It it Father’s Day, so I get to pick the menu. Being a Lueck I will, of course, pick lamb. I have been craving lamb shanks lately.
There is nothing quite like a slow braised, tender lamb shank, but the next question is what flavor? French—with thyme, and savory? Greek—with rosemary and lemon? Chinese—with five spice, and soy sauce? Middle Eastern—with fruit, and cinnamon?
I was drifting toward Middle Eastern, but none of the recipes I looked at quite fit the hole in my head. In the end, I decided to mine the recipes I found for an ingredients list. Taking this ingredient from this recipe and that ingredient from another, I created something new with Middle Eastern flavors.
Middle Eastern lamb frequently includes some dried fruit—raisins, apricots, prunes. This is stone fruit season, in California, so I decided that I would use fresh apricots instead. A touch of white grape juice would add to the fruity tang. A bit of cinnamon and cardamom would both compliment the fruits’ flavors and nail the recipe to the Middle East.
With the base of my recipe fixed, I could now start pulling in ingredients from other cuisines. Leeks are more a Northern European ingredient, but I like their flavor. Crossing the Aegean for the brightness of lemon. A touch of soy sauce for the umami. This may not be exactly any one country’s idea of “Middle Eastern,” but it is mine—Mayan? No, No! That would be chili and chocolate.
Karl’s Braised Lamb Shanks with Middle Eastern Flavors
4 lamb shanks (about 1 lb. each)
1 tsp. Kosher salt
1 tsp. black pepper, fresh cracked
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 large stalks celery, diced
½ tsp. Kosher salt
1 leek, white part only, finely sliced
1 carrot, grated
8 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. fresh rosemary (or 1 Tbs. dried)
2 tsp. cinnamon, ground
1 tsp. lemon zest
5 cardamom pods, cracked
½ cup white grape juice
1 Tbs. dark soy sauce
7 large fresh apricots, separate uses
2± cups low sodium chicken broth
2 Tbs. lemon juice
1. Remove any fell and large lumps of fat from the shanks.
2. “French trim” the lamb shanks.
Tip: About an inch and a half up from the smaller end of the shank, cut down through the meat and tendons all away around the bone. Cut away the small meaty bit and reserve it to add to the pot. Scrape the bone clean down to the cut end of the shank.
Note: Without the anchors of the tendons to keep it stretched out along the bone, the meat will contract up toward the joint at the top. This gives the shank an attractive appearance for your presentation.
3. Cross cut some slits through the silver skin.
Tip: You are not trying to cut into the meat, you are just trying to create some openings in the silver skin to let the meat absorb the salt.
Note: There is some debate about whether you should or should not remove the silver skin. Those in favor of removal claim that it makes the dish taste “gamey.” Those against say the meat would fall off the bone without the support of the silver skin. Despite what some claim, fascia—silver skin—is mostly collagen and—in farm raised meat—flavorless. The silver skin and the tendons—also mostly collagen and flavorless—will nearly completely break down into gelatin. This gelatin is what gives slow braises their marvelous “mouth feel.”
4. Sprinkle the shanks all over with salt and pepper.
5. Place them in a plastic bag and refrigerate for several hours.
Tip: Let the salted shanks rest for at least 4 hours, but overnight is better.
Note: Salt and pepper the meaty bits you trimmed off the shanks and add them to the bag.
6. Add 2 Tbs. of olive oil to a large Dutch oven and brown the lamb shanks on all sides, over a high heat.
Tip: Including the meaty bits.
7. Remove the shanks to a plate and add the onions, celery, and salt to the pot, over a medium heat.
8. Use the moisture released by the vegetables to deglaze the pot.
9. Sauté the onions and celery until the onions are well caramelized and many of them are completely browned, about 15-20 minutes.
10. Add the leek and carrot to the pot and continue sautéing until the vegetables have softened, about another five minutes.
11. Pull the vegetables to the sides of the pot and add the garlic to the hole in the center.
Tip: You may need to add a teaspoon more of olive oil to the garlic.
12. Sauté the garlic until fragrant, about one minute, and then stir in the other vegetables.
13. Sprinkle the herbs and spices over the vegetables.
14. Stir in the grape juice and soy sauce to deglaze the pot.
Tip: Scrape the bottom of the pot well to make sure that nothing is sticking to it. Any bits like that may scorch and spoil your dish.
15. Pit, and coarsely chop five of the apricots.
Tip: The reserved apricots will be added at the end of the cooking time as a garnish.
Note: Do not pit, and chop them until you are ready to add them to the pot, to prevent them from turning brown.
16. Stir in the apricots and most of the chicken broth into the pot.
Tip: During the long braise, the fruit and vegetables will break down into a rich sauce.
Note: How much broth you will add will depend on how thick your shanks are. It is easy to add more, but hard to add less.
17. Return the lamb shanks to the pot in a single layer and rinse the juices on the plate into the pot with some more chicken broth.
Tip: Add enough broth so that the liquid level is about half way up the sides of the meat, but not submerging them entirely.
Note: The exposed meat will continue to brown (see Maillard reaction), even in the moist environment of the sealed pot.
18. Bring the pot to a boil, cover, and transfer it to a preheated 375º F oven.
19. Cook the shanks for one hour and then turn each shank over.
Tip: If too much liquid has evaporated, add a bit more broth or water.
20. Recover the pot and continue cooking, undisturbed, for another hour.
21. Remove the Dutch oven to the stove top and transfer the shanks back to the plate.
Tip: Fish around for the meaty bits and transfer them to the plate as well.
22. Use an immersion blender to process the contents of the pot into a smooth sauce.
Tip: Decide if your sauce is thick enough. Simmer on the stove to reduce the sauce, if you fee it is too thin, or stir in some more liquid, if you feel it is getting too thick.
Note: If you prefer a more rustic sauce, you may skip this step and simply stir the contents of the pot to blend the ingredients thoroughly.
23. Dip the most attractive side the lamb shanks into the sauce to coat it and then nestle each shank into the sauce with the “pretty” side up.
Tip: Don’t forget to return the meaty bits back to the pot—unless you have already been snacking on them—chef’s privilege.
24. Return the pot to the oven, uncovered, and continue cooking the shanks for 30 minutes.
Note: This time in the oven will deeply brown the tops of the shanks.
25. Pit and chop the remaining two apricots.
26. Remove the lamb shanks to a serving platter and tent with foil.
Tip: Adjust the seasoning and reduce or add liquid to the sauce as needed.
Note: I prefer to serve directly from the Dutch oven. I transferred the shanks back to the plate for this step.
27. Just before serving, stir the lemon juice into the sauce and spoon some of the sauce over the lamb shanks.
Note: I returned the shanks to the pot and splashed some of the sauce over the meat.
28. Garnish the lamb shanks with the chopped apricots and serve with any extra sauce on the side.