“Best.” In the six years that I’ve been writing this blog, I don’t think I’ve used the word too often. But after preparing the recipe for Braised Oxtails with White Beans, Tomatoes, and Aleppo Pepper from “America’s Test Kitchen” on PBS, the subject of today’s post, I believe it ranks among the best dishes I’ve ever prepared. In fact, I can easily say that I’ve never made a better braise in all my years of cooking.
Serendipity triggered this post. A few weeks ago, a loyal reader in a comment recommended Mario Batali’s 2005 cookbook, Molto Italiano, averring it to be his best ever. I ordered a used copy of it online, and on the day it arrived in the mail, my supermarket had a half-price sale on pork that made a 4.3 perfectly butchered shoulder roast irresistible. This confluence of events ultimately led me to a recipe in Batali’s book for “Braised Pork Black Rooster.” The barnyard moniker derives from the Gallo Nero, Italian for “black rooster,” the emblem of the consortium for Chianti Classico, the wine called for in the recipe. Given my predilection for Chianti, I simply had to make this dish.
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.
While today’s recipe may not readily be associated with late spring, it turned out to be the perfect dish for a mildly chilly San Diego evening. The real impetus behind it though was an incredible sale on lamb shanks at the supermarket that I couldn’t pass up.
When I started to look for recipes I immediately turned to books for slow cookers, but then I came across one for a slow oven braise by Ina Garten that adds orzo to the dish in the final step. As with the aforementioned sale, I couldn’t pass it up.
One thing I realized after making this dish is just how different lamb tastes when braised in the oven for two and a half hours as opposed to being cooked in a slow cooker for eight. Although I can’t deny the convenience of the latter method, the former yields in my opinion a better textured lamb with deeper flavor.
The recipe is from Garten’s cookbook Barefoot Contessa Foolproof but can also be found on the Food Network’s website. My only variations were substituting olive oil for the recipe’s grapeseed oil and, as I was cooking for two, halving the number of lamb shanks. Note that I did not reduce any of the other ingredients as I figured any left-over orzo would make a good weeknight supper.
1 cup all-purpose flour
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 lamb shanks (1 to 1 1/2 pounds each)
3 or more tablespoons grapeseed oil (I substituted olive oil.)
2 tablespoons good olive oil
3 cups chopped yellow onions (2 to 3 onions)
2 cups medium-diced carrots (4 to 5 carrots)
2 cups medium-diced celery (3 stalks)
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary leaves
3 large garlic cloves, minced
2 (14.5-ounce) cans diced tomatoes, including the liquid
2 cups canned beef broth
1 1/2 cups dry white wine, plus extra for serving
2 bay leaves
2 cups orzo (Use a good quality orzo that will stand up to long cooking.)
1-Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
2-Combine the flour, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper in a bowl and dredge the lamb shanks in the mixture, shaking off the excess.
3-In a large (13-inch) Dutch oven such as Le Creuset, heat 3 tablespoons of the grapeseed oil over medium-high heat. Add 2 lamb shanks and cook for 10 minutes, turning every few minutes, until browned on all sides. Transfer the shanks to a plate, add more grapeseed oil, and brown the remaining 2 shanks. (Don’t rush this step; make sure to get a good brown on the lamb.)
4-Wipe out the Dutch oven with a paper towel, add the olive oil, and heat over medium to medium-high heat. (Do not be tempted to skip this step as it really does reduce the amount of fat in the final dish.)
5-Add the onions, carrots, celery, and rosemary and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, until the vegetables are tender. Add the garlic and cook 1 more minute.
6-Add the tomatoes, beef broth, wine, 4 teaspoons salt, and 2 teaspoons pepper. Add the lamb shanks, arranging them so they’re almost completely submerged in the liquid. Tuck in the bay leaves and bring to a simmer on top of the stove.
7-Cover the pot and place it in the oven for 2 hours, turning the shanks once while they cook.
8-Stir in the orzo and return the lamb shanks to the oven for 20 to 30 minutes, until the orzo is cooked and the lamb shanks are very tender. Discard the bay leaves, stir in 2 to 3 tablespoons of white wine, and taste the orzo for seasonings. Serve hot.
