Cooking, Savory

Lamb Shanks and Cubebs

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned here before, I love lamb. I like beef okay if the cut is right, if the cow is right, if the preparation is right. But in almost every circumstance, if you want to please me by serving me red meat, I’d rather have a good piece of lamb. Lamb has a more complex, delicate flavor. It’s a little bit gamy, it’s a little bit sweet, and it tastes a little bit like a grassy meadow. In a good way. And best of all, compared to beef, many of the best cuts of lamb are pretty cheap.

Which brings me to lamb shanks. Shanks, which come from the upper, less desirable portion of the leg, are among the least expensive cuts you can buy. And prepared right, they are among the tastiest. Cooked rare, they are tough — too tough to eat. But the same thing that makes them tough — the connective tissue, the fact that they come from a high-use muscle, etc. — makes them more flavorful than meat cut from other parts. And cooked slowly, in liquid, at low temperatures, their connective tissue dissolves, and they become tender and buttery and yum. My favorite way to achieve this is by braising shanks in the oven. I did a braise of this sort last night which came out particularly well, and I thought I’d share the recipe. So …

Lamb Shanks with Cubebs*

4 Lamb Shanks

1 carrot, diced finely
2 stalks celery, diced finely
1 medium onion, diced finely
1 leek, sliced
3 cloves of garlic, whole

3 cups beef stock
1 cup red wine
1/4 cup brandy

2 tsp. cubeb, crushed
1 tsp. peppercorns, crushed
5 star anise pods
2-3 bay leaves
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1-2 tsp thyme

ground pepper
olive oil

1 tsp. flour
1 tsp. butter, at room temp.

Preheat your oven to 325F. On your stovetop, heat a dutch oven (or other deep, heavy, lidded pan) over a medium flame with enough olive oil to coat the bottom. Season your lamb shanks with salt and ground pepper and lay them in the dutch oven, browning them thoroughly (3-4 minutes per side). Remove the lamb shanks and set aside.

Without adding any new fat, add your carrot, celery, onion, and leek, and cook until the onions and celery are translucent, and the leeks are very soft. Add your garlic, crushed cubeb, crushed peppercorns, star anise, bay leaves, cinnamon, thyme, and about 1 tsp. of salt, and continue to cook for about three minutes. Then lay your lamb shanks back in the pan and pour on your beef stock, wine, and brandy. Stir, scraping the bottom to dislodge any browned leftover bits that might be stuck there. And when your liquid gets close to a boil, cover the dutch oven, and place in the oven for 3-3.5 hours.

At the end of that time, remove from the oven. Carefully remove the lamb shanks (which should now be very tender, and on the verge of falling apart) and wrap them loosely in foil to keep them warm. Strain your braising liquid into a saucepan to remove as many of the solids as possible. And cook the liquid, on high, until it reduces by half. In the meanwhile, thoroughly mix your flour and butter with a fork to form a buerre manie. Toss the buerre manie into the boiling liquid, and whisk until it has completely dissolved. This should thicken your sauce just a bit.

When the braising liquid has cooked down to the consistency of a thin gravy, check it for adequate salt, then return the lamb shanks to the (now empty) dutch oven, pour over the sauce, and serve immediately.

This seems like a dish that takes an awfully long time to do. But all in all, the actual time when you have to attend to it is probably no more than a half hour. The rest is just waiting for it to be done.

* Cubeb is also known as tailed pepper. It is related to the black pepper that we ordinarily use. But it’s flavor and aroma are more complex, and maybe a bit sweeter. According to the Wikipedia, some people describe it as tasting like a cross between allspice and black pepper. But I don’t have a good enough grasp on the taste of allspice to make that comparison. It is a spice that is popular in some North African cuisine, and used to be very popular in Europe, in the Middle Ages, before it fell into obscurity.