Sunday, September 18, 2005

Just the Shanks, Ma'am

You learn new things about old friends all the time.

Sharing dinner and recipes at Dragonfly, a wonderful contemporary Vietnamese restaurant in my neighborhood, a friend whose recent culinary triumphs include a mushroon Napoleon told me that he couldn't imagine handling a whole chicken, much less an entire lamb shank. In the age of boneless-skinless-flavorless chicken breasts, even good home cooks are flummoxed by cuts of meat that look like meat.

John worked on Saturday, giving me the opportunity to stroll the farmers' market and cook up whatever bounty I found. Relying on public transportation held me back from buying all the heirloom tomatoes and sweet peas I saw, but I did purchase a good amount, as well as some intoxicating peaches from Frog Hollow Farms and shanks from grass-fed lamb from Marin Sun Farms.

A braise seems out of place for late summer, but cool evenings in San Francisco almost need a warm dinner. While the olive oil heated in a wide saute pan, I trimmed the two lamb shanks and prepared an herb bundle of parsley, rosemary, thyme, bay leaf, and garlic. I browned the meat in the hot oil until a crust formed, then added a bottle of port. You can use a less expensive red wine, but flavorful port reduces to a syrupy glaze that resembles demi-glace. After adding the herbs and replacing the lid, I reduced the heat until the liquid barely simmered. Aside from turning the shanks every hour or so, braising is a hands-off cooking method.

Four hours later, the once tough shanks were meltingly tender and falling off the bone. I gingerly transferred the shanks into a bowl, trying my best to keep them intact. I pulled out the herb bundle and strained the liquid into another pot. A quick chill in the refrigerator hardened the fat, making it easy to skim.

I portioned some fingerling potatoes, small carrots, and sweet peas sauteed in butter and chopped parsley into wide-rimmed bowls and set the lamb shanks off center. Soon we were ready for a warm dinner. John suggested that we call this dish 'Mahogany Lamb Shanks' after the glossy color of the port sauce. No matter the name, it's an easy dish that shouldn't intimidate any home cook--even my butcher-averse friend.

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