It might just be time to post some recipes around here, don't you think? I mean, we do like to cook, and food and travel get along rather nicely.
These lamb shanks have a 100% success rate, but to be fair, I only cooked them once. So continue at your own risk. You'll need a slow cooker and ideally access to a real butcher, alive and kicking. You know, one with portions of beef carcass hanging in the back, who is always cleaning his hands on a kitchen towel and yet still happens to have blood under his fingers. An incredibly skilled man with a serious blade, who has kind eyes and a good sense of meat humor. But most of all, a butcher who honestly wants to provide you with the highest quality sustenance. Well, maybe that's a tall order. Let's make things simpler. Get some good lamb shanks any which way you can. I'll tell you about this local butcher here in England, a fine land full of good grub (among plenty of other wonderful things).
If you've never considered a lamb shank, consider this: neither had I, until our butcher suggested we give them a try. We brought them home, cooked them slowly, and they rewarded us with fork tender meat, flavorful and succulent but not at all gamey. The prep took about 45 minutes in the beginning, and 15 at the end. If you're at home while they're cooking, add a few minutes in for peeking.
Our local butcher is the traditional kind. Except, instead of in the good old days where you could simply call your wares "meat," our butcher hangs a sign outside proclaiming the grassfed-ness of his beef and lamb and the pasture-ness of his poultry and pork.
Chris introduced us to his small shop one day when we were walking by. We picked up some sausage, minced beef, and a whole chicken. You know, the most nonthreatening foodstuffs you can encounter in a butcher shop. He was affable and eager to help — even offering to call up a local real estate agency when we mentioned we were looking for a place to live.
When we got home and cooked up our purchases, they were something to write home about. The free-range chicken roasted up tender and flavorful, and was well balanced in the breast-to-thigh ratio. The minced beef was also exceptionally flavorful, like only aged grassfed beef can be. It was slightly tacky and yielded gently to a thumb press, where the unaged stuff from a supermarket can be very wet and squishy. The resulting burgers were awesome. And considering we eat our burgers without buns or basically any dressings, I think I can say that with confidence.
The main difference between supermarkets and butchers, which I've learned from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's The River Cottage MEAT Book, is that good butchers dry age the old-fashioned way. They have the chops to do it right, and they're a dying breed. Which is why we should seek out their products and support their local businesses. Supermarkets many times age their factory meat vacuum-sealed in its own bloody juices, which affects both the taste and quality of an already inferior product. Instead of circulating air around the muscle, they pump in gases to preserve the meat. And while a butcher has the know-how to cut up a carcass without waste, the supermarkets many times go for the main muscle cuts and use a high powered hose to clean up the remaining bits, which get turned into a slurry that goes into sausages and pies and things. Lovely. This means they can employ unskilled laborers and still make money off of all those scraps.
So we kept going back. In addition to the meat, we enjoy our butcher's cheekiness, general ease, and enthusiasm towards walking in the Downs. It's so rare to find a purveyor who genuinely cares about his customers.
When you enter his shop, there's a list posted on the wall of all the wonderful cuts he has — all manner of pork, beef, and lamb. Some wild game can also be ordered in advance. Some of the best sellers these days, like bacon, chicken breasts, minced meat, pies, and the like can be found in the butcher case or the adjacent freezer. But many of the real cuts are in his back room. To those used to plastic wrapped meats with brightly colored price tags, this might result in a dilemma of sorts. For us, it's an opportunity. It means we get to speak with our butcher. We tell him our likes and dislikes and trust his opinion. He in turn educates us on the world of a carnivore and exposes us to new cuts. Since his quality is very high (and we always go for the cheap cuts, anyway), we don't generally ask about price. Cuts can be daunting, but speaking in preparations and tastes is not. For instance, sometimes we come in and say we want to make a hearty stew with carrots and parsnips. Another day, we might want to grill. On our lamb shank day, it went something like this:
He was bending down when we walked in. He looked up and smiled warmly. "Well, hello. How are you? Nice weather today, isn't it? Not sunny, though."
