I was chatting with the butcher at my neighborhood grocery store about lamb on a recent visit. I wanted to do a simple braise-stew but time was short, didn’t want to fiddle with trimming shoulder (blade) meat from the bone, nor rely on leaner leg steaks that are less unctuous for braising. He told me that some English customers mentioned they braise the whole bone-in shoulder steaks and later just lift out the bones when the meat’s all delightfully tender. (He also told me that he’s never tried the prep, since he doesn’t like lamb. How’s that possible? And a butcher, to boot?!) Bingo!! I now have a new favorite quickie dinner plan in my repertoire.
That afternoon I salt-and-pepper seasoned the lamb and browned the steaks in a deep sauté pan. Out came the steaks, in went some chopped onion and garlic to sauté, with a couple bay leaves (could also add other herbs or veg on hand; diced carrot and/or fennel bulb would be tasty). I squeezed in juice from a small lemon, then tossed in the rind too. A generous pinch of salt and pepper as well.
I added the lamb back to the pan with whatever juices collected on the plate, and added a generous swig of dry vermouth (dry white wine good too), popped on the lid and got back to work for a couple hours while the meat slowly braised over low heat. Later, I drained and rinsed a can of chickpeas and scattered them into the pan. I then left the lid a bit to one side, so some of the liquid evaporated, thickening the cooking liquids a bit. By the time the bones were easy to lift out with a pair of tongs, the meat is also tender enough to break into large pieces if you like, for a more stew-like presentation. Or lift out the steaks in whole pieces and serve plated with the reduced braising ingredients spooned over. Painless, easy, and delicious!
I do really love lamb, the flavor and versatility of the various cuts is just out of this world. Which is why I’m so looking forward to being a judge at the Lamb Jam later in October, a lamb-pa-loosa with Seattle area chefs cooking up their best lamb dishes to wow us judges. Bring it on! You can attend and get a sample of their lamb craft as well, tickets just $30.
I don’t recall much lamb in the kitchen when I was growing up, but the lamb file in my file drawer is pretty full, including a typed ring-bound San Juan Islands Lamb Cookbook with a few dozen recipes compiled by the San Juan County Lamb and Wool Producers, dated summer 1987. (Wool brings up a whole other story, for another time perhaps, but it was a winter trip to Lopez Island and a holiday bazaar with yarn spun from Lopez sheep that turned me into a mad knitter!)
Lamb certainly figured in many of the recipes in the school repertoire at La Varenne, my favorite being navarin d’agneau, a rich stew with lots of vegetables we all worked to perfect knowing it might show up on one of the practical exams. A friend in Pittsburgh shared this link to an article about Julia Child’s connection with a local lamb farmer and their favorite Julia-inspired roasted leg of lamb recipe. From that simplicity to the more elaborate Lebanese kibbi preparation with ground lamb, bulghur, spices and pine nuts, I don’t think I’ve met a lamb dish I didn’t like.
Braised lamb shanks are a sure favorite around this house. They shine in simple preparation, braised with wine and/or broth, aromatic vegetables, herbs, subtle flavors that emphasize the lamb character. But then again, one of the most memorable recipes from years of testing restaurant recipes is the Coconut Curried Lamb Shanks from Luau Polynesian Lounge, contributed to the Best Places Seattle Cookbook I did with Kathy Casey back in 2001. It’s got a lot of bold flavors, both in the braising liquids and in the coconut-ginger salsa that accompanies the shanks for serving. But man, was it delicious! I haven’t made this for a while, but may have to whip it up again soon.
Coconut Curried Lamb Shanks (from Luau Polynesian Lounge)
4 lamb shanks (about 1 lb each)
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 can (14 oz) unsweetened coconut milk
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup Thai fish sauce (nam pla)
3 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons red curry paste
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
5 star anise
Coconut Ginger Salsa
1 cup freshly grated coconut
3 tablespoons chopped pickled ginger
2 tablespoons minced lemongrass
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
1/2 habanero chile, cored, seeded, and minced (or to taste)
Juice of 1 lime
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 325°F.
For the salsa, combine the coconut, ginger, lemongrass, cilantro, chile, and lime juice with salt and pepper to taste. Stir to mix well and set aside.
Season the lamb shanks well with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large, heavy pot, such as a Dutch oven, over medium-high heat. Add 2 of the shanks and brown them well on all sides, about 5 minutes total. Set them aside on a plate and brown the remaining 2 shanks. Return the first shanks to the pan (with any juices that have collected on the plate) and add the coconut milk, soy sauce, fish sauce, honey, red curry paste, cilantro, coriander seeds, and star anise. Add cold water just to cover the shanks and bring to a boil over high heat. Cover the pot and braise the lamb shanks in the oven until very tender, about 3 hours.
Transfer the lamb shanks to a platter and cover with foil to keep warm. Skim the fat from the surface of the braising liquid, then strain the liquid through a sieve. Return the liquid to the pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the liquid until slightly thickened, about 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning, adding salt or pepper to taste. Pour some of the cooking liquids over the lamb shanks and spoon the coconut-ginger salsa alongside.
Makes 4 servings