry. "He said, 'You won't even taste it, if you don't know it's in there.' It was delicious," Tsai remembers.
"At least once a year we serve them at Blue Ginger," he says. "They look so beautiful in the bowl, atop a pile of couscous. Plus, you think you're Fred Flintstone, eating a big piece of meat with a great big bone sticking out."
Braise lamb shanks in any liquid from water to a mixture of broth and wine to tomato juice or V-8. You can add just about anything. If you like spicy foods, add some chilies. Or give lamb shanks a Greek accent by adding lemon juice and lemon slices. Make them Sicilian with olive oil and almonds. A simple French rendition would use red wine, onions, carrots and celery.
About an hour before serving, add to the roasting pan any vegetables you have on hand (turnips, carrots or parsnips, for example). And you'll want to serve something with it to soak up the luscious juices you'll have when you're finished. Try simple garlic bread, polenta, couscous, kasha, rice pilaf, noodles, pasta or baked or mashed potato.
Ming Tsai's Braised
Curried Lamb Shanks
"The thing that surprises me about this recipe," says Ming Tsai, chef at Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Mass., "is the addition of the bananas, which give the dish a wonderful aroma." The bananas melt into the wonderfully fragrant, intensely flavored, spiced sauce to thicken it slightly.
Tsai serves the shanks with a mildly spiced couscous dotted with sauteed onions. From "Blue Ginger" (Clarkson Potter, 1999).
6 lamb shanks (about 1 pound each)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
1/4 cup coriander seeds
11/2 cups flour
1/4 cup curry powder
11/2 teaspoons ancho chili powder
About 3 tablespoons canola oil
2 large onions, cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 celery stalks, cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1/4 cup finely chopped ginger root
1/4 cup finely chopped garlic
750-milliliter bottle dry red wine
1 cup dark soy sauce
2 bananas, peeled and sliced or mashed
4 Thai chili peppers, or to taste (may substitute serrano chili peppers)
3 springs fresh thyme (may substitute 1 tablespoon dried thyme)
Pat the shanks dry and season generously with salt and pepper. Set aside.
In a spice or coffee grinder, grind the fennel and coriander seeds.
In a large shallow dish, combine the ground fennel and coriander with the flour and the curry and chili powders. Stir to combine. Working 1 at a time, dredge the shanks in the flour mixture, shaking to remove any excess. Transfer to a plate.
Place a large pot or Dutch oven large enough for the shanks to fit comfortably without touching over medium-high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil and swirl to coat the bottom of the pot. When the oil shimmers, add the shanks in batches, being careful not to crowd the pot, and cook, turning as necessary, until well browned on all sides, about 8 minutes total. Return the shanks to the plate and repeat with the remaining shanks, adding additional oil if necessary.
Pour or spoon the fat from the pot and discard. Wipe out the pot. Return it to medium heat, add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil and swirl to coat the bottom of the pot. Add the onions, celery, carrots, ginger and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are softened, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the wine and salt and pepper to taste, bring to a simmer and cook until the liquid is reduced by half, 15 to 20 minutes.
Add the soy sauce, bananas, chili peppers and thyme and stir to combine. Return the shanks to the pot, add enough water to almost cover the shanks and season the liquid with salt. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a simmer. Cover, reduce the heat to medium-low or low and simmer very gently until the meat is tender and almost falling from the bone, 3 to 4 hours.
Transfer the shanks to a platter; cover with foil to keep warm.
Spoon off and discard any fat that has accumulated on the surface of the liquid. Increase the heat to medium-high and simmer the cooking liquid until it has reduced slightly, about 10 minutes. If using fresh thyme, remove and discard the sprigs. Remove the pot from the heat; set aside to cool for at least 10 minutes.
Working in batches, transfer the mixture to a food processor or blender and puree. Return the puree to the pot and heat until warmed through. Taste and adjust the seasonings accordingly.
To serve, place the shanks on individual plates and ladle the sauce over and around the shanks.
Per serving: 967 calories, 72 gm protein, 30 gm carbohydrates, 58 gm fat, 243 mg cholesterol, 22 gm saturated fat, 1,090 mg sodium, 7 gm dietary fiber
Moroccan Lamb Shanks
This robustly spiced dish tastes even better when the flavors are allowed to mellow overnight in the refrigerator. Adapted from David Waltuck's "Staff Meals From Chanterelle" (Workman, 2000).
6 lamb shanks (about 1 pound each), trimmed of visible fat
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
3 large cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon paprika, preferably sweet Hungarian
1 teaspoon saffron threads
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
2 cups white wine
2 cups chicken stock or broth
2 bay leaves
Preheat the oven to 475 degrees.
