Thursday, April 2, 2015

Time to Celebrate!
What’s cooking? Persian-Spiced Lamb Shanks with Saffron Rice

Ok, here’s your trivia for the week. In most Latin- and Greek-based languages, the word for the holiday English speakers call Easter is some version of Pasch or Pesach, both Hebrew words for Passover. The Latin “Pascha” and the Greek “Paskha” evolved into Pascuas in Spanish, Pâques in French, Pasqua in Italian, and Páscoa in Portuguese.

But English-speakers take our cue from the Germans, who call it Ostern. The English and German words stem from Ēostre, an ancient goddess of spring, for whom a feast was celebrated at the spring equinox. (Don’t you just love this linguistic arcana? You can always rely on the Kitchen Goddess for tidbits of stuff you never really wanted to know. I can picture my sons rolling their eyes right now.) I’m not going to try to figure out why we use a non-religious root for “Easter,” but I do think it’s curious.

Regardless of what you call it and why, this is a great time of year for celebrating. Jews celebrate the Israelites’ escape from slavery in ancient Egypt, Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ, and everyone else can celebrate the arrival of Spring. Hallelujah!

Whatever your reason for celebrating, the focus of the meal is traditionally lamb. It’s a symbol of spring, when lamb is most available; it’s symbolic to Christians of Christ as the Lamb of God; and it’s symbolic to Jews as the Passover sacrifice.

For me, it’s about the taste. Lamb is simultaneously bolder in flavor and more delicate than beef, and the meat responds well to seasonings.

One of the Kitchen Goddess’s new year’s resolutions for 2015 was to try new things – new foods, new spices, new processes. “Hah!” you are saying, “The Kitchen Goddess is always trying new things.” Not true. She’s as likely as the next person to keep churning out the same dishes over and over.

But my hubby and I are part of a gourmet group, and it was recently our turn to host. Which meant I had to come up with a theme and a dish. With all the current attention on the Middle East, that seemed like a good place to start. In fact, I hope one day to wander the spice bazaars of that region without worrying about getting blown up.

For the dinner, I considered lamb chops (too simple), shish kebab (too 70s), and leg of lamb (too traditional). Then I saw it. A recipe for Persian-spiced lamb shanks, from David Tanis in The New York Times. I’d never tried the cut before. Turns out, they’re easy to find at most grocery stores that have a butcher. Lamb shanks are not generally on display, but all you have to do is ask.

You will not be sorry. They require braising to really bring out their flavor – a long, slow, simmer in a broth so fragrant you will be tempted to climb into the oven with them. Oh, my – the meat literally falls off the bone. Talk about under-appreciated – lamb shanks (which are also a relative bargain) are easily the richest, most succulent cut of meat I’ve found, and this preparation produces such a delightful mix of flavors – both fruity and spicy – that it’ll cause the top of your head to lift off just slightly and twirl around as you dive in. And the sprinkling of herbs on top nicely balances the richness of the meat and broth. Be sure to cook the meat a day or two in advance – the flavors only get better with that overnight nap.

Kitchen Goddess note: Persian cuisine makes generous use of spices, but rarely includes hot pepper. So you can relax about that. The list of ingredients looks a bit daunting at first, but take heart. Tanis recommends “Middle Eastern grocery shops,” which makes me think, “Yes, well, maybe in Manhattan.” But in Austin, I found everything I needed at a local organic/natural food store. So look around.

The dish is best served over Basmati rice, either plain with butter, or colored bright yellow and lightly flavored from a few strands of saffron dissolved in hot water. Because it’s very rich, the Kitchen Goddess added a cucumber and tomato salad dressed with olive oil and lime juice on the side.

