You may or may not know this about me, but I’m highly prone to random thoughts at the most inappropriate times. For instance, last week I was in a bridal shop with a group of friends to pick up our bridesmaid dresses (mine did NOT fit – crap). In the middle of the ordeal – and going to a bridal shop is always an ordeal – I developed a sudden craving for lamb shank.
I know – what? Who craves lamb, let alone lamb shank. It’s one of the toughest, gamiest cuts of meat, it’s served on-the-bone, and it’s part of a sedar plate. But for some strange reason I really wanted a lamb shank, leaving me no other option than to buy two later that afternoon.
While I have cooked lamb many times, this was only the second time I’ve worked with the shank. I remembered that it needed to be braised, or slow-cooked in liquid, in order for the meat to become tender. I chose to use a bottle of my favorite red wine, one that I’ve long known goes well with lamb: Senorio de Valdehermoso, a 2000 Crianza from the Ribera del Duero.
Because the cooking liquid becomes the sauce, the lamb needed to be served with a starch that would sop it up, which is how I came to Israeli couscous. I prefer this larger couscous to the smaller version for the dish as it holds up against the weight of the lamb (polenta would work, too). The couscous is mixed with slightly sweet flavors, again to balance the heft and savoriness of the lamb.
In the end, this was a hearty meal with beautiful flavor contrasts – perfect for a cold, winter day in Chicago.
Braised Lamb Shank with Israeli Couscous - serves 2
1 tablespoon vegetable oil, divided
Salt and pepper
2 lamb shanks, about 3/4 pound each
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup red wine
2 1/2 cups beef broth
2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary
1/2 medium sweet potato, peeled and diced
2 teaspoons olive oil, divided
2/3 cup Israeli couscous
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 to 3 tablespoons diced dried apricots
1 cup boiling water
2 teaspoons lemon zest
2 tablespoons minced fresh mint
1 scallion, green part only, thinly sliced
1/4 cup toasted sliced almonds
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 350F. Heat 1/2 tablespoon vegetable in an oven-safe pot that is just big enought to hold the lamb; set over high heat. Generously season the lamb shanks with salt and pepper. Place the lamb shanks into the pot and sear each side until the meat turns golden brown, about five minutes per side. NOTE: Do this in two batches if using more than two lamb shanks. Remove the lamb from the pot and place in a bowl; set aside.
Decrease the heat to medium-high. Pour the remaining 1/2 tablespoon oil into the pot, then add the minced garlic. Cook until fragrant, about 1 minute, then stir in the onion. Cook, stirring every minute, until the onion has caramelized and become soft, about 10 minutes.
Stir in the tomato paste and cook for 1 minute, then pour in the red wine. Use a wooden spoon to remove any brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pot. Return the lamb shanks to the pot along with any juice that has accumulated in the bowl. Pour in just enough beef stock to completely cover the lamb and add the rosemary.
Increase the heat to high and bring the liquid to a boil. Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and place it in the oven. Braise for 2 hours or until the meat becomes so tender it almost falls off the bone.
Prepare the couscous while the lamb is braising. First, toss the diced sweet potato with 1 teaspoon olive oil, then place in a baking dish. Bake at 350F for 25 minutes, stirring the sweet potato after 15 minutes. Let cool to room temperature.
Next, combine the remaining olive oil and couscous in a small pot. Set it over medium heat. Toast the couscous until lightly browned, then add the salt, sweet potato, dried apricots and boiling water. Decrease the heat to low and cover. Simmer for 12 minutes until the water has been absorbed. Remove the couscous from the heat and stir in the lemon zest, mint, scallion and toasted almonds. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
To finish the lamb, return the pot to the stovetop and remove the lamb shanks; set aside on a plate and cover to hold warm. With the cooking liquid still in the pot, set it over high heat and simmer until the liquid reduces by one-third. Season to taste with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Serve the lamb shanks and onions over the couscous and top with a few spoonfuls of sauce.