Wine Pairing: Pinot Noir
A few weeks ago, I was reminiscing with some friends about our days as graduate students at Columbia in the early 70s. After talking about friends, teachers, and seminars, it didn’t take us long before we started to recall some of our favorite bars and restaurants near campus: the West End for drinks and burgers, The Symposium for Greek food, V & T’s for Italian and pizza, and The Green Tree for Hungarian.
The last of these was perhaps my favorite, for it served large portions at reasonable prices. At The Green Tree, I always ordered the same thing: chicken paprikash, which was served with a generous side of small Hungarian dumplings called nokedli. This was pure comfort food, especially during the winter.
Since our get-together, I’ve had a hankering for chicken paprikash and have made it a couple of times following recipes I’ve found on the Internet. (My copy of George Lang’s The Cuisine of Hungary having been lost to a flood after hurricane Sandy.)
My most recent attempt at this dish combined several recipes and came close to recreating the dish I enjoyed more than 40 years ago.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
4 bone-in, skin-on (preferably Kosher) dark-meat chicken quarters (about 3 pounds)
Freshly ground back pepper
2 large onions, finely chopped
1 green cubanelle pepper, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 heaping tablespoons sweet Hungarian paprika
1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 3/4 cups chicken stock
1 large beefsteak tomato, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup sour cream
Thick egg noodles
Trim any excess skin and fat from the chicken, pat dry with paper towels, and season with salt and pepper.
In an enameled cast iron Dutch oven, over medium-high heat, heat the oil and the butter.
When hot, add the chicken skin-side down and cook each side until nicely browned, about 6 minutes a side.
Remove the chicken from the pot and remove some of the excess fat from the pan.
Add onions scraping any browned bits from the bottom of the pan, and over medium heat cook the onions covered for 5 to 7 minutes. Make sure that the onions do not brown.
Then add the chopped pepper, cover and cook for an additional 5 minutes, stirring once to avoid browning. Finally add the garlic and cook covered for another 2 minutes, again making sure not to brown the vegetables.
Add the paprika and the flour and cook stirring for 1 minute until the spice becomes fragrant.
Add the broth, whisking until smooth, and then add the chopped tomato. Bring to a boil over high heat.
Return the chicken skin side up in a single layer, along with any accumulated juices, to the pot and reduce the heat to medium.
Cover and cook until the chicken is fully cooked, about 20 to 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook the egg noodles following package directions.
Remove the chicken from the pan and, if necessary, cook the sauce over medium high heat to reduce liquid and thicken the sauce. About 3 minutes.
Off the heat, stir the sour cream into the sauce.
On plates, arrange the noodles and chicken and generously ladle the sauce over them.
Some of the recipes I consulted were Martha Stewart’s Chicken Paprikash, Rachael Ray’s Hungarian Paprikash, and one from We The Eaters. Ray’s use of brined chicken led me to select Kosher chicken for this dish and several Internet recipes, like the one form the We the Eaters website, influenced by use of the cubanelle pepper.
Wine Pairing: Merlot
I love steak. Until recently, I could eat it five times a week—pan roasted, basted with butter, cooked medium rare, served with a drizzle of olive oil. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water. Unfortunately, given my age and my doctor’s recommendations, my steak indulgence is now limited to once a week. I’m now dining more healthfully, albeit less rapturously, with at least one vegetarian and one fish meal a week, and eating more chicken than I want to admit.
One chicken recipe that’s become a weeknight favorite is Pollo all’arrabbiata from Louie Werle’s book on Italy’s cucina povera, Italian Country Cooking. As the recipe’s name implies, the chicken is cooked in a tomato sauce with hot chili peppers. Starting with a soffrito of garlic, fatty pancetta, and fresh rosemary makes this dish even more flavorful.
As was recommended in the recipe, I served the dish with polenta. Given my time constraints on a weekday night, however, I opted for an “instant” polenta, which I prepared with chicken broth, butter, and Parmigiano Reggiano.
I’ve always followed the recipe closely, but the next time I prepare it, I’ll probably cut the tomatoes into halves to extract more of their flavor.
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 red onion, cut into 8 wedges
4 whole chicken legs (thighs and legs), about 3 pounds
1 garlic bulb, cloves peeled
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons dry red wine
2 hot red chilies, chopped (I substituted dried Calabrian chilies, crushed.)
