If you’re preparing a meal for two, slowly braised lamb shanks are almost foolproof – one shank neatly feeds one person and all the prep can be done well ahead of time. But how do you make the dish unforgettable?
At first I get preoccupied with the sheep breed and its age but there’s a whole article in itself on the subject of the provenance of your meat. In reality, any grass-fed British lamb will do. My favourites are the slow-grown petite Shetlands (www.foodshetland.com) or Welsh rare breeds (www.rbst.org.uk/butchers). How you treat the ruminant after you bring it home from the butchers influences the character of your supper. There are two schools of thought on this one: those who use spices and herbs to enhance the flavour of the meat and those who leave the cloven-hoofed one’s gamey meatiness to sing alone.
Tamarind’s talented chef, Alfred Prasad, is in the former camp. To make his Hyderabadi shanks (www.greatbritishchefs.com), I seal the shanks in a wild jamboree of spices – cinnamon, cardamom and cloves – that have been sautéed with onion. Next comes a ginger and garlic paste, more spices (turmeric, chilli, cumin and coriander), tomatoes and yoghurt, then an hour-long cook.
The cinnamon and cloves add a warmth while the eucalyptus-nuanced cardamom and fiery ginger are fragrant and sinus-clearing. There’s a gentle heat throughout. I’d like to keep this uplifting nature in my final dish.
In a Google search, the first recipe to ping up enthusiastically is Incredible Baked Lamb Shanks from www.jamieoliver.com. Oliver is in the opposite camp to Prasad – this is unashamed simplicity. Stuffing the shanks with a pocket of rosemary and thyme butter, I wrap them in foil on a small bed of carrots and alliums. This one cooks for two and a half hours.
The Mediterranean herbs are instantly gratifying and I find myself falling in love with the meat’s untainted purity. My only small moan is that I’m looking for a meal in one go and this seems rather like half a meal – the meat half.
So I try Nigella’s aromatic lamb shank stew from her book Nigella Bites (also on www.nigella.com), with a cooking time of about two hours. This one features red lentils plus a bundle of sticky aromatic promise. I brown the shanks, make a ‘mush’ of onion and garlic, then sauté it – so far, so good.
However, things take a wrong turn when I stir in turmeric, ground ginger, chilli, cinnamon and nutmeg, adding honey, soy sauce and marsala. I’m sure those with a sweet tooth would love it but I find that the honey and marsala ride rudely over the ‘aromatics’ and it’s too sugary for me. Nevertheless, texturally the red lentil component marries well with the meat, sliding down the gullet comfortingly.
In his orange braised lamb shanks (www.bbc.co.uk), Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall includes zest and juice. As it’s the height of Seville orange and blood orange season, it works, letting the ruminant’s flavours shine. It’s a lovely February gesture.
Fearnley-Whittingstall cooks his shanks for a similar time to the other recipes I’ve tested – one to two hours. For an exceptional meal, though, the meat should fall seductively from the bone and so far, the cooking times given have been too short. I’m seeking something low and slow.
Yotam Ottolenghi’s lamb shanks with chickpeas, fennel and apricots (www.theguardian.com) look promising. Chickpeas are added towards the end and it’s a long cook – four hours. The chickpeas are good in the end result but not as good as Nigella’s cheeky bijou lentils.
I do love the sharpness of the apricots, which cut through the fat in Ottolenghi’s dish, as well as the contrast of the cooling, earthy coriander against the full-flavoured lamb. In addition, the meat melts in your mouth – so four hours is a must.
The slow-cooking technique will give you ample opportunity to whip up an equally sublime dessert. But, as with all stews, this is even better made in advance and reheated.