Persian-Spiced Lamb Shanks with Saffron Rice

Adapted from David Tanis in The New York Times

4 meaty lamb shanks (4½ -5 pounds total)
kosher salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground dried rosebuds (optional)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon turmeric
vegetable oil or canola oil
¼ teaspoon crumbled saffron, plus a few strands for the rice
juice of 2 limes (approximately 4 tablespoons)
3 teaspoons rosewater
1 large onion, cut in ½-inch dice
zest from 1 lime
zest from 1½ oranges (1 tablespoon of which to be saved for garnish)
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 fresh bay leaves or 4 dried bay leaves
6 cups hot chicken broth
2 tablespoons chopped parsley, for garnish
2 tablespoons chopped mint or dill, for garnish
Basmati rice

Trim excess fat from the lamb shanks, pat them dry with paper towels, and season them generously with kosher salt. Don't skimp on the salt, as it’s critical to the flavor of the meat.

In a small bowl, combine the cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, rosebuds (if using), black pepper and turmeric. (If, like me, you found dried rose petals – not yet ground – you’ll need to pulverize them with a mortar and pestle – or some similar weapon – before mixing with the other spices.) Rub the spice mixture evenly all over the shanks. Set the meat aside to rest at room temperature for at least an hour. (You may prefer to wrap and refrigerate the meat overnight. If you do that, be sure to let it come to room temperature before proceeding.)

In a Dutch oven or deep, heavy pot over medium-high heat, pour in oil to a depth of ½ inch. Once the oil is hot (i.e., a drop of water in it will sizzle), sear the lamb shanks two at a time for 2-3 minutes per side, until browned all over. For best results, do not disturb the meat except to turn it over once.

While the meat is browning, dissolve the saffron in a small bowl with the lime juice, 2 teaspoons of the rosewater and ½ cup warm water. Let the mixture steep for 10 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350º.

Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the oil from the pot. Add the chopped onion and cook over medium heat for 8-10 minutes, until softened and pale yellow. Sprinkle the onion with salt, and add the lime zest, orange zest, thyme sprigs, and bay leaves. Add the saffron liquid, and stir well to combine. Lay the lamb shanks on top of the onion/spice mixture and pour the warm broth over all. Raise the temperature to medium high until the broth reaches a boil, then cover the pot and transfer it to the oven.

Bake 1½ hours, covered, until meat is fork-tender and beginning to pull away from the bone.

If you are serving immediately, remove the shanks to a covered serving dish and keep them warm. If you’ll be serving in a day or two, move them to a covered container large enough to hold the shanks and the strained braising liquid.

Using a fine-mesh sieve, strain the braising liquid into a bowl, pressing on the solids with a wooden spoon to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Discard the solids. Skim as much fat as you can from the surface, using a spoon or a gravy separator, if you have one. Taste the liquid, add the final teaspoon of rosewater, and salt if necessary. Bring the strained broth to a boil and simmer 5 minutes. Pour the broth over the lamb shanks.

If you’re cooking the meat ahead of time, refrigerate the shanks covered in the broth. To reheat, place the shanks and broth, covered, in a 350º oven for 30 minutes, or over low- to medium-low heat on the stovetop for the same amount of time.

Prepare the rice according to your package instructions, adding the remaining saffron to the water.

When you are ready to serve, toss together the parsley, mint, and reserved orange zest. [Kitchen Goddess note: This parsley/mint/zest combo is called gremolata, and it is way more than a foo-foo garnish. Particularly for a rich meat preparation, it can wake up your senses and take the dish from good to great. Trust the Kitchen Goddess.] Serve lamb shanks with a small amount of broth in wide, shallow soup plates, either on top of the rice or next to it. If you prefer, you can use a spoon to break the meat off the bone and serve it in large chunks. Sprinkle the gremolata on top of the meat.

A final Kitchen Goddess note: As a special touch to the meal, try adding a couple of drops (only a couple!) of rosewater to your guests’ water glasses. The difference in taste is small, but the scent will give your guests the sensation that they’re dining in an exotic garden.

For the winos among you, we served a 2009 Domaine Thunevin-Calvet "Les Dentelles" Cotes
du Roussillon Villages, a full-bodied red blend from southern France, made from carignan, grenache, and perhaps a bit of syrah grapes. The Kitchen Goddess’s professional assessment is that it was mmmm-good.

1 comment:

  1. This dish looks mah-vel-ous!

    Eileen in Atlanta