An old favorite found its way to our table this weekend, Chicken Thighs, with Saffron, Green Olives and Mint. I had forgotten how good this dish is with its sweet and savory onions, tangy olives, and whiffs of saffron and fresh mint. The long cooking time, actually a braise, renders chicken thighs with meat that falls of the bone and a rich sauce just waiting to be sopped up by couscous. The saffron and mint lead me to believe the origins of the dish are Sicilian, or perhaps even Moroccan.
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
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
As a child, I often accompanied my mother or my aunt when they went food shopping, which they did on an almost daily basis. Much to my chagrin, however, these excursions took considerable time since they opted to shop at small mom-and-pop stores rather than at the supermarket. Typically, we’d start at the salumeria for cold cuts and cheese, move on to the greengrocer for vegetables, and then end up at either the butcher or fishmonger. At each stop, they seemed to have a warm relationship with the proprietors, asking after their children, listening to their stories, offering them advice, or lending a sympathetic ear.
On one of these trips, it seemed to me that my mother was having a rather long talk with the butcher. She kept smiling and laughing, just a little too much I thought. After we left, I told her that I was going to tell dad that she was flirting with Tony. She grinned at me and said winking, “Maybe I do, just a little, but that’s how I get the best cuts.”
It’s then that I realized one of the reasons why my mother and aunt were always so pleasant with all the shop owners: they were sure to get the best ingredients for our family.
In Italian cooking, it’s essential that the basic ingredients, the prima materia, be of the highest quality because the cuisine is so minimalist. This was a continuing theme of Marcella Hazan’s cookbooks and it seems to have influenced her son, Giuliano. An example is his recipe from Every Night Italianfor beef slowly simmered with onions and juniper berries, which I prepared recently for a weekday supper and served with garlic-roasted potatoes and peas.
Slow-Cooked Beef with Juniper Berries adapted from Every Night Italian by Giuliano Hazan
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups onions, thinly sliced crosswise
2 pounds beef chuck, cut in 2 or 3 pieces so as to comfortably fit in the pot
1 teaspoon juniper berries, lightly crushed
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
- Choose a heavy-bottomed braising pot with a tight-fitting lid, preferably enameled cast iron, just large enough to accommodate the meat.
- Put the olive oil and the onions in the pot and place the meat on top. Add the crushed juniper berries, the vinegar, and season with salt and pepper.
- When you hear the contents of the pot bubbling, remove the lid and adjust the heat so that meat cooks at a very gentle simmer. Replace the lid and simmer until the meat is extremely tender when prodded with a fork, about 2 hours. You can begin checking it after 1 hour. If all the liquid evaporates before the meat is tender, add a little water.
- When the meat is done the sauce should be thick enough to cling to a spoon. If it is too thin, remove the meat and raise the heat until it has reduced.
- Slice the meat, return it to the pot to coat with the sauce, and serve.
Note: This dish may be prepared up to 3 days ahead of time and reheated over gentle heat with a 2 tablespoons of water.
Wine Pairing: Nebbiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon