I had intended for this post to be a sexy one. I planned to write about the braised lamb shanks I made a few weekends ago. Not only would they sound sexy, but they would look sexy too... It's not that they weren't delicious. Simmered for several hours in ruby port, the shanks were spiced with anise and cloves. The meat easily slid off the bone, and I dug out a little of the marrow to spread on toast. After sopping my third slice of bread in the juice, I left the rest to finish the following day. Then I fell in love with a decidedly unsexy-looking salad. Like rice pudding or all of those "everything-but-the-sink" dishes, I always find my affections drifting back to the humble plates. They are less photogenic, but no less satisfying--and that is really what I'm more concerned with at the end of the day. What is sexier than satisfaction?
I come from a long line of cooks who like leftovers. My mother always made more than enough for our family of four, much of which fed us the duration of the week. Based on recipes I’ve seen from her side of the family, my grandmother is the same. If you’ve ever read “How To Cook A Wolf,” it’s easy to see why; it’s not energy-efficient to cook in single-portions. I do not have a toaster oven, and my oven is electric, so whenever I do use it I try to maximize what goes into it. While roasting a chicken, I put a few sweet potatoes on the rack below (or better yet, sliced them & toss them in with the chicken). If I’m going to braise lamb shanks for several hours, I might as well make a few. Yes, it’s a lot of food, but it relieves my electric bill. Best of all, I get to reap the delicious rewards.
This is my favorite kind of cooking—no recipe involved, no running to the store, no fussing over ingredients. I realized I had no couscous, but there was a vat of quinoa from a few nights before. I mixed the quinoa with lemon zest, cinnamon, and cardamom—shredded some parsley while I toasted some slivered almonds. I shredded the leftover lamb shanks, dressed it with tangy yogurt and threw in the last of the good prunes I bought in Dublin. It took about 15 minutes to assemble, and then I was out the door.
The salad ended up being even better for me than the lamb shanks in their first incarnation—the nuttiness of the quinoa was especially nice with the toasted almonds, while the tangy yogurt dressing cut the richness of the spiced lamb. It tasted like a light prelude to Spring, a dish on the cusp of winter and the warmer months. It's right up there with the return of the blue jays in my window, the sun setting after 7 pm, and the crocus buds. I'm already counting down to next weekend, when the farmer's market reopens!
TAGINE-SPICED LAMB QUINOA SALADCouscous would be superb in this salad, but the nuttiness of the quinoa is what makes this salad interesting. Using leftover lamb kebabs are a nice alternative to stewing the lamb shanks for hours, but I’ve included an easy braising recipe below. This salad would be just as good without any protein, too.Ingredients:2 cups quinoa2 cups chicken or vegetable stock2 cups cooked shredded lamb (see lamb shanks recipe below)1 tsp. ground cardamom1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon1/2 cup good extra virgin olive oil, some reserved1 lemon juiced, and zested (about 2 Tbs. juice, 1-2 Tbs. zest)1/4 cup plain whole milk yogurt1/4 cup chopped red onion1 14 oz. can chickpeas, drained and washed1/4 cup chopped dried prunes1/4 cup golden raisins1/2 cup toasted almond slivers, some reserved1/4 cup chopped scallions1/4 cup parsley, with some reserved for garnishsalt & pepper, to tasteDIRECTIONS:1. Put quinoa, broth and a pinch of salt in a 2 quart stock pot. Bring to a boil, stir, and then reduce heat to low. Allow the quinoa to cook for 20 minutes, until fluffy and tender. Cool slightly, about 5 minutes.2. Transfer the quinoa to a large mixing bowl. Add the cardamom, cinnamon, and lemon zest and toss to mix. Add the shredded lamb, red onion, chickpeas, dried prunes, golden raisins, almond slivers, scallions, and parsely.3. In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt, olive oil, and lemon juice. Pour this over the salad mix, tossing to combine.4. Taste, and adjust seasoning with salt & pepper.5. Serve warm or cold, garnished with a drizzle of olive oil, chopped parsley and the reserved toasted almond slices. Enjoy! Serves 6-8 as a first course, or 4 as an entrée.Anise-Braised Lamb ShanksIngredients:2-3 lamb shanks (enough to fit comfortably inside an 8 qt. dutch oven)1/4 cup olive oil, 2 tbs. reserved2 1/2 Tbs. White Pepper Rub *1 yellow onion cut into 1 inch pieces1 carrot chopped into 1 inch pieces1 celery chopped into 1 inch pieces1 small leek chopped into 1/4 inch slices2 garlic cloves minced1 1/2 cups ruby port1 qt. chicken or vegetable stock (preferably homemade)1 star anise pod3 whole cloves1 bay leaf1/4 tsp. dried chili pepper flakesDirections:1. Pat the lamb shanks dry with a paper towel, then sprinkle the White Pepper Rub all over the lamb. Massage the spices into the muscle, this will keep the shanks from getting too tough.2. Heat 2 Tbs. of olive oil on Medium-High heat in a wide 8 quart dutch oven. Braise the lamb shanks in the dutch oven until browned and carmelized on all sides, about 15 minutes. Transfer the shanks to a medium-sized mixing bowl.3. Add the rest of the olive oil to the dutch oven. With a wooden spoon, scrape at the browned bits at the bottom of the pan. Once the oil is hot, add the onion, carrot, and celery. Cook until soft and the onions are just turning translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, and cook for about 1 minute.3. Add the ruby port to the pan, scraping again with the wooden spoon at any carmelized bits at the bottom of the pan. Let the ruby port come to a simmer and reduce by half, about 10 minutes. Add the chicken broth, and allow that to come to a boil before simmering for 30 minutes. At this point, the broth should have reduced and the sauce will be slightly thicker.4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Return the shanks and all reserved juice in the bowl to the dutch oven. Add the star anise, whole cloves, bay leaf, and red chili pepper flakes. Cover with the lid of the dutch oven.5. Bake the lamb shanks for 2 hours, until they are fork-tender. Your kitchen will smell fragrant and unbelievable by this point!6. Serve immediately, or allow to cool completely before transferring to the fridge. The lamb shanks will keep for up to 3 days. Serves 2-3.* A quick recap of the White Pepper Rub:2 tsp. White peppercorns12 Black peppercorns1 tsp. Fennel seeds1 tsp. Coriander seeds5 whole cloves1 Cinnamon Stick, 2 inches in length, broken in half2 tsp. Dark brown sugar1 1/2 tsp. Fine-ground sea saltGrind the first 6 ingredients in a spice grinder. Transfer to a small bowl & mix with brown sugar and sea salt. Keeps for a month in a small airtight container.