In Braise of Spring

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One of the best things you can do as a cook is to break out of thinking in terms of four seasons. Not to say that you shouldn’t cook seasonally: it’s a gift to have seasons, and a joy to adapt our cooking as they change. What I’m suggesting is to be mindful of the seasons within a season.

Take April. Here in the north, we’re anxious for local asparagus and fresh peas. We want ramps and favas. But they’re not here yet. At the same time, we’re maybe a little tired of big chunks of beef short ribs braised in red wine, served atop a mound of mashed potatoes… drool-worthy as that is.

Well, let’s make the best of it. Here are some tips – and a recipe – to recalibrate your comfort food as the days grow longer and the sun takes the chill out of the air, for a few hours a day, at least.

1. The Other Red Meat

Lamb is synonymous with spring, and lamb shanks and shoulder can make silky, delicate braises that have an almost floral aroma. They’re cheap, often sustainably and humanely raised, and they’re better made ahead and reheated. Like the cow says: eat more lamb.

2. Lighter Colours, Brighter Flavours

If you’re used to braising meat in red wine with a rich beef stock, try going lighter with each of those elements. The braised lamb shank recipe below uses white wine, a light beef stock (you could use veal or even chicken stock), and canned tomatoes. The result is a cleaner, brighter braise that really lets the delicate lamb flavour shine.

3. Add Acid

Fans of Samin Nosrat’s “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” (an amazing cookbook and Netflix series) know that acid brings the top notes to the orchestra. Add a bit of red wine vinegar to brighten up a muted sauce. Drizzle a tiny bit of awesome, unctuous balsamic vinegar atop your plated lamb. Hit it with a drizzle of bright, grassy olive oil if you like: there’s acid and other fresh compounds in that, too. Thinly slice some rounds of red onion and marinate them in slightly diluted vinegar for 20 minutes, and scatter those atop your lamb… or your salad, or your taco…

4. Juice It

Hands-down the best lamb shank dish I’ve ever made had a sauce based on yellow beet juice that also uses several of the tricks above: a chicken jus, vinegar, and more acid in the form of tart, floral elderflower cordial. Granted, that’s not the simplest dish, but you can take it as a jumping-off point. No yellow beet juice? Grab some pomegranate juice and use that, either in your braising liquid (in place of tomatoes) or reduce some of it and drizzle it on top. Pantry-friendly pomegranate molasses is a nice substitution for that drizzle, too – just loosen it with a little water.

My version of Noma’s lamb shank. Those thin slices of beet are lightly pickled. Zing!

5. Delayed Veggie Gratification

For good reason, we get used to one-pot stews with carrots and turnips bubbling away alongside the meat. But there’s a strong argument for keeping at least some of the veggies separate, to add a distinct, clean, green note to the dish. Easiest of all is to simmer some frozen peas. There’s no shame in that. Maybe add a few pearl onions, if you have those… simmer them in a little salty water sparked up with white wine vinegar until they’re tender. Drain them, hit them with some butter, pepper, salt and chopped mint. Niiiiice. You can treat little radishes the same way! Those cute, little Japanese white Hakurei turnips? If you’re breaking quarantine to go to your chi-chi organic veggie mart, you might as well do the same with those. Is asparagus already out where you are? You, kid, are golden. You could steam some tips and scatter those on top. Or you could – hold on to your undergarments – boil the tough stems (the ones you would normally throw away), puree them, strain them through your sieve to get rid of the strand-y bits, season and butter that and serve your lamb on top of it. Mind = blown.

6. Use Herbs with Abandon

The aforementioned Samin Nosrat has also popularized Persian cuisine, in which herbs are much more than an afterthought or a garnish. Lamb loves a shower of dill. A barrage of mint. A fusillade of parsley. Mix them up if you want. There are no wrong answers. Chop up some celery leaves and throw those in while you’re at it. Pomegranate seeds – or arils, as they insist on being called – gild the lily.

Recipe: Early Spring Braised Lamb Shanks

Serves 2 (to serve four, double the lamb shanks but keep other amounts the same)

I’m going to do this in granular detail because you’re new here (we’re all new here). This is my generic “bright braise” recipe, plus or minus the rosemary and orange.

  • 2 Demure little lamb shanks
  • 1 C stock (lamb, light beef, veal, or roasted chicken)
  • 1 C drinkable white wine
  • 1 C canned tomatoes with their juices
  • 1 large carrot, sliced 1/4 inch thick
  • 2 celery stalks, sliced 1/4 inch thick
  • 1 leek, sliced 1/4 inch thick
  • 1 large shallot, sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, sliced thick
  • 3 anchovy fillets
  • 1 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 long, thick strip orange zest
  • 1/2 orange, cut into 6 or so chunks
  • A few sprigs of parsley
  • A sprig of thyme
  • A small spring (thumb-length) of rosemary
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Salt, pepper, olive oil

In a heavy pan that will ideally just fit the lamb shanks, heat a thick slick of olive oil over medium-high heat. Salt and pepper your lamb shanks with gusto. Brown them on two sides (three, if they’re of a mind to balance themselves) in the hot olive oil, in two batches if necessary to avoid crowding them.

Pour off all but 1 Tbsp of fat from the pan. Reduce the heat to medium. Put the carrot, celery, leek, shallot and garlic in the pan. Stir those around occasionally for about 5 minutes, using a sturdy, flat-headed spoon or spatula to scrape the bottom of the pan so the veggie juices release any golden brown goodness from the lamb.

Make a little clearing in the middle of the veggies, and introduce your anchovy fillets and tomato paste. Smush them around for a minutes, and the anchovy fillets will dissolve and the tomato paste will turn brick-red. Are you anchovy-averse? Courage! This will all be worth it, I promise.

Put the rest of the ingredients in the pan, and raise the heat to medium-high. Boil the contents for about 5 minutes to evaporate some of the alcohol from the wine and to concentrate the liquid a bit. Ideally, it should come about 1/2 way up the side of the lamb shanks. Mine came 3/4 up, and the world didn’t end.

Cover the pan and put it in a 275’F oven for 3 to 4 hours. Flip the shanks over at the 1.5 hour mark and see how they’re coming along. Check again at 3 hours and give them another 30-60 minutes as needed. A skewer should go through the thick part of the meat with little resistance, but you don’t want to cook this until it collapses into wet shreds.

When it’s done, remove it from the oven. Let it rest for half an hour… this prevents the meat from seizing up and drying out.

Set the meat aside somewhere cosy. Strain the juices, ideally into a gravy separator. If you want a more rustic sauce, remove the orange zest and herb sprigs and put the veggies in a sieve or food mill, forcing through the tender bits. Mix these up with the defatted cooking juices and taste for seasoning. If you want a lighter sauce, take the defatted juices and put them in a saucepan. Taste them for seasoning. If they’re too salty, add a little stock or water. If they’re weak, you can either boil them down a bit to concentrate them, or, if you’re already happy with the viscosity, season them up. If they’re nicely seasoned but too liquid, take a couple of teaspoons of corn starch, make a slurry of that with some cold water, drizzle that into the saucepan, and bring it to a boil. Repeat as necessary.

Garnish as desired! I made gremolata: a few tablespoons of chopped parsley, a clove of minced garlic, and a teaspoon or so of finely shredded lemon zest. Serve with baked, boiled or mashed potatoes, polenta, or crusty bread.

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