1 pint cherry tomatoes
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 ounces fatty pancetta, cut into cubes (I used slightly more than 2 ounces.)
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves
To make the soffrito, combine the garlic, pancetta, and rosemary in a small food processor and pulse until fairly finely chopped.
Transfer the mixture to a heavy-based pot, add the oil and cook over moderate heat until the pancetta is golden, about 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
Turn the heat up to high, add the onion, chicken, and garlic cloves and brown the chicken well on both sides, about 8 minutes.
Stir in the wine and cook 1 minute. (I used this time to scrape any browned bits from the bottom of the pan.)
Then add chili and tomatoes, and season with salt.
Bring to a simmer, cover with a lid, and cook gently for 40 minutes. The chicken is cooked when the juices run clear when a skewer is inserted between the thigh and leg. Check seasoning. Serve on deep, heated plates with polenta.
Serves 4. (Like most braised dishes, this chicken is even better when re-heated a day or tow later.)
Wine Pairing: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo
One of my fondest memories of my years as a young academic in Boston was spending Friday evenings with a couple of colleagues, cooking dinner, and watching “Dallas” and “Falcon Crest.” As we dined and intermittently glanced at the television, we’d offer a running, often cynical, commentary on the show’s lack of any redeeming social value and eventually wind up discussing politics and thus missing the end of the show.
Since I was often the guest, my friends typically prepared the meal, which more often than not was a roast beef. One evening, however, I offered to cook at their apartment. During these years, the late 70s, Marcella Hazan was my go-to authority on authentic Italian cooking; her two volumes of The Classic Italian Cookbook provided me with many recipes that would stun my friends with their simplicity and flavor. So the night I cooked for our Friday get-together I chose Hazan’s Bolognese-style pork roast braised in milk. I could start at 6PM and it would be ready just in time for “Dallas.”
This recipe may be one of her most popular; versions and tales of it abound on the Internet. I believe it first appeared in her the first volume of her classic series. It was so simple: brown a small pork roast in olive oil and butter; season with salt and pepper; add milk, cover the pot with the lid slightly ajar and braise for about 3 hours. When finished, remove the roast, skim the fat from sauce, and serve. The roast was moist and succulent and the milk turned into a sauce of creamy brown nutlike clusters.
I noticed that in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, which is a compendium of the earlier two volumes, the procedure for cooking the roast is more complicated, calling for adding the milk at three intervals, in varying quantities. I chose, however, to follow the original method, adding all of the milk at the beginning, but followed her advice of having the butcher remove the bones from the roast to enable a more thorough browning of the meat and of cooking the bones along with the roast to maximize flavor.
Note that the size of the cooking vessel is essential to the success of this dish. The pot should be no bigger than is necessary to, in Hazan’s words, “snugly accommodate the pork,” which allows about 2/3 to 1/2 of the roast to be submerged in the milk while braising. I used a small 2.5 quart Le Creuset dutch oven.
My only real variation from her recipe is the addition of some fresh nutmeg after adding the milk. I guess this comes from following Hazan’s recipe for béchamel sauce.
Pork Loin Braised in Milk Bolognese Style Adapted from The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
21/2 pound pork loin roast. (Have the ribs detached from the loin and split into two or three parts. Do not removed any fat from the meat. The roast should be tied. See picture below.)
Freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 cups whole milk (You may need a little more in the unlikely event that the milk evaporates too much.)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1. Heat butter and oil over medium-high heat in a heavy-bottomed pot that that can later snugly accommodate the pork.
2. When the butter foam subsides, put in the roast fat-side down. Brown the meat evenly on all sides. If the fat is becoming very dark, lower the heat. Season the roast with salt and pepper. Add the milk slowly to avoid it boiling over. Add the nutmeg.
3. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer, and set the lid slightly ajar. Cook slowly for about 21/2 to 3 hours, occasionally turning and basting the meat. If before the meat is fully cooked, you find that the liquid in the pot has evaporated, add another 1/2 cup of milk.
4. When the pork has become tender and all the milk has coagulated into small, brownish clusters, transfer the roast to a cutting board and tent with foil.
5. Tip the pot and spoon off most of the fat, being careful to leave behind all the coagulated milk clusters. Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of water and boil away the water over high heat using a wooden spoon to scrape loose cooking residues from the bottom and the sides of the pot.
