Lamb Shanks Reveal a Softer, Subtler Side

 , The New York Times  |  Updated: November 05, 2014 11:23 IST

Lamb Shanks Reveal a Softer, Subtler Side
Rare-grilled lamb chops or a roasted leg of lamb can be delightful and are easy to cook if you're in a hurry. But with a little planning, you'll find it's the shank of the lamb that deserves the most praise. Careful, slow simmering will coax lamb shanks to a flavorful succulence far superior to other cuts.

Long braising shows off the lovely silky, almost-sticky texture that is their trademark.
Lamb shanks are versatile, too, easily adaptable to recipes from many different cuisines. Employing a heady Persian spice mixture, for instance, makes a lamb shank braise that is complex and nuanced. The flavors are balanced, with subtle hints of orange, lime, saffron, cinnamon and dried rosebuds.

I'm lucky to count some Iranian-Americans among my circle of friends and acquaintances. Every one of them is a passionate cook, and when they talk about Persian food, they seem to glow with excitement. Listening to them reminisce about food from their childhoods and the festive food served for holidays makes me hungry.

My friend Andy Baraghani, a talented local chef, has taught me that Persian cuisine, though it uses lots of spices, is never overspiced, and the use of hot pepper is rare. Fresh, light and healthy is an accurate description. A meal always has an accompaniment of green herbs of all sorts - basil, parsley, dill, cilantro, tarragon, garden cress, mint, fenugreek sprigs and chives, along with scallions and radishes. He tells me that his father, who prefers to have his main meal of the day in the afternoon, has just tea and a platter of herbs in the evening.Rice, a Basmati type, is also a permanent presence, whether served on the side or as part of a dish. On any given day, it may be plain buttered rice, but it is often stained yellow with a drizzle of saffron water. Or it is embellished with the traditional crisp buttery bottom called tahdig. For the method, you can consult my recipe for Persian jeweled rice, made with dried fruits.

Sweet spiced aromas waft through my kitchen as my lamb shanks simmer in the oven. I'm nibbling pistachios and sipping cool water flavored with a few drops of rosewater. There's a basket of pomegranates, oranges and limes on the table. I'll sit here for a while, anticipating a fine dinner with a Persian accent.

Persian-Spiced Lamb Shanks
Time: 2 1/2 hours

4 meaty lamb shanks (ask for the hind shanks), about 4 1/2 to 5 pounds
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground rosebuds, optional
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon turmeric
Vegetable oil
1/4 teaspoon crumbled saffron
Juice of 2 limes, about 4 tablespoons
3 teaspoons rosewater, available from Middle Eastern grocery shops
1 large onion, roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground dried lime, or the zest of 1 fresh lime
Zest of 1 orange, plus 1 tablespoon more for garnish
A few thyme sprigs
2 fresh bay leaves
6 cups hot chicken broth or water
2 tablespoons roughly chopped parsley, for garnish
2 tablespoons roughly chopped mint or dill, for garnish

1. Trim any excess fat from lamb shanks and season generously with salt. Mix together the cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, rosebuds (if using), black pepper and turmeric. Sprinkle evenly over shanks and rub into meat. Let sit at room temperature at least an hour, or wrap and refrigerate overnight, then bring to room temperature.

2. Place a Dutch oven or deep, heavy pot over medium-high heat and add oil to a depth of 1/2 inch. When oil is hot, add two lamb shanks and fry until nicely browned on all sides, about 5 minutes. Remove and set aside, then brown the two remaining shanks.

3. Meanwhile, put saffron in a small bowl with lime juice, 2 teaspoons rosewater and 1/2 cup warm water. Let steep for 10 minutes. Heat oven to 350 degrees.

4. Carefully remove all but 2 tablespoons oil from Dutch oven. Add chopped onion and cook
over medium heat until softened and lightly colored, 8 to 10 minutes. Season onion with salt, then add lime zest, orange zest, thyme sprigs and bay leaves. Stir in saffron mixture. Lay in the lamb shanks and add the broth. Bring to a boil, then turn off heat and cover pot.

5. Transfer pot to oven and bake for about 1 1/2 hours, covered, until meat is tender when probed and beginning to fall from the bone. Remove lamb shanks to a deep serving dish and keep warm. Strain braising juices through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, pressing with a wooden spoon to obtain all the liquid (discard thyme, bay leaves and onions). Skim fat, then taste and add salt if necessary. Add 1 more teaspoon rosewater, if desired. Reheat strained juices and pour over lamb shanks. Combine parsley, mint and reserved orange zest and sprinkle over top.

6. Use a large spoon to break the tender shank meat into large chunks. Serve in low, wide soup plates, giving each portion a spoonful of the juices. Accompany with steamed basmati rice, lavash flatbread or a loaf of crusty French bread.

Note: Some brands of rosewater are more strongly perfumed than others. Use sparingly at first, then add more to taste.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
And to Drink ...

Lamb is a delicious but straightforward match with many red wines. Add the mildly sweet, slightly fruity, complex Persian spicing, and the selection becomes a little more complicated. Fruity reds with a suggestion of spicy sweetness come to mind, especially Mediterranean grenache-based wines (garnacha, if they happen to come from Spain). I would look at southern Rhônes, like Gigondas and Vacqueyras, or restrained grenaches from California. I would also consider fruity carignan-based wines from Languedoc or Sardinia. Easygoing pinot noirs and Beaujolais would also work well. Some offbeat options would go beautifully, including sweet whites enriched with botrytis, the famous noble rot. These include Tokaji Aszu from Hungary and Sauternes. Last and perhaps best of all would be good oloroso sherry, which is made to go with a dish like this. - ERIC ASIMOV

Comments© 2014 New York Times News Service

For the latest food news, health tips and recipes, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter and YouTube.