Buddy barks, walks to the kitchen and expects me to follow, each time he turns to retrieve me, he makes it one step less, back to the kitchen, before repeating. Tonight we have braised lamb shanks heating in the oven but it could have been seaweed, okay, not seaweed but surely something of lesser interest because he isn’t in a discerning state right now.
He is convinced he is hungry (all in his head) and notes I am taking a break. Actually he, more likely, suspects he has missed our dinner altogether, perhaps in between naps. Why else would I be so relaxed away from my post in the kitchen? It doesn’t matter that they have been sufficiently fed (both with raw bison, dry duck & potato kibble, not to mention the cruet bowl typical at happy hour).
They have been outside twice, sniffing, rummaging and doing their business in the yard. Two minutes ago they were angelically settled in on the couch as if they had already brushed their teeth and slipped into their footsies to watch a little show before bed. Stan Getz was serenading us from the HiFi as Tom and I caught a moment of pause; we were not quite ready to eat. Apparently too much time had lapsed between courses for Buddy though because nanoseconds after I had had this thought of angels, I heard the lil’ devil bark.
Buddy has made it a new habit to use his voice in trying to get me to obey. It used to begin silently with Buddy at my feet, a tilt of his head, one ear cockeyed and eyes begging me to follow. Next came the sound of his toe nails scurrying to his bowl. Then back to my feet. A small squeak would escape in case I hadn’t noticed him as he ran back to the kitchen. When I don’t make a move, he returns, short stubby legs wobble beneath him as he musters the loudest plea he can make, then retreats once again. Tonight, he skipped to the end and went from sleeping to barking without all the foreplay but each time he retreats, he makes it one step less to the kitchen, as if in disbelief that I sit unmoving to appease him. Yet, I do always appease him, in the end.
VERMOUTH BRAISED LAMB SHANK – alongside melted fennel, carrots and polenta
Growing up, lamb was my all time favorite thing which, I guess, is a little odd for a kid who was not a particularly good eater. Every year I look forward to Whole Foods bringing in Icelandic lamb; it is quite lean and has a clean, delicate flavor. I usually buy it every week until it is no longer available. For those that don’t like lamb, you should give this stuff a try and you might just be surprised to find that you like it after all. Do try to buy grass fed; If using a fattier lamb shank, you might need to de-fat the liquid that becomes the sauce.
Lamb shanks – 1 per person – this recipe will handle between 2-4. With a big enough pot and slight alterations to quantities, you could certainly do up to 8.
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper for seasoning
Dijon mustard – 1 tsp per shank
Flour for dredging
2 TB olive oil
1/2 cup vermouth to deglaze pan
1 sweet or yellow onion, sliced and cut in half – approximately 1 1/2 cups
1 cup diced carrots
A few fennel fronds and ends, trimmings from the fennel that will cook alongside the lamb
4 cloves garlic, chopped – you can certainly use more or less; I like to use more rather than less
1 jalapeño – cut in half, seeds and stem removed, course chopped
1 TB olive oil for sautéing
1 lemon cut in half
2 tomatoes (preferably from the vine) cut in half
1 – 1 1/2 cups white vermouth
1/2 – 1 cup veal, beef, lamb or chicken stock
Whole carrots – (2 or 3 per person), cut in half lengthwise
Fennel bulb – (1 per two people) trimmed of stems and frond, cored, cut in half lengthwise
sweet onions – (1 per person), skin removed, cut in half
1/2 cup corn meal (I use whole grain un-processed but any will work)
1 1/2 cups water or stock
2 tsp kosher salt
1 peeled garlic clove, peeled and slightly crushed
A pinch of sugar (if it is handy and you remember)
Cheese, shredded – approximately 1/4 cup (or as much as you like to bring the taste to your liking, cheddar is good in polenta but today I used crumbled goat cheese)
Season the lamb with salt and pepper. I actually use a meat seasoning that I make myself by roasting black pepper corns, coriander seeds and Malden sea salt and grinding them with a mortar & pestle. Rub the seasoning into the meat and then rub over the Dijon, massaging it in as you go.
