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Braised Lamb Shanks … it’s what’s for dinner

wine-braised lamb shank with pasta

It’s the first week of March, and here in Bakersfield we are between seasons.  The cold of winter is already a month behind us, our garden is overflowing with salad greens of all sizes shapes and colors, and we’ve had a handful of days in the past 3 weeks with temps over 70 degrees.  It feels like spring, it looks like spring, and it tastes like spring … scrumptious spring salads, tender fresh asparagus, and delicious spring lamb.

What’s not to love about lamb? Succulent, juicy, flavorful, and nutritious, with so many wonderful ways to prepare and present it. We grill it outdoors year-round, cook it Basque-style on a spit over an open fire in the summer and fall, and when it’s cold outside, we braise lamb shanks, which fills the house with the tantalizing aroma of fresh rosemary, thyme, and garlic. Last night, I made lamb shanks in a rich red wine sauce laced with carrots and mushrooms, served in bowls over gluten free pasta. Everyone was so eager to eat that I forgot to get a picture before the pasta was hidden beneath generous amounts of Parmesan cheese. Perhaps I need to keep the camera closer to the stove.

This is a fabulous meal that even beginning cooks can make. Braising — long slow cooking in liquid in a covered pot — turns even the toughest cuts of meat into tender umami-rich morsels. Don’t be intimidated by the number of steps in the recipe, I wanted to give very detailed directions for a basic braise that can be used with any kind of meat. This dish can be made a day or two ahead, so all you have to do is reheat it and serve. Like most stews and soups, the flavors improve overnight.

 

Braised Lamb Shanks

Ingredients

  • 2 to 4 lamb shanks (allow 1 per person, increase as needed)
  • 1/4 cup olive oil (or your choice of vegetable oil or lard)
  • 1 large onion (finely chopped)
  • 2 carrots (peeled and finely chopped)
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup celery with leaves (finely chopped)
  • 1/4 cup Italian flat leaf parsley (finely chopped)
  • 4 to 6 garlic cloves (finely chopped, use more or less to taste)
  • salt (to taste)
  • pepper (to taste)
  • 2 dried bay leaves
  • 1 bunch fresh thyme (handful or more, tied in a bundle)
  • 3 to 6 sprigs fresh rosemary (tied in a bundle)
  • 2 to 4 cups water or chicken broth (homemade or low sodium)
  • 1 1/2 to 3 cup dry red or white wine (I use Cabernet Sauvignon, Burgundy, Merlot, Shiraz, or any drinkable dry red table wine, but dry white wines (Sauvignon Blanc, Soave, Fume Blanc, Pinot Grigio) work equally well and make a lighter dish)
  • 4 to 8+oz mushrooms (cleaned and quartered, add more to taste)
  • 1 cup or more freshly grated Parmesan cheese (for garnish, pass at table)

Note

This is a fabulous dish that even beginning cooks can make. Don't be intimidated by the number of steps in the recipe, I wanted to give very detailed directions for a basic braise that can be used with any kind of meat.  Braising -- long slow cooking in liquid in a covered pot -- turns even the toughest cuts of meat into tender umami-rich morsels.  This dish can be made a day or two ahead, so all you have to do is reheat it and serve.  Like most stews and soups, the flavors improve overnight.

We have fresh herbs in our garden year-round, but you can substitute dried rosemary and thyme:  start with one tablespoon of each, taste after an hour, then add more if desired.  Bay leaf and parsley are optional.  Taste often ... salt and season as you cook, adding layers of flavor as you go, based on what tastes good to you.  This dish is always a hit with family and friends, and requires minimal prep and very little hands-on time.  I use my Mini Oscar food processor for chopping all of the veggies except the mushrooms ... easy peasy, and super fast!

Directions

Step 1 Pat lamb shanks dry and season with salt and pepper, then let sit at room temperature for approx. 30 minute, while prepping other ingredients.
Step 2 Heat 2 to 4 tablespoons olive oil in large heavy Dutch oven over medium high heat. Add lamb shanks and brown well, approx. 3 to 5 minutes per side. If they do not all fit in the pot, brown in batches. Remove to large bowl or plate and set aside.
Step 3 Pour 1/4 cup wine or water into pan to deglaze, scraping any browned bits loose.
Step 4 Add chopped onions, reduce heat to medium, and cook until soft and translucent, but not browned (5+ minutes). If necessary, add a bit more oil.
Step 5 Stir in chopped carrots, cover and cook 5 minutes, stirring once or twice. Add 1 tsp salt & several grinds of black pepper, then taste. Add more salt and pepper, if desired.
Step 6 Stir in chopped celery, Italian parsley, and garlic. Cook 1 to 2 minutes, until garlic softens and releases its aroma.
Step 7 Nestle herb bundles and bay leaves into veggies, and place browned lamb shanks on top, along with any juices from holding bowl. Pour in 1 1/2 cups of wine and 1 1/2 cups room temperature chicken broth/stock or water. (Optional: if using water, add a tsp or two of chicken stock base ... I like Better Than Bouillon). The lamb shanks should be about halfway submerged in the liquid. Add more wine, broth, or water as needed to maintain correct amount of liquid while cooking (I use more wine, as we like a hearty tasting stock).
Step 8 Increase heat to medium high, and bring to a low boil (do not cover). Using room temperature liquids and slowly bringing to a boil develops richer flavors.
Step 9 When stock reaches a boil, cover pot with a tight fitting lid, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 2 hours, turning shanks twice per hour for even cooking. Pot should be hot enough that small bubbles rise, but not hot enough to actively boil. Note: if your pot lid doesn't fit tightly, cover pot with aluminum foil before adding lid, to seal in steam.
Step 10 After 2 hours, taste braising liquid for seasoning, adding additional salt, pepper, wine, or stock to taste. Cover and continue cooking until meat is fork-tender, approx. 60 to 90 minutes, depending on size and number of shanks.
Step 11 When meat is fork tender, increase heat to medium and add quartered mushrooms. When stock comes to a boil, reduce heat to medium low, cover, and cook another 20 to 30 minutes. If you are serving your shanks over pasta, now is the time to start your pasta water.
Step 12 Remove shanks and cover to keep warm. Remove bay leaves and herb bundles. Taste broth and make any final seasoning adjustments. If desired, reduce broth over medium heat and/or thicken with potato starch or cornstarch (1 Tablespoon starch mixed into 3 Tablespoons cold water, then stirred into boiling stock).
Step 13 For a soup or stew -- or to extend the number of servings -- remove meat from bones, shred and return to stock. Or serve one lamb shank per person, over pasta, mashed potatoes, rice, or polenta, topped with a generous amount of stock and veggies. Top with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and serve.
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