6. Carve the roast into 3/8-inch slices and arrange on warm platter. Spoon all the pot juices over the pork and serve immediately.
Wine Pairing: Dolcetto d’Alba, Dry Lambrusco
You’ve probably been counseled by other food bloggers or cooking enthusiasts to let what looks good on any given day at your market determine what you’ll cook that night. I more or less agree with this advice, but I must admit that it definitely helps to have high-quality markets nearby. Fortunately, I live in downtown New York, where I’m surrounded by some of the city’s finest fish mongers, green grocers, and butchers, which makes being inspired by their offerings relatively easy.
Such was the case the other day when I went to my butcher, Dickson’s Farmstand Meats located in Chelsea Market, looking for inspiration. They’re know for locally sourced, humanely raised meats, and I wasn’t there long before I espied and bought some meaty lamb shanks.
As I walked home, I started to consider how to prepare them. For me, braising was the obvious choice, but I wasn’t quite sure what to braise them with. So when I got home, I looked through some of my go-to books for braising and found an appealing recipe in Michele Scicolone’s The Mediterranean Slow Cooker: “Lamb Shanks with Sweet and Sour Onions.”
The recipe calls for just a few ingredients with which to cook the lamb: red onions, garlic, rosemary, red wine, and balsamic vinegar.
The minimal prep also made the recipe attractive: browning the onions and then combing them with the garlic (minced), the rosemary (chopped), the red wine (dry), and the balsamic vinegar. Since the vinegar plays a leading role in flavoring this dish, I recommend using a good quality balsamic.
Cooked on low for 8 hours, the shanks become tender and succulent and their distinctive meaty flavors are perfectly complemented by the sweet-and-sour onions and braising liquid.
I served the shanks with polenta, made creamy with butter, cream, and Parmigiano Reggiano.
Wine Pairing: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo
Sometimes what I choose to prepare for dinner is determined by finding something in the fridge that needs to be used up. Such was the case yesterday when I found a week-old container of mirepoix (diced onions, carrots, and celery). I considered several options, including a bean soup and pasta sauce, but then I thought why not something braised, cooked low and slow. After checking a few cookbooks for recipes, I finally settled upon one I found in Michele Scicolone’s The Italian Slow Cooker: “Lamb Shanks with White Bean and Gremolata.” My only concern was being able to find the lamb shanks early on Sunday morning. Fortunately, I was able to grab the last four shanks available at my local market.
They were from Icelandic lamb, which I discovered is a seasonal special that ’s available at Whole Foods from late September to October. They met the recipe’s size requirements (small, about 1 pound each) and were surprisingly lean. This was my first encounter with this variety of lamb and I’m happy to report that it was rich in flavor and not as gamey as some other varieties, which I believe contributed to the success of the dish. There was a prefect balance of flavors among the meat, the vegetables, beans, braising liquid, and the bright gremolata (a mix of minced garlic, lemon zest, and parsley.)
I think the next time I prepare this dish, I’ll brown the shanks before slow cooking them to develop their flavor a little more. However, even without this step, the lamb was delicious.
Lamb Shanks with White Beans and Gremolata from The Italian Slow Cooker by Michele Scicolone
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium carrot, chopped
1 medium rib of celery, chopped (My mirepoix contained a little more of each of these ingredients.)
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 3-inch fresh rosemary sprig
4 small lamb shanks (about 1 pound each)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup meat broth or canned beef broth (I opted for the canned broth.)
1 cup dry red wine (I used a red-blend from California.)
2 tablespoons tomato paste (I use the imported concentrated paste.)
4 cups cooked white beans or canned beans, drained (I used a can of Goya “Small White Beans.” When using canned beans, I always rinse them under cold water.)
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley (Italian flat-leaf parsley is best.)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
Scatter the vegetables, chopped garlic, and rosemary in a slow cooker. (I lightly salted the vegetables.)
Trim the shanks, pat them dry with paper towels, and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.
Arrange the shanks in a single layer on top of the vegetables.
Combine the broth, wine, and tomato paste with a whisk in a bowl. Pour the mixture over the lamb and cook on low for 8 hours, or until the lamb is very tender and coming away from the bone.
Remove the shanks from the cooker and place on a serving platter. Cover and keep warm.
