Port Braised Beef Shanks
I have been having an awful lot of day-mares lately. Mike (not so) affectionately likes to refer to these as “hallucinations”, but I think that they’re merely the product of an over active imagination and an incredibly sleep deprived body playing tricks on my waking mind. There was the time a few weeks ago when my purse strap slowly drooped down on the front seat of my car, and I froze with that split-second panic of “HOW WILL I DRIVE WHEN THERE’S A GIANT SERPENT IN THE CAR?” Sane? No. I get that. But until I start working less and sleeping more I don’t anticipate too much of a change to my Snakes In Cars lifestyle and perspective.
Tonight, I was all bundled up with my hood on and a blanket wrapped around my shoulders, staring outside at the gently falling snow. It was quiet and calm. It was a good time for introspection, and I realized that I was struggling to come to terms with the fact that I had been born an Inuit girl. At first this was cause for consternation because, frankly, I despise the snow and the frosty season from whence it came. I frowned and pushed myself to try and find a silver lining. I began actively crafting an attitude, trying to reposition created memories of being an Inuit child and imagining the fun I had coasting down the icy slopes in my special ski/snow shoes that I had (of course) created. They were wooden and painted pink. But…but then the ‘real’ memories came flooding back about how my Inuit childhood was actually filled with hard labor, bitingly harsh winds, and games of “scoop out the whale blubber as fast as you can.” The mood was shattered and I was depressed. This was not how I wanted to remember my life, nor was it how I wanted to live out the rest of my days. I felt like a deceiver and a failure to my tribe. It was increasingly clear that I was born into a world to which I truly did not belong.
Then my eyes re-focused and I was in my home, sitting on my couch in front of the heater with a blanket wrapped around my shoulders. I blinked. I was not actually an Inuit. I looked around and saw my cats, our drooping Christmas tree, and the pile of books that I still haven’t started to read. Now, more than ever, it is becoming abundantly clear to me that I am stark raving mad.
Anyway, here’s a recipe for port braised beef shanks. They’re awfully good (says the crazy woman). Actually, I would go as far as to say that this was one of the best things that I’ve made in a while, and I haven’t seen Mike devour his dinner with so much gusto since the buccatini with lamb and walnut ragu. He started by complaining about portion size, as always (“Oh, babe, you KNOW I can’t eat that much! I’m not a sumo-trucker-lumberjack!”), but then smacked his lips to a cleaned plate before I had finished untying my beef. The meat was falling off the bone and almost insouciant with tenderness, melting richly into the mouth with each savory bite. Absolutely delicious….and whale blubber free.
Port Braised Beef Shanks
- 4 beef shanks on the bone, each over 1″ thick (~2kg)
- 2 tbsp butter
- 2 tbsp vegetable or canola oil
- 2 small yellow onions
- 6 fat cloves garlic
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 1/2 cup ruby Port *
- 2 cups red wine
- 2 bay leaves
- 1.5 tsp dried thyme
- 1 tsp dried rosemary
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1/8 tsp hot red pepper flakes
- beef stock to cover (2-4 cups, depending on size of Dutch oven) **
- salt and pepper to taste
* If you don’t have Port you can substitute with Marsala, Madeira (use 1/3 cup and increase red wine by 1/4 cup), or sweet sherry.
** A rich, gelatinous homemade beef stock will always have more flavor and yield better results, but every time that I make stock I use it up the next day so there never seems to be a supply in my freezer. A good store bought stock will absolutely suffice.
Preheat your oven to 300ºF.
If your beef shanks have a sinewy strip wrapped around the outside, which they probably do, you should either carve it off or snip it every inch or so. As the meat cooks this band will seize and cause the shanks to curl up. Removing or breaking the chain will help them to stay put. Tie the shanks tightly with kitchen twine to help them retain their shape because they will become so tender that the meat literally starts to fall apart. It’s a joy to behold, but well worth some extra care at the start.
Heat half of the oil in a large Dutch oven (or heavy bottomed and heat proof pot) over high heat until it is smoking hot. Pat the beef shanks dry and season very generously with salt and pepper. Sear the shanks two at a time, top and bottom, to get a nice dark caramelized crust. Add the remaining oil to sear the second batch.
Lower the heat to medium and allow the temperature of the vessel to come down. In the mean time, peel the onions and chop them in half before slicing into thin half moons. Peel and mince the garlic. Melt the butter into the oil. Sauté the onions and garlic in the fat of the pan until the onions are softened and fragrant, about 5 minutes, making sure that nothing burns.
Deglaze the pan by pouring in the Port and red wine. Liquid into a hot pan will react immediately to loosen the bits of caramelized flavor which are clinging stubbornly from when the meat was seared. Use your spoon or a wide whisk to stir and scrape the bottom and sides of the pan vigorously as the liquid boils tumultuously away.
Dollop in the tomato paste, stirring to combine. Add in the bay leaves, dried herbs and spices. Let this simmer together for approximately two minutes so that the tomato can marry into the sauce.
Snuggle the browned shanks into the liquid and add enough beef stock so that they are just covered.
Put a tight fitting lid on the pot and let the shanks braise away for 4-5 hours, turning the shanks over halfway through the cooking so that the one on the bottom are now on the top. After 3.5 hours you’ll want to taste the braising liquid and add seasoning if necessary, remembering that you want the flavors to infuse into the meat but it would be a shame to over-salt. After all, the marrow from your chunky soup bones has been melting into that sauce for hours, and the resulting strained liquid is a fabulous stock cum jus to die for. Please, for the love of all things holy, don’t throw it out.
Carefully lift the tender shanks out of their beefy broth and serve immediately with a starchy side.
The savory beef shanks were served on a bed of mushroom and marsala risotto. The rich creaminess of the rice, along with earthy mushroom and thyme flavors, were a killer complement to the luscious meat. This is the kind of easy but elegant and heartwarmingly lush dish where the only sound in the room is the scraping of fork against plate and an occasional guttural moan. Beef shanks equal pure pleasure.
I suppose that the broth could have had the fat skimmed before getting reduced to form a rich jus to slide over the meat when served, but I just wasn’t in the mood. As it was, the touch of thin beefy juice which sluiced over the risotto from the beef was just enough to remind eaters that this moist meat was braised, y’all. That’s good enough for me.
Now what happened to all of that fabulously flavorful and marrow rich braising liquid, you ask? The gelatinous mound jiggled its way back into the Dutch oven (minus the fat cap) two days later, joining some meaty short ribs and a handful of aromatics. While the slow cooked short ribs were being shredded the braising liquid was reduced by half, forming a sauce for some broad noodles. It was incredibly decadent and rich, but good lord we just couldn’t stop eating. At one point my brother paused and said, “It’s just…this pasta…it’s like the meatiest roast beef dip that I’ve ever tasted, but..pasta…” And, sir, that’s why you should strain and save your beefy braising liquid once in a while.
I’m finishing this post as the wind howls outside and the sky is glowing a dusky yellow. Tomorrow we’re going to get smothered under another blanket of snow, and I’m craving this hearty braised beef shank so badly that I can practically taste it again. Sigh. At least the weekend is coming soon….
UPDATE: One of our delightful readers had a fortuitous accident when she made this dish. A cinnamon stick fell into the pot and got lost under all the beef shanky goodness. It wasn’t until the dish was served that she detected an intoxicating, North African aroma wafting out. I can only imagine how delicious that would have been, and now I feel almost bereft for not having thought of it myself. Thank you for the suggestion, Alana!