Braised Lamb Shanks in a Red Wine and Chocolate Sauce
At four days past Valentine’s Day, you might be ready to stab your eyeball out with a cheap take-out chopstick at the thought of seeing any more romance laced foods with descriptions that are practically batting their bedroom eyes at you. That’s a shame, because you’re in for yet another. This was the entree that we feasted on after a sexy light appetizer of pan seared scallops in a champagne and tarragon sabayon, which was cute enough to make you want to vomit ever so slightly with disdain, even as you surreptitiously took notes on how to make the recipe. It was rich and sexy with a velvety chocolate soaked sauce, and despite his abomination of Things With Bones, my honey-bum licked his plate clean before flatly intoning, “This. Was. The. Best. Thing. I. Have. Ever. Eaten.” Frankly, I struggle to find fault with such hyperbole when it is clearly in my favor.
After an appetizer which was so sublime and exquisitely light, a deep, dark and delicious entree was just what the witch doctor ordered. The thing is, I’m aware that not everybody enjoys a complex and herbal cocoa spiked mole sauce, in the same way that I’m aware that some people don’t like sunshine and kick puppies. I know that it’s a possibility, I just don’t understand why. I’m one of those people to whom the words, ‘acquired taste’ are both a challenge and a reminder, so matching classic flavors like robust red wine and chocolate with the gamey and lean lamb was a pleasure and a treat. When I think of the flavors in this dish, I imagine an Aztec Warrior crossing paths with a Gourmande Française during a peyote-soaked love fest in the Pacific Northwest. Not that Pacific Northwest always makes me think of orgies, or anything. Although it totally does.
I should also mention that I’m rather enamored with shanks. Yes, it refers to the lean and flavorful shinbone of the lamb. But then I get to say, “I shanked that bloody bastard in the shank of his shank with my shank” and it actually makes a queer type of prison-guard sense, which I find absolutely engaging for obvious reasons. Then again, my B.G. would have thought this was a limbo room and totally boned out of the jug up if I tried to describe it that way, so braised lamb in red wine and chocolate it is.
Braised Lamb Shanks in a Red Wine and Chocolate Sauce
- 3 lamb shanks (each about 1 lb or 1/2 kg)
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 medium yellow onion
- 4 large or 5 medium cloves garlic
- 1 bottle red wine *
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- 3/4 tsp allspice berries
- 1/2 tsp dried rosemary
- 1 dried chili **
- 1 star anise
- 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 1 can (15.5 oz) diced tomato
- 1 oz semi sweet chocolate ***
- salt and pepper to taste
* Go for a rich, full bodied and barely sweet red wine, like an Argentian Malbec or your favourite Shiraz.
** I have been savagely guarding the stash of dried chili that The Spiteful Chef sent me in the mail a few months ago, but every now and then (for a good cause) I will grudgingly slip one from the cache. This was one of those times, and I used a dried chili de arbol. If you don’t have access to that (which I totally understand, in the most whinging way possible), you could try a dried cayenne or pequin pepper.
*** No need to call me out, folks. That is indeed unsweetened chocolate in the picture rather than semi-sweet. What can I say, other than that I wasn’t paying attention when I started madly pulling things out of cupboards and setting up shop? Put the unsweetened back in the freezer, because it will be too bitter for the sauce and I imagine that it would change the texture to be slightly chalkier. Or maybe that’s my imagination. Who’s to know for sure? Either way, opt for semi-sweet.
Preheat your oven to 325ºF.
Rinse the shanks under cold water and gently pat them dry. Remove as much of the outer membrane and silver skin as you can from each shank, carving off any truly excessive fat (not that there should be much) while you’re at it. No need to be a Viking with the fat removal though, because remember the golden rule that a bit of fat means FLAVOR.
Season the shanks quite liberally with salt and pepper.
Heat the oil up in a large, heavy bottomed skillet or pan set over high heat. When the oil is shimmering and starting to smoke it is hot enough to sear. Gently lay the shanks down, aiming away from you as you place them in the pan. Grease splatters doth not a happy Tina make. Sear the shanks on all sides until they are richly browned. You may need to do this in batches unless you have an awfully large pan. When the shanks are browned, snuggle them into the bottom of a Dutch oven in as close to an even layer as you can. Do not discard the fat from the pan, but reduce the heat to medium.
Peel and roughly chop the onion. Remove the skins from the garlic cloves and chop each one in half. Sauté both together in the same pan using the oil and fat from the shanks.
When the onions are soft and just starting to brown around the edges, pour in the wine and stir vigorously to lift up all the delicious browned bits that were languishing in the bottom of the pan just moments before.
Pour the wine over the shanks in the Dutch oven. Add the Bay leaf, chili and spices. Pour in the can of diced tomatoes and balsamic vinegar. Fill the empty can, which previously held the tomatoes, with water and pour just enough into the vessel to barely cover the shanks. Do you see that meaty bit poking out in the bottom? He got muscled down just a little bit deeper before a touch more of the water was added.
Put a lid on the Dutch oven and tuck it inside your oven for about 3 hours, turning the shanks and pressing them down into the liquid at the halfway mark. The lamb shanks are ready when the meat has started to pull away from the bone, and it is tender enough to be easily separated.
Remove the lamb shanks to a casserole dish.Do you see the way that the meat has pulled away from the bone and is just starting to come apart? That is exactly what you want. The flavors will be rich and deep but the meat is tender enough that you can ease it apart with a spoon. Glory on a platter, I say.
Strain the sauce through a wire mesh and into a medium to small pot.
Use a wooden spoon to really press against the solids and strain out as much liquid as possible. Allow yourself to discard the solids which are trapped in the mesh. They have officially played their part.
Reduce the oven temperature to 200ºF. Ladle out 3/4 cup of the broth and pour it over the lamb shanks. Tent the shanks with foil and tuck them into the oven to keep warm while you finish the sauce.
Set the pot of meaty wine broth (drool) over a medium high heat and bring it to a boil. Let this cook down and reduce for about 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally so that it does not burn on to the bottom.
In the mean time, chop up the chocolate fairly well.
When the liquid in the pot has reduced to just a few ounces under 1 cup, remove it from the heat and add the chocolate. Let the chocolate melt into the sauce for just a minute or two before you start stirring, because you don’t want it to separate and become granular. Gently stir the sauce until the chocolate is incorporated. Give your spoon a quick lick (and immediately put it in the dishwasher, because I have a total phobia of lick-germs, even my own lick-germs, and the thought of using it to stir again just makes me shudder. I blame my Science Teacher Father for that one) and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Lay a lamb shank down on a bed of roasted garlic and Brie polenta (or, you know, some buttered rice…) and revel in your intrinsic ability to cook magnificent meals for your loved one. Take a minute to pat yourself on the back, smile smugly with self-congratulation, and take another sip or two of your aperitif….
….THEN remember that you made a delicious chocolate sauce with red wine reduction, and spoon that over top.
This is one of those meals when it is not only fair but necessity that you debate with your spouse over whether to call your firstborn by a royal name like Bacchus or a hippie-chic moniker like Cocoa Nib.
(P.S. – Cocoa Nib always wins)
In terms of romance, richly flavored lamb shanks are as elegant as they are delicious, but when you combine that with a deep, sweet sauce redolent of fennel seed and dark chocolate, oh lo lo! If the scallops in a champagne and tarragon sabayon didn’t have your lover chasing you up the stairs, this one certainly will.