Skim the fat off the the surface of the liquid in the cooker. Turn the heat to high. Stir in the beans and cook until thoroughly heated through.
Meanwhile chop the parsley and garlic, and combine with the grated lemon zest.
Stir half of the mix into the beans.
To serve, pour the beans over the lamb and sprinkle with the remaining gremolata. Serve hot.
Wine Pairing: Dolcetto, or a cru Beaujolais
In New York City, fall has definitely arrived and so has my appetite for heartier as well as comforting dishes like braises and stews. Perhaps this is why a recipe for farro with pork ragu looked so appealing. The fact that I had almost everything on hand except for the pork shoulder and a fresh bay leaf also increased the recipe’s appeal and thus it found its way to our table last night.
The recipe from Lidia Bastianich’s Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italyis yet another example of the simplicity of Italian cooking: a minimum of ingredients prepared with a modicum of technique.
The finished dish was exquisite: succulent pork cooked slowly in a subtly spicy tomato sauce, which is then combined with earthy farro. Paired with a rich, plummy Aglianico, it met all my requirements for comforting fall fare.
Since I was cooking only for two, I prepared only 8 ounces of the farro and combined it with only half of the ragu. I also found that the pork required a longer cooking time than the one and half hours specified in the recipe. I cooked it for a full two hours, after which the meat was perfectly tender. Finally, for maximum flavor, be sure to scrape up any brown bits at the bottom of the pan after adding the wine and again after adding the tomatoes.
Farro with Pork Ragù Potenza Style from Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy
Makes about 4 cups, serving 6 with farro
For the ragù
2 pounds boneless pork shoulder
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 Tbsp. kosher salt
2 Tbsp. chopped garlic (about 5 cloves)
1/2 tsp. peperoncino flakes, or to taste
1/2 cup white wine
3 cups (one 28-ounce can) canned Italian plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, crushed by hand
1/4 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
For the farro and serving
1 pound farro
1 fresh bay leaf
1 tsp. kosher salt
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup freshly grated pecorino (or half pecorino and half Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano), plus more for passing (I used pecorino.)
Recommended equipment: A heavy saucepan, such as an enameled cast-iron French oven, 5-quart capacity, with a cover; a heavy 3- or 4-quart saucepan.
For the ragù: Trim the fat from the exterior of the pork. Cut it into bite-sized morsels, about 3/4-inch cubes, trimming more fat and bits of cartilage as you divide the meat. Pat the pieces dry with paper towels.
Pour the olive oil into the big pan, set it over medium heat and toss in the pork. Spread the pieces in the pan and season with the salt. Cook the pork slowly for 15 minutes or so, turning and moving the pieces occasionally as the meat releases its juices and they cook away.
When the pan is dry and the pork starts to sizzle and crackle, clear a hot spot on the bottom and drop in the chopped garlic and peperoncino. Stir and toast them for a minute or so in the hot spot until the garlic is fragrant and sizzling, then stir and toss with the meat cubes. Raise the heat a bit, pour in the white wine, stir and bring to a boil. Let the wine bubble until it is nearly evaporated and the pork is sizzling again.
Pour in the crushed tomatoes and a cup of water that has been sloshed around to rinse out the tomato can, grate on the fresh nutmeg and stir.
Cover the pan and heat the tomatoes to a boil, then adjust the heat to maintain a steady, gentle perking. Cook for about 1 1/2 hours until the pork is tender all the way through and falls apart under gentle pressure, and the sauce has thickened. If the liquid is still thin toward the end of the cooking time, set the cover ajar and raise the heat a bit to reduce it rapidly.
Meanwhile, prepare the farro, first rinsing it well and draining it in a sieve. Put it in the smaller saucepan with 6 cups cold water, the bay leaf, salt and olive oil.
Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, then set the cover ajar and adjust the heat to maintain a steady simmer. Cook about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally until the grains are cooked through but still al dente. Turn off the heat, pour off excess liquid and keep the farro warm until the ragù is done.
To finish the dish: Have the ragù simmering and stir in the farro thoroughly. Cook together for a minute, so the grain is very hot. Turn off the heat, sprinkle the grated cheese on top and stir in.
Spoon the dressed farro into warm bowls, and serve immediately with more grated cheese at the table.
Wine Pairing: Aglianico