I adore lamb shanks - even as a child. When I eat them gray clouds depart, the rain stops and on occasion I hear music. I love them that much. In a perfect world they are small, less than a pound but better closer to three quarters of a pound. They ideally come from the front leg and are called fore shanks, not the pseudo/imposter shank cut off the rear leg.
They need to be browned in a small amount of olive oil and braised slowly in stock or water to release their rustic flavor and to make them melt into tenderness. My mother always braised them in garlic, oregano, onions and chopped whole tomatoes. It was the scent of our home growing up. She’d slowly braise them on the stove for at least an hour and then placed the shanks onto raw rice and ladled the remaining liquid on top and baked them covered in the oven. When you could smell the rice, it was done but it still needed to rest for 15 more long minutes.
Our mother used ‘Greek rice.’ Lord only knows what that was. My guess is that it was long grain Basmati rice from India. No one ate much rice in Maine in those days. Our mother and my sister and I went on food shopping trips once a month to Boston. She’d order up a taxi from the doorman at the Parker House Hotel to take us to the less-safe area of Boston and have the taxi wait while we filled our shopping cart with small brown bags of ‘Greek rice’, tins of finely ground Arabic coffee for our father, pounds of feta cut from a wooden barrel, big plastic bags of Kalamata and Alfonzo olives, whole milk yogurt with a creamy top, a few long boxes of phyllo dough, dried oregano and large non-boxed heads of garlic, a tin of Greek olive oil, tiny capers and still warm spinach pies.
We’d help rapidly gather all the things on our mother’s list and anything that looked ‘interesting’ to hurry the process as the taxi drivers waited at the door. When our work was done my sister and I got to pick which exotic flavor of fruit leather we’d eat in the taxi ride back to the hotel as the cashier waited to add them on last. We had a system.
We must have been quite a sight to the tall, heavy set Irish doorman on our return but he never said anything as he unloaded the full trunk of the taxi. We’d catch him once in a while looking in the brown paper shopping bags and we’d laugh on our way north with the back of the station wagon filled to the brim. We were a rare three-some, we worked together seamlessly.
Once we arrived home the three of us rapidly unloaded the wagon and put everything away before our father noticed the ‘extra’ things that we bought. As far as he knew we only shopped for food. He thought our mother was extravagant. She wasn’t dull by any means.
The next day after our trip to Boston she’d pick us up at school and we’d stop at the local A&P grocery store and pick up the lamb shanks the butcher had brought in special for our mother. She had a system. I think he had a crush on her because he always tried to impress her by surprising her with sweetbreads, calves liver, thick lamb chops, and marrow bones for our dog. He had good taste and he sure knew how to woo my mother.
As we did our homework upstairs the scent of onions, garlic and lamb shanks wafted up the staircase and all was good with the world…
Juliette’s braised lamb shanks
4 of the smallest lamb shanks, of equal size
1 large cooking onion, 3-4 inches in diameter, chopped into ½ pieces
3 healthy, fat cloves of garlic, chopped coarsely
1 tablespoon of dried Greek oregano, rubbed between your palms
1 can small can of whole tomatoes, crushed in pieces in your hand
3 cups ‘Greek’ or Basmati rice
olive oil, salt and pepper
In a large, heavy pot cover the bottom of the hot pot with olive oil and add the shanks. Don’t move them until they are well browned and then do the same on the other side. Add garlic and chopped onions and cook until translucent- 4 or 5 minutes. Turn down the heat if there is a chance of browning, the onions and garlic should not brown. Add oregano and crushed tomatoes. Lastly, pour water in to almost cover the shanks and cook over low heat on the stove until very tender but still intact. This will take at least an hour and as long as two.
(Our mother always braised the lamb on the stove, fast forward 50 years and it can be braised in the oven at 325 but I prefer on the stove because I like how the air is perfumed and that is the best part of cooking to me.)
In another heavy pot add the dry rice, arrange the lamb shanks on top and pour the braising liquid evenly over the shanks. There should be enough liquid to cover the rice and shanks- DO NOT STIR. Cover the pot with a tight lid and place in a 325 degree oven and wait for the smell of cooked rice- 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and let rest for 10 to 15 minutes.
When it’s finished and you open the lid the shanks will be sitting majestically enrobed on most beautiful soft red rice pilaf. Serve with a big dollop of Greek yogurt and enjoy!
Brenda Athanus runs a small gourmet food shop in Oakland, Maine with her sister Tanya called the Green Spot.
The Green Spot