Pat the shanks dry and rub with 2 tablespoons of the oil. Place the shanks in a roasting pan large enough for them to fit comfortably without touching.
Roast the shanks, turning about every 10 minutes, until well browned, about 40 minutes total. Pour or spoon the fat from the pan and discard. Leave the shanks in the pan and set aside.
Reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees.
In a medium, nonreactive saucepan over medium heat, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Add the onions and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and lightly browned, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the lemon juice, salt, cumin, coriander, paprika, saffron, turmeric and ginger and stir until completely incorporated. Add the wine, stock and bay leaves, increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat and carefully pour the mixture over the lamb shanks. Cover the roasting pan tightly with aluminum foil and roast for 1 hour.
Remove the foil, reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and continue to roast, turning the shanks occasionally, until the meat is tender and almost falling from the bone and the sauce is reduced and thickened, about 1 hour.
To serve, transfer the shanks to a serving platter or individual plates and cover to keep warm. Remove and discard the bay leaves. Spoon off and discard any fat that has accumulated on the surface of the liquid. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning accordingly. Spoon the sauce over the shanks.
Per serving: 528 calories, 66 gm protein, 6 gm carbohydrates, 23 gm fat, 201 mg cholesterol, 6 gm saturated fat, 607 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber
Barbara Kafka's Oven-Braised Lamb Shanks With White Beans
(4 to 8 servings)
This hearty dish makes an ample amount of richly flavored white beans. Rather than serving the individual shanks as the entree and the beans as the side dish, consider stretching the meal by spooning the beans into shallow plates and shredding the meat over the top.
From Barbara Kafka's "Roasting" (William Morrow, 1995).
4 lamb shanks (1 to 11/4 pounds each), trimmed of visible fat
2 small onions, peeled
6 medium cloves garlic, peeled
1 cup water
2 pounds dried white beans, such as Great Northern or navy, soaked overnight in enough water to cover by 2 inches, then drained
1 bouquet garni (fashioned from a 2-inch sprig fresh rosemary, five 2-inch sprigs fresh oregano, six 2-inch sprigs fresh thyme and 1/2 dried bay leaf)
3 cups canned tomatoes with their juices, tomatoes chopped
1 cup red wine
2 cups chicken stock or broth
About 2 teaspoons kosher salt
Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 475 degrees.
Pat the shanks dry and place in a roasting pan large enough for the shanks to fit comfortably without touching.
Roast the shanks for 20 minutes. Using tongs, turn the shanks. Add the onions to the pan and turn to coat with the pan drippings. Return the pan to the oven and roast for 10 minutes. Add the garlic to the pan, turn to coat and continue roasting until the shanks are crusty and brown, about 10 minutes longer.
Using tongs, carefully transfer the shanks, onions and garlic to a plate; cover to keep warm.
Pour or spoon the fat from the pan, reserving 2 tablespoons. Place the pan on top of the stove over medium-high heat, add 1 cup water and bring to a boil. Boil, using a wooden spoon to scrape the bottom of the pan, for 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees.
Using the reserved 2 tablespoons fat, coat the bottom and sides of a large pot or Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid, such as a 7-quart casserole, that is large enough for the shanks to fit comfortably without touching. Place half the beans in the pan. Coarsely chop the roasted onions and garlic and spread them over the beans. Place the shanks on top and add the bouquet garni. (If you prefer, you may scatter the herbs between the shanks instead of tying them into a bundle.) Spoon the remaining beans over and around the shanks, spreading them in an even layer. Pour over the tomatoes and their juice, the wine, stock and the reserved deglazing liquid from the roasting pan and cover the pot. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil.
Transfer the pot to the oven and roast for 2 hours, checking the level of liquid occasionally and adding more water as necessary. (May cool to room temperature and refrigerate for up to 24 hours. Return to room temperature prior to proceeding.)
Sprinkle the shanks and beans with the salt and, using a wooden spoon, work or mix the salt into the mixture. Return the pot to the oven and roast, uncovered, until heated through, about 20 minutes (adding more water as necessary). Remove and discard the bouquet garni.
To serve, either transfer the shanks to individual plates and spoon the beans on top or spoon the beans into shallow bowls and shred the meat over the top.
Per serving: 635 calories, 61 gm protein, 76 gm carbohydrates, 8 gm fat, 101 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 866 mg sodium, 19 gm dietary fiber
Mike Moore and Susan Jacobson last wrote for Food about balsamic vinegar.
WITH WHITE BEANS:
The beans soak up the luscious juices. Page 3