I love lamb. It’s not an everyday food for us, so maybe that’s why I like it so much – it always feels like a celebration. Especially lamb shanks. Although lamb does grace our presence every so often, it’s usually in the form of stew or sausage. The tiny little chops, while delicious, aren’t usually my thing. Too much work, too little time.
My kids like lamb too, although I’ve always been cautious around the subject of what they’re actually eating. “What’s this?” is usually answered with a look in the other direction and the short but factual “lamb-it’s-like-beef”.
God forbid they actually mull the concept over in their minds. I’m nervous that I’ll turn around one day and my daughter is going to shriek “AS IN MARY’S LITTLE LAMB?!!!”. But for some reason the connection hasn’t been made….that is, until some kid in her class, probably the same one who’s discovered the truth about Santa Claus, is going to blurt out that yes, it’s actually Mary’s little lamb that your mother has been feeding you all these years. Thank you in advance little one.
But back to that special occasion lamb. This weekend, I’m cooking for my brothers who are both in town for some well-needed time with their nieces and nephew. I want a crowd-pleaser, one that will make the house smell like heaven, and is low maintenance to prepare. I want to hang out when they’re here, not be trapped behind my stove. Searing the shanks and letting them roast for hours on end tends to be my favorite preparation. It’s flavorful, foolproof, and gives me tons of flex time in case anyone is running late. I can just turn the oven down low and let the lamb hang out until their presence is needed.
Instead of my usual polenta, I fell in love with some beautiful springy green leeks that I spotted at the grocery store. Next to stuffing on Thanksgiving, there is almost no better cooking smell than leeks and butter getting to know each other. Sautéing them low and slow made them extra creamy, which combined with soft white beans, made the ultimate bed for the lamb.
To finish the lamb, I chose the classic Mediterranean style of oranges and olives. I love olives of every shape, texture and size, but for this dish, meaty and mild green olives work best. (I used Castelvetrano). Although I still feel ever so guilty about my braised little lamb, at least I treated it with love and we enjoyed every bite. Which I suppose is all it can ask for at this stage in the game.
- For the lamb
- 4 lamb shanks, each a little over a pound; 1 shank is 1 portion
- 3 teaspoons of salt, divided
- ¼ cup flour
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
- 2 medium carrots, coarsely chopped
- 2 medium celery ribs, coarsely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
- 1 6 oz can tomato paste
- ¼ cup orange juice from 1 medium navel orange
- 1 cup red wine
- 3 cups water
- 6 oz or two big handfuls of green olives, pitted and copped
- 2 medium navel oranges, segmented and cute crosswise into thirds
- For the beans
- 2-16 oz bags of cannellini beans (I like to make more than necessary to make a quick and easy soup base with the leftover beans)
- 3 cups chopped leeks, white and light green parts, cleaned of all sand (about 3 medium leeks)
- 6 tablespoons of butter (I know, it’s a lot, but some of those beans will be repurposed for another dish)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- For the lamb
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Heat large dutch oven on medium-high.
- With a teaspoon of salt and pepper to taste, season the lamb shanks, then dredge in the flour, shaking off the excess.
- Add the olive oil, then the lamb shanks and sear them evenly on all sides, making sure they’re nice and crusty brown. This will take 5 to 6 minutes per batch.
- While the lamb is searing, in the bowl of a food processer, puree the onion, carrots, celery, and garlic. Add the cayenne, 1 teaspoon of salt, and rosemary. Pulse to blend.
- Once meat has finished searing, remove to a paper towel-lined plate. Check the bottom of your dutch oven – if it’s golden brown, continue with the next step. However, if there is quite a bit of black charring at the bottom of the pan, wipe it out and start clean with 2 more tbsp olive oil.
- Add the vegetables from the processor to the pot, along with 1 teaspoon of salt, and pepper to taste.
- Let the vegetables sweat for 3-5 minutes until they’ve released their juices and are starting to looking soft.
- Add the tomato paste and cook the whole mixture for 5 mins to concentrate the flavors.
- Deglaze the vegetables with the orange juice, red wine and water, and simmer, scraping the bottom of the pot, for 1 minute.
- Add the lamb back with any accumulated juices, and bring to a boil.
- Cover with the lid, and pop into your preheated oven.
- Braise the lamb for 2.5 hrs.
- 30 minutes before serving, take the lid off, add oranges and olives, and cook uncovered for another 30 minutes to get the lamb extra golden and warm the oranges and olives.
- For the beans
- Soak the beans overnight.
- Starting right after you’ve put the lamb in the oven, put the beans in a large pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 2 hours (I know beans are supposed to cook in less time than 2 hours, but for some reason, even with beans straight from the store, mine take longer than the package says…and you don’t want to hold up your meal waiting for the beans).
- Meanwhile, warm the butter in a large pan at medium-low heat, and when melted, add the chopped leeks. Sautee gently until leeks are creamy and soft. If they begin to color, add a half cup of water and continue until tender.
- When the beans are soft, drain, and add to the leeks. Stir the mixture together gently, and season to taste.
- To plate
- Mound the beans onto a large serving platter to make a bed for the lamb.
- With tongs, transfer the lamb onto the beans and serve.
- If you have extra shanks, the lamb will keep in the fridge (and even get better with age) for the next 2-3 days.