Food: Braised lamb shanks
9 January, 2022, 2:42 pm
With the next round of government assistance in the hands of more than 200,000 Fijians, supermarkets have seen a run on groceries as people re-stock the house.
Chicken is no doubt the most affordable but many butchers are also selling goat and lamb on the bone.
Although a little more difficult to cook than poultry, these primal cuts of meats are perfect for braising or pressure cooking as the tough, muscled meat require much longer cooking times. Slow cooking techniques help the meat fall off the bone and allows the vegetables in the same pot to soak up flavours of the bones and juices.
Typically, it’s the tougher cuts of meat that benefit most from braising, and lamb shanks are one of my favourites.
The legs of animals are the hardest-working muscles on the animal’s body and need to cook for many hours over low heat, or pressure cooked in order for all the tough muscle and collagen to break down. The beauty of braising though, is that the dish, once it’s in the oven or on the stovetop, needs little attention.
You just have to make sure you have enough liquid and that it is bubbling away slowly. As an additional bonus, the meat on the shank surrounds a marrowbone, which adds deep flavour and body to your braising liquid while the meat cooks.
Long, slow cooking is best
Lamb shanks are perfect for the Fijian kitchen because they suit our way of slow cooking like the lovo and curries. Lamb shanks may not be as versatile as other cuts of lamb, but what it lacks in versatility, it makes up in flavour.
Needing little preparation, they’re best slowcooked over several hours, so that the meat falls off the bone. If someone asked you what part of the lamb the shank comes from, you’d probably guess right: It’s the lower part of the leg, from the knee down. Unlike lamb curry pieces, shanks are best cooked and served whole.
They look great on the plate and there is something prehistoric about eating meat off the bone. The muscly meat also peels away nicely when cooked whole, keeping the connective tissues in tact for a more textural experience.
Hidden flavours in the bone
With other cuts of lamb, you have some choices.
You can grill them, you can braise them, and you can mince them up and make burgers. With shanks, there is basically no choice.
You can either cook them for many hours, or you’ll break your teeth trying the get the meat off the bone. The same tough connective tissue that makes shanks an impossible part of the animal to sauté, makes them ideal for braising.
First you brown them, and then you stick them in a pot with some liquid.
Over the course of two hours, the rubbery, pale gristle slowly softens and grows transparent, giving up its prized collagen. By three hours, it has turned to soft, velvety gelatin, coating the threads of succulent muscle and flavoured by the crisp, melting exterior fat. Hmmm.
Once you understand the basic techniques of braising lamb shanks you can change the recipes to suit our local palate.
Tavu lovo style
Shanks are perfect for lovo as the earth-oven is designed to bake and steam at the same time, allowing hot moisture to help soften the lamb’s tough tissue. The secret to cooking lovo lamb shanks is to first tavu, or sear, the meat over charcoal for colour and flavour.
You then wrap the lamb in leaves, season with salt and pepper, and then grate fresh coconut inside the parcel with a generous amount of lemon juice, onions and chopped tomato. These ingredients add a familiar Pacific Island flavour and moisture to the shanks. Serve with coconut miti and cassava, and you will have turned your village lovo into a gourmet restaurant.
Lamb shank curry
If you have never tried whole lamb shanks in curry you are missing out on another wondrous way to enjoy this cut of meat.
Whilst lamb curry pieces remain the choice for most households, the meaty shank can transform a curry dish into something very special.
The method for braising is the same as a Western recipe except the liquid, instead of it being wine, is an aromatic curry sauce made from tempered spices, acidic tomatoes and yoghurt to help break down the connective tissues.
I like to rub my Indian-style lamb shanks with toasted cumin, black pepper and salt first. You can marinate the lamb overnight to allow the seasoning to penetrate. When ready, make your favourite masala sauce but ensure it is very saucy as there must be enough liquid to simmer over a few hours.
You then sear the lamb in a hot pan, transfer them to a baking dish or deep wide pot and pour over the sauce, making sure most of the meat is submerged during the braise.
Vietnamese lamb shanks
The flavour combination for a popular Vietnamese beef stew called bokho includes tomato, star anise, lemongrass and ginger.
It’s tangy, spicy, and savoury with a wonderful fragrance brought from a combination of Vietnamese, Chinese, and French ingredients and techniques. Although traditionally made with chunks of beef, the recipe is easily adapted for shanks.
The lamb is first seared and caramelised with an aromatic marinade of crushed lemongrass, fish sauce, Chinese five-spice powder, ginger and brown sugar which will fill the kitchen with the delectable aromas of its South East Asian origins.
You then add tomatoes, seasoning and water and wait for the magic of braising to happen. Once you understand the basic technique of braising, there are endless possibilities to turn lamb shanks into a popular night at home. And there may be good health and anti-aging reasons for enjoying lamb shanks.
For centuries, Chinese women have viewed collagen as a “Fountain of Youth”, routinely consuming foods like donkey skin in hopes of smoothing withered skin and preserving aging joints.
We don’t have donkeys in Fiji but the collagen- endowed lamb shanks may just satisfy those in search of everlasting youth.
