Braised Lamb Shanks with Creamy Cannellini Beans

My first braise was a complete and utter disaster. We had joined a meat CSA soon after my meat reintroduction and signed up for the "braising" package to get me comfortable with the more thrifty cuts. In our first box came a lamb shank that was maybe three-quarters of a pound. Not very intimidating. I could handle this little shank, no problem. I scoured the internet, having not yet purchased any cookbooks that covered braising, and found a seemingly easy recipe with a gorgeous picture that, in my mind, promised delicious results.

Now, I've never been the girl who throws herself into new things readily. Stemming from my innate competitive streak and desire to never look the novice, I rarely embark on endeavors where I am not proficient. Yes, my rational brain knows I can't be good at everything and yes I also know we have all got to start somewhere. However, I always thought my starting place could be at the top. I mean, why not? So consequently, taking on meat was a big step for me in that I knew the only place for me to start was...the bottom. I was able to rationalize this low rung beginning however by the simple fact that if I messed up, no one had to know. No one except the people I was serving, that is.

I stared at the little lamb shank for a good long time before diving in. "Listen little lamby…" I said softly. "I'm new at this but I'll make you a deal. I will follow the instructions word for word and do everything I can to make you happy and you, in turn, will relax into the juices I'm about to provide and reveal yourself succulent, rich and falling off the bone. Deal?" We shook on it as only a hand and shank can and the braising began. I seared the meat, sauteed the carrots and onions, reduced the wine by half, nestled the shank into the lovely, aromatic sauce and closed it in the oven to do its thing. After 3 worrisome hours, I took the shank out to see if it had held up its end of the bargain. The recipe said to braise it for two hours but being a generous cook, I thought an extra 60 minutes couldn't hurt. I removed the blisteringly-hot lid off the pot, wiped my eyes of wine-soaked steam, and nimbly touched the meat with a fork.

Tough, tough, tough! It was as if I had done nothing to inspire my would-be friend (now enemy) to let go his tight death-grip on the bone. I picked off a small piece of meat to taste. The flavor was good but the meat took a good 15 chews to get down. Not what I had envisioned! The only thing left to do was throw the shank back in the oven and hope for a miracle. Two hours later I pulled my pot from the oven for a second time, hope in my heart. Clouds of aromatic garlic and red wine wafted up at me, making the entire house smell like an Italian restaurant. How could this thing not be delicious and DONE? At this point, I was too nervous to even taste it again. Either it was done or it wasn't but no matter what, there was nothing I could do about it.

"What is that amazing smell?" Gray asked as he walked through the front door. "My first experiment with lamb shanks," I replied shakily. "Get excited." With a tight ball in my stomach, I pinched the shank between my metal tongs and placed it on Gray's plate. "I hope that hurt!" I whispered bitterly to the meat. "I can't believe you did this to me." "Looks great babe. I can't wait to try it," Gray said, licking his lips. He picked up his knife and dug into the meat. He tried a few different angles, eventually tearing off three small shreds of deceptively delicious-smelling meat and put them in his mouth. After 30 or so strong chews, he looked up and met my wide, anxious eyes. "The flavor is good," he praised. "Um, but do we have a shaper knife I could use?"

It took me 9 months to gather the courage to braise again. My badly-bruised ego needed a little bit of time to get over the massive shank failure. And though I can’t actually remember what I braised the second time around, I can thankfully say it was a success. Tender, unctuous and delectably rich, it was everything a braise should be. I often think back to my initial braising debacle and try to figure out what went wrong. Perhaps I didn’t sear the shank correctly, or gave it too much cooking time. Maybe it was simply that the stubborn shank, no matter what kind of bargain I struck with it, was never going to tenderize. He just might not have had it in him.

I now braise something at least once a month but had not, until last week, tried to braise lamb shanks again. However, last week, I decided it was time to go back to the beginning and see if I could actually do it. Could I properly braise and master the shank of the lamb or would my ego suffer another devastating blow? There was only one way to find out! I bought two extreme fresh shanks from my butcher, went home, and braised them up.

Here is my recipe for braised lamb shanks. It is adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s osso bucco milanese and I served each shank on a bed of rosemary-scented cannellini beans.  After Gray took his first bite of the perfectly tender, sweet shank he looked up and said, “Babe, any restaurant would be lucky to have this dish on their menu.” HUZZAH! I had been redeemed!

Braised Lamb Shanks

Serves 2

2 pasture-raised lamb shanks, about 1 pound each 2 tablespoons organic butter 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 garlic clove, minced 1 onion, chopped 2 celery stalks, chopped 2 carrots, peeled and chopped 1 cup red wine 2 cups chicken stock, vegetable stock, or water Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.  In a sturdy medium-sized Dutch oven, heat the butter and oil to melt.  Brown each shank on all sides then set aside.  Add the garlic, onion, celery, carrots, salt and pepper and cook until softened.  Return the shanks to the pot and add in the wine.  Bring to a simmer and let it reduce by half.  Add the stock, return to a simmer and place in the oven for 2 1/2 hours, turning the shanks once or twice.

Once shanks are done, remove from the oven and place the shanks on a warmed plate.  Drain the cooked vegetables from the broth through a fine mesh strainer.  Place the broth into a fat separator and pour out the de-fatted broth back into the Dutch oven.  Add the shanks to the broth and quickly reheat.  Serve over creamy cannellini beans with warm broth spooned over both.

Creamy Cannellini Beans

1 pound cannellini beans, picked through, soaked overnight and drained 1 onion, peeled and chopped into quarters 2 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole 1 bay leaf 1/2 a tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil Salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot add the pre-soaked beans, onion, garlic and bay leaf and cover with fresh water, about 2 inches above the beans.  Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and let cook for 1 1/2 hours. Check the beans for doneness. They should be creamy but still hold their shape.  If they are hard or crunchy, give them another 1/2 hour. When the beans are done, drain them into a large colander and RESERVE THE COOKING LIQUID. This is the pot liquor to be used later.

Fish out the bay leaf and add the beans, onion, and garlic back to the pot.  Pour 1 cup of the reserved bean liquid over the beans and toss in the rosemary, salt and pepper.  Bring the beans to a low simmer to warm up the rosemary.  Turn off the heat and with a hand immersion blender, puree the beans.  (You can also do this in batches with a regular blender.)  Pour in a bit more bean liquid of necessary to achieve desired consistency.  Once beans are pureed, add the olive oil and stir to mix thoroughly.  Add salt and pepper to taste and serve.

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Recipesjamiebeans, braise, cannellini, lamb