Heat a large, shallow Dutch oven over medium heat then add the oil, heating until it glides freely over the bottom of the pan. Dredge the lamb in flour and brown on all sides. It is important to let the lamb brown, undisturbed until it releases itself from the pan without tugging; this will be several minutes so be patient and make yourself useful doing other prep or relax with a glass of wine as you watch over it until it is ready to be turned. Repeat until all sides are brown.
Deglaze the pan with the vermouth. I really like this part. The liquid hits the pan with a large burst of noise and sets off an exciting puff of steam that makes my heart skip a beat thinking the pan will explode, yet before I can even finish this thought, it tames itself and threatens to disappear. You must work quickly to scrape the bits from the bottom of the pan, then transfer it to a plate, juices, bits and all.
Wipe the pan clean and repeat with the heat and the oil. Add the chopped onion, carrot, fennel fronds/stem, garlic and jalapeño. Work this around the pan over a medium low heat for about 10 minutes until the vegetables become somewhat tender.
Squeeze in the juice from the lemon and add the rind into the pan. Toss in the tomatoes then pour over the vermouth and stock. Bring this to a simmer then put the lamb on top, pouring over any juices that pooled under the lamb.
Now you have a few choices: add the carrots fennel and onion halves now (which I am inclined to do), or wait until near the end of cooking time. Either way, you can remove them when they are cooked to the consistency you most prefer.
I like to pull my carrots out before they become so soft that they can be mashed. I like leaving the onions and fennel in almost to the end so they are really meltingly soft, but I do pull them out after a few hours so they don’t melt into the liquid but rather still retain enough structure to hold themselves up on the plate. Sometimes I like to keep my fennel on the crisp-tender side. In this case 1/2 hour in the oven is all that is needed then a little time on it’s face in a pan of butter to caramelize the top; for purposes of today though, soft and silky.
I know, you are already cooking but up to this point I consider it still prepping because that was the do ahead part. Top the dutch oven with a lid and transfer it to a 300 degree oven. Keep your eye on the lamb; every now and again peek under the lid. You can baste the meat with the liquid or poke it around a bit.
Three hours (+/ -) it should be meltingly tender, so if your poking around reveals that this time table is on track, consider adding the fennel, carrots and onions 2 hours into it (if you didn’t do it up front). This will give you enough time to have them cook nicely but not melt away.
Remove the lid for the last hour so that the meat develops a nice color. Just keep your eye on it once in a while so you don’t lose all the liquid; add a little water, stock or vermouth if needed.
Remove the pan from the oven and separate out the large vegetables and the lamb on a plate or shallow bowl. Put the cooking liquid (with chunks of diced vegetable) through a chinois (or use a strainer or food mill). Really press to squeeze all the flavor from the solids. This will be your sauce.
If making this the day before you plan to eat it, wait on the above step. Let the contents of the pan cool to room temperature instead, cover and store it in the fridge. If any fat has congealed on the top when you retrieve it the next day, scrape it with a spoon and discard. Put the whole pan in a 350 degree oven and let heat through, approximately a 1/2 hour. Now continue with the step above.
TO MAKE THE POLENTA add all but the cornmeal and cheese to a saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and slowly whisk in the cornmeal in a steady stream. Once all the cornmeal is in the pan, use a stir spoon to stir it continuously until it thickens and pulls away from the side of the pan, usually 5-7 minutes. Stir in the cheese and season if needed.
I often make the polenta up to an hour before I am ready to serve just so I get it out of the way. I put it in my warming drawer but sitting over a double boiler works too, as does a reheat in the microwave; but with this option, a little added water is required.
In warm pasta bowls, put down a spoon of polenta and place the lamb shank slightly askew. Tuck in the fennel and onion, a few carrots and spoon over a little sauce.