LANCE SEETO is the host of FBC-TV’s Exotic Delights and chef/owner of KANU Gastropub in Nadi
Recipes By Lance Seeto
North african lamb shanks
Bold North African flavours sing in this substantial lamb dish using
a pressure cook to shorten the cooking time.
1 tbsp. olive oil
2 lamb shanks
1 onion, minced
1 tsp. garlic, minced
2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. ground allspice
2 tsp. smoked paprika
1 cup broth or stock, chicken or beef
1 can diced tomatoes
2 tbsp. sweet paprika powder
juice of half a lemon
1 tsp. sea salt and several grinds black pepper
yogurt and fresh mint to garnish
- Sear the lamb shanks.
- Sauté onion and garlic.
- Add spices.
- De-glaze the pot with broth or stock. Stir to remove browned
bits. Add diced tomatoes, harissa, and the lemon juice. Season
with salt and pepper.
- Add lamb shanks back into the pot. If using an electric pressure
cooker use the “manual” option to set for 50 minutes under
- If using a stove top model, turn the dial to high pressure, and the
stove to high heat. When the pot is pressurized, the pressure
button will pop out. Turn heat to medium low, just high enough
to keep that pressure button up. You want to keep the cooker at
constant high pressure for 50 minutes. Turn off the heat.
- Allow pressure to remain for 10 minutes and then release.
- Leave the lid on the pot until you are ready to serve.
Braised lamb shanks with gremolata
This is a very basic formula for braising lamb shanks is simple
but perfect. Using nothing but common aromatics from around the
house and some minimal prep time, you can get this braise started,
have an excellent nap and wake up to a nearly ready dinner. It takes
two minutes to make the gremolata, so don’t skip it. It’s aggressive
and herbal and pungent, the perfect contrast for every soft and
mellow bite of lamb shank.
4 meaty lamb shanks
Fresh-ground black pepper
Virgin olive or coconut oil
2 onions, peeled and cut into large pieces
2 carrots, peeled and cut into large pieces
1 head of garlic, cut in half
1 small dried chili pepper
4 black peppercorns
1 rosemary sprig
1 bay leaf
3/4 cup white wine
2 medium tomatoes or half of a 14.5-ounce can organic whole tomatoes,
cored and chopped
2 cups chicken broth or coconut bu water
For The Gremolata
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 teaspoon grated or finely chopped lemon zest
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- Trim any excess fat from the shanks. Season with salt and pepper,
the day before if possible.
- Into a heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat, pour
enough oil to generously cover the bottom of the pan. Add the
shanks and brown them well on all sides for approx. 10 minutes.
- When the shanks are brown, remove them from the pan, pour
out most of the fat, and add the onions, carrots, garlic, chilli,
peppercorns, rosemary and bay leaf. Cook for a few minutes,
stirring now and then, until the vegetables soften.
- Add the wine and tomatoes. Turn up the heat to reduce the wine
and scrape up any brown bits from the bottom of the pan. When
the wine has reduced by half, put the shanks back in the pan and
pour in the broth or bu water. The liquid should come about halfway
up the sides of the shanks. Bring to a boil and immediately
turn down the heat, cover and cook for 2.5 to 3 hours at a bare
simmer, on the stovetop or in a 175-degree oven. When braising
in the oven, remove the cover for the last 20 minutes of cooking
to brown the meat a little. The lamb should be meltingly tender
and falling off the bones.
- To make the gremolata, simply mix together the parsley, lemon
zest and garlic.
Vietnamese lamb shanks with
star anise and lemongrass
4 lamb shanks
2 stalks lemongrass stem (not the leaves), trimmed, cut into 4-inch
lengths, and bruised with the side of a cleaver or a meat tenderizer
2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
2 teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder
1/4 cup peeled and minced fresh ginger
2 1/2 teaspoons brown sugar
2 bay leaves
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 cups peeled, seeded and chopped fresh tomato, or 2 1/4 cups
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 star anise
5 cups water or bu water
500gm carrots, peeled and cut on the diagonal into 1-inch-thick
- In a bowl, combine the lemongrass, fish sauce, five-spice powder,
ginger, brown sugar, and bay leaf. Mix well. Add the shanks
and use your hands to ensure that they are evenly coated. Set
aside to marinate for 30 minutes.
- In a heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil over high heat until hot
but not smoking. Working in batches, add the shanks and sear
on all sides, then transfer to a plate. Each batch should take
about 3 minutes. Reserve the marinade in the bowl. .
- Lower the heat to medium-low, add the onion, and cook, gently
stirring, for 4 to 5 minutes, or until fragrant and soft. Add the
tomato and salt and stir to combine. Cover and cook for 12 to
14 minutes, or until the mixture is fragrant and has reduced to a
rough paste. Check occasionally to make sure the tomato mixture
is not sticking to the bottom of the pan. If it is, stir well and
splash in some water.
- When the paste has formed, transfer half of it to a bowl and set
aside briefly. Add the shanks, along with the reserved marinade
and star anise.
- Cook, uncovered, for another 5 minutes to allow the flavours to
meld and penetrate the lamb. Add enough water to just cover
the shanks, bring to a boil, cover, lower the heat to a simmer,
and cook for 2 hours, or until the lamb is tender.