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Lamb Shanks


Spring has officially arrived and that triggers all sorts of events In the Maryland marketplace. This is of course the season of lamb and many of us are dusting off our cookbooks, looking for recipes. One of Chef Jerry Pellegrino’s favorite dishes is braised lamb shanks, which he used to cook to perfection at Corks.

So, we’ll talk about lamb shanks, which corresponds to the shin of a sheep. Above the shank is the leg of lamb, below it the knee. Although it isn’t very big, it is loaded with muscle and connective tissue, and because of the work it gets during the animal’s life, it is very flavorful. Keep in mind that the shanks from the forelegs are much smaller than the shanks from the hind legs, which can be quite big chunk of meat. Now the problem is that this is one tough cut of meat that doesn’t yield easily to a knife and fork.

The solution? The cooking technique known as braising, which is one of those long slow processes that bathes the meat in a deeply flavored broth that slowly cooks the meat and loosens the connective tissue.

The braising liquid itself needs to have an acidic component, and for that, red wine works very well. The rule of thumb is to use a wine that is good enough for easy sipping, but not so expensive that you’ll have regrets. For volume, you can use either chicken broth or beef broth. Seasonings would include salt and pepper, as well as a variety of herbs and spices such as rosemary, thyme, parsley, bay leaves and cinnamon sticks... The standard assortment of vegetables that go into the sauce are carrots, onions, celery, garlic, parsnips and turnips. They will all be cut up into small pieces.

Prepare your braising liquid in a bowl. A typical recipe would call for 2-4 cups of red wine and another 4 cups of whichever broth you want to use. (Keep in mind that a rich beef broth will give you a deeper flavor.) Go ahead and add your seasonings and herbs at this point.

One important step in the process is to brown the meat on all sides. You should do this in the same pot you will be using for the braise. Season the shanks with salt and pepper, then heat a little oil in the pot and sear every square inch of the shank that you can get at.

Take out the shanks and set aside, then deglaze the pot with a little red wine, taking care to scrape up the brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pot. Lay the cut up vegetables on the bottom of the pot and place the shanks on top of them. Pour the braising liquid into the pot and cover a little more than half of the shank. Do not completely submerge the shanks, since you want half a shank at a time to bake in the hot moist air while the other half bathes in the braising liquid.

Now you’re ready to cook. Cover the pot tightly and either bake it in a 325° oven or on a stove top. If you go the stove top route, bring the liquid to a boil then reduce to a simmer.

Either way, you’ve got at least 4 ½ hours on your hands. Improve the time by turning the shanks two or three times, alternating the braise and the bake. And if the braising liquid is evaporating, top it off with a mixture of wine and broth.

When you reckon you’ve got about 30 minutes to go, refresh the vegetables by adding large pieces of carrot and onion. They should have plenty of time to cook to tenderness.

When the shanks are clearly done (the meat will literally be falling off the bone) remove them carefully and keep warm, along with the fresher vegetables. Strain the broth and pour it into a sauce pan. Bring to a boil and reduce by about ¼ . Check the seasoning and adjust to taste. Return the shanks, the vegetables and the broth into the original pot and cook for about 10 more minutes to get everything piping hot.

More often than not, the shanks and veggies will be served on a bed of mashed potatoes. And use that braising sauce to good advantage. Generously pour it over the meat and potatoes and perhaps garnish with fresh parsley.

This is not the time for a timid little red wine, so be sure to pick out something with some stuffing and character.

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.