"Well, it can't be sunny every day," I said. "What can I do for you?" he asked. "We now have a mini oven and a slow cooker, and we were thinking..." I leaned in conspiratorially, "of cooking a joint." "What kind?" he asked. "An animal one," came the reply. He smiled. "I was wondering what animal. How about lamb?" "Lamb sounds good," Matt and I both said. He reached into the case and pulled out a large joint. "Well, here's a lamb joint. It's the shoulder and part of the neck." He paused and surveyed the case a bit more, considering his options. "Actually, would be you be interested in lamb shanks?" Next to the joint, he pulled a nobbly looking piece out of a steel tray where it was stacked with its like kind. "They're cheaper, but if you slow cook them, they're just as good." Matt and I nodded enthusiastically.
We went on to more simple matters, like chuck stew meat. Then we got on to the subject of (beef) soup bones. He said because the weather was warm, everyone was more into chicken and lamb. But he'd save them for us, and let us know when he had enough. He said he might have some trotters, if we'd be interested. We'd never had them, but of course we'd give them a try, we told him.
"Did you know there are 32 bones in a trotter?" he asked. "No!" we said in unison. "There are. Once, we cooked one and cut it apart and counted all the bones. That's a bit of useless information, isn't it?" he asked us. Matt wondered aloud, "Do you know how many bones are in the human foot?". "I don't know," our butcher said, "I've never cooked one."
Slow cooked lamb shanks
Lamb shanks. Say it with me. Lamb shanks. When I think of lamb, mint and jelly obviously come to mind. But also pistachios and dried fruit, rosemary, garlic, red wine, earthy spices with a little heat, maybe some saucy tomato bits, orange and parsley.
To put this together, I first tracked down a few recipes online (here, here, here and here.) The changes I made are basically what I've learned with slow cooking and stews — braising the meat can make for wonderful texture, but pre-cooking the vegetables is pretty fussy. I added in the spring onions because it sounded more interesting than leek, and the apricots because, well, apricots!
Our shanks came out fork tender with a lot of flavor, and the sauce was a wonderful complement, very earthy and a bit sweet.
3 grass fed lamb shanks (this is what our butcher had, you could probably do four)
Freshly ground black pepper
Ghee, cooking olive oil or coconut oil
1 cup red wine
3 cups chicken stock, heated (can also use some water)
2 teaspoons dried thyme
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 medium onion, 1/2" dice
Whites of 4 spring onions, sliced (or 1 leek, cut lengthwise and sliced*)
1 tomato, chopped
3 medium-sized carrots, cut on the bias into 3/4" rounds
3 apricots, finely chopped
4 whole cloves garlic, gently crushed under a knife
1 clove garlic, sliced (optional)
1 tablespoon salt
30 grinds of black pepper
* Slice the leek lengthwise and then into thin segments. Place the cut leek in a bowl of water and let sit for a few minutes, until the dirt settles, then drain.
Brown the shanks. Season your shanks liberally with salt and pepper.
Get your cast iron or other heavy bottomed skillet. Heat a glob of fat in the pan, get it good and hot, and brown the lamb shanks on all sides, about 8-10 minutes. Place them in the slow cooker.
Deglaze. Deglaze the skillet with the wine. Add in the thyme and the apricots and allow to cook for a few minutes. Add the stock and allow to come to a boil. Add to the cooker.
Add the vegetables. Add all the remaining ingredients. The water should come up halfway around the shanks.
Slow cook. Follow set instructions for your cooker and cook on medium - high for 4 hours, until the shanks are falling off the bone. Turn the cooker to warm.
On the stove cook. Simmer the shanks until they're done.
Reduce the sauce. Remove the shanks to a plate. Strain the sauce into a heavy-bottomed pot. Place the vegetables (from your strainer) and shanks back into the cooker. Reduce the sauce until thickened or as desired, about 10 minutes.
Serve. Serve the shank and vegetables over rice and top with the sauce.
Note on lower temp cooking: If you're setting the cooker overnight, you could easily set it on a lower setting and allow it to cook for longer. Keep it on warm until you're ready to eat, at which time you can strain and reduce the sauce.
In other news, life is good. Let me count the ways...