Monday, February 23, 2009

Mario Batali's Braised Lamb Shanks

Readers of this blog probably know that braising is one of my favorite ways to cook, especially certain vegetables like leeks and cabbage and of course beef cuts like ribs and roasts. For almost a year and a half--probably ever since I got my braising bible, All About Braising by Molly Stevens--I had been inquiring for lamb shanks at my farmers market, to no avail. I don't know what first turned me on to these lamb cuts, but I knew they were in my future. Unfortunately they were always sold out or just not available every time I went to the market. Finally I got a yes back in December and I tucked those two shanks into my freezer knowing that some winter Sunday I would get back to those babies.

Well Oscar Sunday was the day! It was one of those Sundays where I just wanted to be in the kitchen. The day started with a pancake breakfast that included scrambled eggs called migas and also included making Marvin Woods' roux and creole sauce in preparation for a Mardi Gras gumbo to be made later in the week (but that's for another blog entry). But the highlight of the day was to be the braised lamb shanks, which I'd planned to simmer in the oven while working on the creole sauce on top of the stove.

The only dilemma was what recipe to follow. Before Christmas I'd bought Two Dudes One Pan: Maximum Flavor from a Minimalist Kitchen because of the chapter on Dutch ovens that includes a delicious looking recipe for braised lamb shanks with fennel, carrots, and onions. I was all set to go with that preparation until I looked through Mario Batali's Molto Italiano, and found the braised lamb shanks with orange and olives. After some back and forth, I had to go with Mario because I continue to be intrigued by braised dishes that include fruit and meat, especially after falling in love with my first ever braised ribs recipe (note my review from 1/27/06). The combo of meat cooked with kumquats, prunes, or apricots along with some piquant elements like olives or capers offers a rich balance of flavors that smells mouthwatering as it cooks. The orange rind lost most of its bitterness and became completely edible and delicious after stewing in the delicious sauce.

As with the beef Burgundy I'd made for Valentine's Day, I wanted to make the dish early enough so that it could cool and marinate in its juices before a quick reheat just before serving. This was easily accomplished as the braise only took 90 minutes or so. Plus the lamb shank is a fatty and tender cut with tendons and collagen galore. The cooked meat was very tender and the sauce thickened beautifully. Next time I will use my fat separator to eliminate some of the fat before serving, however.

Braised Lamb Shanks with Oranges and Olives
Adapted from Molto Italiano by Mario Batali
Serves 4

4 lamb shanks [As this was my first time cooking lamb shanks, I only bought two so that I could learn more about cooking this cut. I kept the other ingredient amounts the same though]
salt and pepper [I used salt and fennel spice rub]
4 tablespoons of olive oil
2 red onions, chopped
12 cloves of garlic, smashed and peeled [rough chop if you feel like it]
1 navel orange cut into 8 pieces [I used a blood orange whose flesh completely dissolved into the sauce]
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 cup gaeta olives [I used pitted kalamata and green olives]
1 cup dry white wine [I used vermouth]
1 cup homemade marinara [I used jarred sauce, but a small can of diced tomatoes with their liquid would do]
1 cup chicken stock [I used vegetable]
zest of one orange

  1. Season the shanks all over with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil to medium high in a Dutch oven and brown the shanks about 8 minutes before turning once to brown the other side another 8 minutes. Remove to a platter. [My shanks were a bit longer than the diameter of my 5.5 quart Le Creuset Dutch oven--which made me want the oval version--so next time I'll be using my mack daddy All-Clad 8 quart stockpot, which I really only break out on rare occasions to feed a crowd, but it can also go in the oven.]
  2. Lower your oven rack to the bottom third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325 degrees. [Mario says 375, but I follow Molly Stevens and usually braise at 325, which I often end up lowering down to 310.] Remove all but two tablespoons of oil from the pot, reduce the heat to medium, and add the chopped onions, garlic cloves, and orange pieces. Cook stirring occasionally until the onions have softened, about 8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Deglaze the pan with the wine, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom. Add the marinara, stock, rosemary and olives and bring to a boil for a few minutes to allow the sauce to come together.
  3. Add the shanks back to the pot and reduce to a simmer. The shanks should not be fully immersed in the sauce, only about halfway or so. Cover the shanks with a piece of parchment paper larger than the diameter of the pot. Push down on the paper so that it sits just above the top of the shanks and cover the pot with its lid (the edges of the paper will overhang the pot). Place in the oven and bask in the aromas as this dish does its magic. After 15 minutes, check that the meat is not simmering too vigorously and adjust the temperature as necessary to maintain a slow simmer. After the meat has been in the oven for 45 minutes, turn the pieces over and cook for another 45 minutes until the meat is fork tender.
  4. Remove from the oven and place the shanks on a serving platter to rest for 10 minutes. If desired, strain the sauce into a fat separator, reserving the cooked vegetables to garnish the shanks. Pour some of the de-fatted sauce over the shanks and pass the rest on the side. Finally, garnish your platter with the orange zest.
This dish cries out to be served with something like couscous or polenta (my choice this past Sunday), but boiled or mashed potatoes would do just as nicely. Buon Apetito!

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