Last week a friend e-mailed me a sketch of a lovely, snow-encased cabin set amidst a stand of birch trees, accompanied by a poem she said would be a lyrical comfort during our recent stretch of negative temperatures. 'Winter' was the verse's title, written by Abigail Elizabeth McIntyre. It went like this:
Good one, I thought. Sharing corny jokes is one way Wisconsinites deal with glacial blasts and interminable indoor living. Another is cooking, especially if it's something meaty, slow-simmered and served with mashed potatoes. Pot roast, ribs and sauerkraut, coq au vin ' these are braises, the dishes that cook unhurriedly in a Dutch oven and make you actually want to go out into the screeching wind so that you come back to a kitchen filled with celestial smells.
Like Midwestern humor, braising turns something tough into something very easy to take. Muscle-bound cuts such as pork butt, beef chuck or lamb shoulder are browned in fat (olive oil, bacon fat, clarified butter), enhanced with aromatics (herbs, onions, garlic) and combined with a small amount of flavorful liquid (wine, stock, beer). The meat then cooks gently and for an extended time, until the collagen in its connective tissues has dissolved into gelatin and it has become voluptuously tender, bathed in a silky sauce and delicious enough to make you laugh out loud.
A successful braise cooks in a heavy, heat-conducting vessel, one that's just large enough to hold the ingredients snugly. The pot must be tightly covered and the liquid maintained at a bare simmer, so that a steam-simmer effect is achieved. That way none of the meat's juices are lost, and they mingle with the braising liquid to give the dish deep character.
Lamb shanks are a particularly good choice for braising, in part because of lamb's complex, almost musky undertones, but also because shanks have enough inner fat and collagen to produce a markedly flavorful sauce with minimal liquid added (see recipe). The liquid you do add helps deglaze the pan, which brings up all the tasty bits that formed at the bottom during browning. To further intensify things you can reduce the sauce to a glaze-like consistency.
Some cooks then strain the sauce ' for looks, I suppose. But not me. I want every speck of flavor intact.
Self-Braised Lamb Shanks with Rosemary & Garlic
Locally raised lamb shanks are available by special order from Regent Market Co-op, and ' along with other braiseable lamb and beef cuts ' from Sylvan Meadows Farms at the Dane County Winter Farmers' Market.
2 lamb shanks, rinsed and well dried
salt and freshly ground black pepper
8-10 garlic cloves, peeled, ends trimmed1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
1/2 cup dry red wine
Heat a heavy pot over medium flame. Salt and pepper the lamb. Film bottom of the pot with olive oil; brown the shanks on all sides in the hot oil. Turn heat to very low, add garlic cloves and rosemary, and cover pot tightly. Cook shanks gently until very tender, about 2 hours, give or take. At first the meat will exude and then cook in its own juices. Check pot occasionally to be sure the simmer is a slow one, adjusting heat if necessary; also, turn the shanks occasionally, and, if the juices begin to evaporate, add a few tablespoons water.
When meat is done, transfer it to a platter. Let the pan juices rest off the heat a few moments, then spoon off visible fat. Raise heat to medium; stir in wine, scraping up tasty bits from the bottom. Mash the now-soft garlic cloves into the liquid and let it reduce until lightly thickened. Return meat to the pot, turning the shanks to coat them with sauce. Serve the meat, drizzled with sauce, alongside polenta or mashed potatoes. Makes 2 large servings.