When I moved to France, I was surprised that lamb shanks were somewhat hard to find. Many butchers sold all sorts of cuts of lamb, including lamb shoulders, ribs, and cutlets, but shanks proved elusive. Then I learned that you had to ask for them; for some reason, they’re always kept in the back. I’m not sure why, since it’s my favorite cut of lamb and it deserves to be out in the open. Souris d’agneau (lamb shanks) don’t require a lot of work. They rely on time, which turns a tough cut of meat into something soft and succulent. And with shanks, each person gets their own portion, which makes a nice presentation.
Last spring when I was on book tour in Houston, Joshua Weissman stopped by to say hi. At the ripe age of seventeen, Joshua runs a blog called Slim Palate. Joshua had been a hefty kid and decided to do something about it. So he challenged the way he ate, began eating healthy foods, and cooking for himself, which is the best way to eat well. By doing so, he lost a whopping hundred pounds on a Paleo diet. It was such a success, that kids who’d previously teased him about his weight at school started asking him for advice. So yes, it’s true: eating well is the best revenge!
Before leaving, Joshua gave me a copy of his book, The Slim Palate Paleo Cookbook, which he wrote and photographed himself. Leafing through the pages makes me feel like a loser. Because when I was seventeen, I was listening to the Steve Miller Band with my shaggy hair and sneaking cigarettes out in the backyard with the other kids in the neighborhood. (And trying to figure out why I found Bette Midler more interesting than Raquel Welch.)
I took a walk over to Belleville, to the butchers that I frequent, who are used to l’américain asking them too-many questions about all the meats and sausages that they sell, including spicy merguez, and whole roasted lamb heads – which, so far, I’ve passed on.
After getting the shanks ready, I popped them in the oven, and – boom! – the electricity in my kitchen went out. I called my electrician, who’s great (…and how do I know this? He actually answered the phone when I called.) And after some multilingual gymnastics, he told me which disjoncteur (fuse) to toggle, and I got it going again. (Thankfully “On” and “Off” are universally used terms, which helped a lot.)
The ancho chile powder gives these shanks a wonderfully burnished flavor, and the coffee adds a nice depth of flavor to the liquid. If you can’t get lamb shanks, you could use a lamb shoulder instead. Have your butcher cut it into four pieces for you. If your electricity cuts out, I can probably help you out since I’ve learned a bunch of new terms and phrases, to get you cooking again. Although because it’s winter, most natural light is gone by the time dinner is served around here. Which is something I haven’t been able to figure out how to control.
Coffee-Braised Lamb Shanks
- 2 teaspoons coriander seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sea or kosher salt
- Black pepper
- 4 lamb shanks
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large onion, peeled and diced
- 5 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 4 teaspoons ancho chile powder
- 2 cups (500ml) chicken or beef stock, or water
- 1 cup (250ml) strong coffee
- 3/4 cup (170g) diced or crushed canned tomatoes, not drained
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1-2 teaspoons hot sauce, such as harissa or Sriracha
- Put the coriander and fennel seeds in a dry skillet, and toast them over medium heat until they smell fragrant – about two minutes. Let cool, then crush the seeds in a mortar and pestle, spice mill, or in a freezer bag, using a hammer or rolling pin. Mix the crushed seeds with the salt and a few turns of freshly ground black pepper
- Trim excess fat and any tough membranes and silvery skin from the lamb shanks and rub the seed and salt mixtures into the shanks. (You can do this up to 2 days in advance. Doing so will help the flavor permeate the meat. Store the lamb shanks in a covered bowl or freezer bag, in the refrigerator.)
- Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven or casserole large enough to hold the lamb shanks in a single layer. Add the shanks to the pot and cook them, turning them once they’re well-browned on one side, and continuing to cook them, so they’re well-browned on all sides. It should take above 15 minutes, total.
- Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC).
- Remove the shanks for the pot and set them on a plate. Wipe any excess grease from the pot and add the onions and garlic, and cook until translucent, stirring frequently, about 5 minutes.
- Add the ancho chile powder and cook, stirring, for another minute, then add the stock, coffee, tomatoes, vinegar, and hot sauce. Submerge the lamb shanks in the liquid, cover the pot, and cook in the oven, turning the shanks a couple of times during the braising, until the meat is tender and pulling away from the bone. It will take about 2 1/2 hours. (The lambs shanks should cook at a steady simmer, not at a full boil. Check the pot after it’s been in the oven for 20 minutes; If the liquid is boiling vigorously, turn the temperature of the oven down to 325ºF, 162ºC.)
- When the shanks are cooked, remove the lid and continue cooking, letting the liquid reduce for about 30 to 45 minutes, until the thickness of the sauce is to your liking.