Lamb shanks, for me, are a once-in-a-blue-moon food. Even though it’s a meat commonly eaten all over the world, I’ve always felt it was a dish meant for special occasions. I don’t have a lot of those, but I have been experiencing a lot of “I am done with freaking everything” days for, oh, I want to say the past three years now. These are special times, and this is a very special comfort food dish that will, for a short while, make everything seem wonderful.
While shopping for lamb shanks, I discovered two supermarkets near me carry lamb shanks that are completely different sizes—the ones I purchased from Wegman’s were quite small and sold in factory-wrapped packages of two, and the ones from Harris Teeter were big, hulking mamajammas that were well over a pound each. I mention this because it’s important for you to know that the only way you’ll know when your lamb is done is by testing it yourself—when it comes to braises, you must let the meat speak to you.
Another nice thing about braises is that all the shanks do not need to be the same size, so do not fret if your supermarket is being a bit uncooperative with its inventory. What’s most important with the lamb is that it all can fit into the pot, and that it is brown AF before you braise it. I’m talking cooking over high, open-all-the-windows type heat until every bit of that lamb is the color of rich mahogany. If you’re going to bother going through all the trouble of making yourself braised lamb shanks, you might as well do it right. Right?
Speaking of doing things right, spend a few extra dollars and spring for good dried cranberry beans, because it would be a shame to make all this beautiful lamb just to serve it with sad beans. You’ll notice in this recipe that I don’t call for soaking them, and that’s not a mistake: In a dish like this, which is being cooked for a long stretch of time, there is no need to soak your beans, since all that does is soften them to cut down on their cooking time. This thing is going to be in the oven for at least three hours anyway, so you’re good. Just give them a rinse before cooking.
When it came to flavoring this braise, I knew I didn’t want any strong flavors that would overwhelm the lamb or the beans, as they both taste so good on their own that very rarely does a bell or whistle improve them. I did have a hunch that one of my newest obsessions, the Cara Cara navel orange, would make a nice addition, and (as usual) I was right. I put fat strips of orange peel into the pot and added the freshly squeezed juice from their vibrantly pink flesh. These oranges seem to be readily available in supermarkets during the winter months and are often sold in bags—I used three in the recipe, which I felt was a good starter for those of you who aren’t keen on kitchen improvisation, but if you dig them, go nuts with them.
As you can tell from the photos, this recipe yields a lot of food. And that’s a good thing! Braises—especially this one—magically become more delicious as they age. Even if you’re only cooking for one, make the whole thing. Eat more on day two, and maybe day three (I don’t know if it’s possible to get sick of this). Pull the lamb meat from the bones and freeze containers of this braise so you’re prepared for the gloomiest of gloomy days. You know that there are going to be plenty of “Seriously, done with freaking everything” days ahead of us this year.
- 6 lamb shanks (6-8 lbs. total)
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 4 onions
- 3 carrots
- 2 celery stalks
- 6 garlic cloves (for chopping up); 6 whole garlic bulbs, relatively fresh with taut skins (for roasting whole with the lamb)
- 1/3 cup tomato paste
- Juice of 3 Cara Cara oranges
- 1 small package fresh thyme
- 1 small package fresh oregano
- 1 small bunch flat leaf parsley
- 1/4 cup harissa spice
- 6 cups water
- 1 quart beef stock
- 1 lb. dried cranberry beans
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 8 bay leaves
- Kosher salt
Add the oil to a large Dutch oven over high heat; pat three lamb shanks dry with paper towels, salt quite generously, and set in the pan to brown. Don’t rush yourself through this part—I give myself an hour to get this whole dish prepped before it goes in the oven, because the flavor you get from deep browning is everything and you won’t get it if you’re always futzing with the lamb while it’s in the pot, trying to hurry it along. Set the lamb shanks on their sides in the oil, leave them undisturbed for about 5 minutes, then give them a turn. You want to brown all five sides of the shank, too, so figure it’s going to take you 15-20 minutes. Then, move them to a plate, and repeat with the remaining three lamb shanks.
Peel the onions and carrots, add to a food processor with the celery and garlic cloves, and pulse until everything is chopped very, very small, but not pureed. Once the lamb is done cooking, add the vegetables to the Dutch oven, standing back a bit because the quite-wet vegetables will release a big burst of steam once they hit the hot oil. Add a big pinch of salt and continue to cook over high heat, stirring frequently, until all the water evaporates and the mixture begins to deeply brown; about 10-15 minutes.
While the vegetables are doing their thing, prepare the Cara Cara oranges and the herbs. Use a vegetable peeler to remove the peel of one orange in fat, thick slices. Zest the other two oranges into a small bowl; cover and refrigerate the zest for later. Juice all the oranges into a small bowl. Strip the leaves off 10 sprigs of parsley, 4 sprigs of fresh oregano, and 10 small springs of fresh thyme. If you cannot find fresh oregano, it’s fine to use 1 1/2 teaspoons of dried; if you cannot find fresh thyme, do not use dried thyme, because dried thyme tastes terrible, and you and your lamb shanks are better off without it. Chop the herbs together very, very well and stir into the orange juice.
This is when you should turn on your oven—preheat to 375 degrees. Make sure your oven racks are arranged far enough apart to fit the Dutch oven.
Once the vegetables have browned, add the tomato paste and continue to cook for 2-3 minutes until it just begins to caramelize. Add the harissa spice and cook, stirring constantly, for another two minutes until intensely fragrant. Add the orange juice-herb mixture, scraping the brown bits off the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Add the water and beef stock, stir in the cranberry beans, then add a heaping tablespoon of salt. Put the beef shanks into the pot with their bones facing upwards, jostling the beans around as necessary to make them fit. Tuck the orange peels, cinnamon sticks, and bay leaves in various spots around the pot, then slide that bad boy into the oven.
Roast the pot uncovered for an hour; then, stir the beans, repositioning the lamb shanks as needed, and roast for another hour. Slice the top third off of each of the six whole bulbs of garlic; wrap the trimmed pieces and store in the freezer for the next time you make a pot of stock. Slide the pot out of the oven and nestle in the garlic at sporadic intervals, cut side up (if they sink a bit, it’s okay—as the liquid reduces, they’ll breech the surface). Roast for another 60-90 minutes or so, until the meat is tender when tugged at with a fork.
Once the lamb is out of the oven, let it rest for at least 15 minutes to let the broth thicken a bit—the beans will do all the work there, so no need to fuss around with it. While it rests, roughly chop up some parsley until you get a yield of about 1/3 cup, then add one tablespoon each of fresh thyme leaves and fresh oregano. Take the bowl of orange zest out of the refrigerator, mix it with the herbs on your cutting board, and mince everything together.
To serve, ladle beans into a shallow bowl, then top with a whole lamb shank and a generous sprinkle of the herb mixture (see photo at the top). Also serve each portion with a bulb of the roasted garlic, which you can smear all over the lamb shank if you so desire.
If you have leftovers, good; like all stews and braises, the flavor of this dish will improve as it rests. If the beans have over-thickened while in the refrigerator, stir in as much water as needed to loosen while reheating.