I posted this photo of the meal Ross and I ate last night onto my Facebook page and the reception was so enthusiastic and the actual taste of the food so incredible and it had been so long since I posted a recipe on this blog and I thought it high time for an act of shameless self-promotion, I thought I'd go ahead and share: Braised lamb shanks has about a zillion variations, but this was by far the best way I have ever had them. And there's nothing to it. At. All. You'd think a food this good requires some kind of culinary finesse reserved for chefs at white tablecloth restaurants, and while the recipe itself comes from such a Chef (Frank Stitt), it is as wholesome, humble, and simple a dish as you can possible imagine. The keys are these:
1. Use really good lamb (try Many Fold Farm! I hear it's great!) and to give it a good browning. I thought I had been doing a fine job browning meat for years until I realized I was only getting halfway there. Let me be clear: you want the meat not just to "brown," but to caramelize. Use a good pan. Use a moderate temperature. Take your time.
2. Let the juices really reduce, like, to a syrup. I tend to get impatient with this part of braising. With a braise I feel like I've been waiting hours and hours as it is and the juices have all been reducing over that time anyway. Why can't I just tip everything into a serving platter and be done with it, dammit?! Well, you can't. Those flavors have not been reducing over all those hours so much as they have been extracting. The slow cook pulls water and flavors out of the meat. Lots and lots and lots of flavors in lots and lots of water. Do not let those yummy flavors remain watered down. Simmer that water out and you get to enjoy some highly intensified sugars and flavors. It is absolutely, unquestionably worth it.
oil of your choice (olive oil, bacon grease, NOT vegetable oil)
3-5 lbs lamb shanks (or any other boney, sinewy, tough cut such as neck chops)
salt and fresh, ground pepper
1 onion, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 cup white wine (I prefer something a little sweet more than dry)
1 bouquet garni (I use any combination of aromatic herbs I have around at the time: thyme sprigs, bay leaves, parsley, oregano or marjoram, celery leaves, leek tops)
3 cups chicken stock (c'mon people, let's get serious and use home-made!)
2-4 sprigs parsley
2-4 sprigs thyme
2-4 sprigs marjoram
12 really good carrots, peeled and blanched
8 little potatoes (New, Fingerling, Rose, etc.), boiled in salted water
Get your braise on! Season the meat with salt and pepper and then brown the meat on all sides in the fat/oil until caramelized (see note above). Then preheat your oven to 375ºF. Remove the meat from the pan and set it in one, snug layer in a good, heavy ceramic or cast-iron baking dish (you want something that is going to hold heat well). Then add your chopped veggies to the pan (this is where I cheat and toss the lot of them into a food processor). Let the veggies turn soft and add the cup of white wine to deglaze. Let that simmer for a moment and add your chicken stock and your bouquet garni. Let that come to a boil and then remove from heat and pour the liquid over the resting meat. Cover everything with a layer of parchment paper and either foil or a tight-fitting lid. Braise for about 20 minutes and decrease the temperature to 325ºF continue to braise for 1.5 hours or longer. You want the liquid to barely bubble while its cooking and you don't want to take it out until the bones are brown and seeping their marrow and the meat is meltingly tender. Meltingly.
When the meat is meltingly tender, remove it from your backing dish and strain the veggie bits out of the liquid. Reserve the liquid and discard the veggie bits (compost, pet, baby food, adventurous muffins?). Put the liquid into a saucepan and reduce until it is almost, almost, almost like a runny syrup. Think maple, not honey (see note above). Adjust for salt and pour the reduced liquid back over the meat and add the peeled, blanched carrots and the boiled potatoes. Make sure everything is well-coated in the sauce and sprinkle everything with fresh parsley, marjoram, and thyme leaves.
You'll lick your plate. I promise.