I know that braised meat dishes serve typically as cold-weather fare, but I had some lamb shanks in the freezer that were reaching their use-by date. Moreover, since I usually prepare lamb for Easter dinner, I thought that Mario Batali’s recipe for “Braised Lamb Shanks with Leeks and Grapes” from his book Molto Batali was a good choice.
What I found interesting about the recipe was the absence of any herbs. So many lamb recipes use at least one, most often rosemary, but this had none. Even the seasoning was minimal: just salt and pepper. In addition, I was intrigued by the addition of red grapes at the end of cooking, which I thought would serve the same role as a mint sauce or red-currant jelly does with a lamb roast. I should perhaps note that until my husband mistook a garlic clove for a grape, I hadn’t realized that I had failed to stir in the grapes at the end of cooking. Consequently, I stirred them into the sauce after serving and then placed a few on each plate.
The recipe called for 10 large lamb shanks, but since we were only two for dinner, I made a few adjustments. With braising, however, you need to be sure that you have sufficient liquid for the process, so paring down requires some thought. For two shanks, I used 4 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 large onion, 8 garlic cloves, 4 carrots, 5 rather skimpy leeks, 1.5 cups of wine, 1 cup of imported crushed tomatoes, 2 cups of chicken broth, and about a cup of grapes.
My only other variations from the recipe are attributable to convenience (a.k.a, laziness). I used a boxed broth as opposed to a richer home-made one and uncooked canned tomatoes as opposed to a sauce. The dish was so flavorful, however, that I don’t think my substitutions had too much of an impact.
This recipe met all our expectations; the absence of herbs let the lamb flavor reign supreme complemented by a sweet underpinning from the leeks, carrots, and onions. The acidity from the wine and tomatoes seemed to cut through the typical fattiness of the lamb. I served the dish with a simple polenta. When cold weather returns, I’m sure so will these lamb shanks.
Lamb Shanks with Leeks and Grapes (from Mario Batali’s Molto Batali)
Serves 8 to 10 as a main course
10 large, meaty lamb shanks
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 Spanish onions, chopped into 1/4-inch dice
18 garlic cloves
5 carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
6 leeks, white and light green parts only, trimmed, halved lengthwise, cut crosswise into thin half-moons, rinsed thoroughly, and drained
2 cups dry white wine
1 cup basic tomato sauce (homemade or store-bought)
3 cups brown chicken stock
2 cups red grapes, wine grapes such as Sangiovese, or, even better, Concord grapes, halved and seeded
1.) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
2.) Rinse and dry the lamb shanks, and season them liberally with salt and pepper. In a very large heavy-bottomed Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until smoking.
3.) Add the lamb shanks, 5 at a time, and sear until dark golden brown all over, 10 to 12 minutes per batch. Remove the shanks and set them aside. (To extract the most flavor, be sure to take your time with this step and brown the meat thoroughly.)
4.) Add the onions, garlic, carrots, and leeks to the pot and cook until softened, 8 to 10 minutes.
5.) Add the wine, tomato sauce, and stock to the vegetables and bring to a boil. Return the lamb shanks to the pot and bring back to a boil. Cover the pot tightly, place it in the oven, and bake for about 1 ½ hours, until the meat is fork-tender. (Since my shanks were rather thick, they required closer to 2 hours.)
6.) Remove the pot from the oven, check the sauce for seasoning, and then add the grapes. Stir them in gently, and serve directly from the pot.
Wine Pairing: Pinot Noir