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Sweetly spiced lamb shanks perfect for spring

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Carrots and turnips, steamed in butter, bring colors of spring to the lamb platter.

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Spiced lamb shanks with orange and honey, served with carrots and turnips steamed in butter.

Sturdy, earthy lamb shanks are worthy vehicles for any number of seasonal flavors and preparations, whether a dark mix of mushrooms and red wine, or lighter, brighter citrus notes.

Personally, I like them boiled. Well, not boiled exactly, but simmered in a pot of water on the stove.

You may have been taught that lamb shanks must first be browned, then slowly braised — a fine way to cook them. But you can also get wonderful results skipping that first step. For instance, I have seen some recipes that call for a single lamb shank added to a long-cooked vegetable soup, just as you would with a ham hock or a few chicken legs to add meatiness.

But for something bigger — a hearty main course — I first season the shanks with salt and pepper, cover them with water in a large pot, toss in a few aromatics, and let it all simmer gently for an hour and a half or so, until the meat is tender. In the process, the water becomes a delicious broth, which is then used to make a sauce.

However, a whole, bone-in shank on a dinner plate can look gargantuan, even intimidating. So, once the shanks are tender, I like to pull the cooked meat off. The finished dish, thus tamed, can seem more civilized, less Stone Age. You can do this several hours before completing the dish, up to a day or two in advance.

Rather than a deep, wintry braise, I wanted something lighter for the beginning of spring. Opting for orange and honey, along with a few sweet spices, like clove, coriander and a touch of saffron, seemed right. The zest of one orange, peeled in wide strips, and a half-cup of orange juice proved to be plenty for an intense back note. A splash of white wine also supplied acidity.

A shower of freshly snipped herbs — dill, mint, parsley, basil — brightens the dish just before serving. A bouquet of butter-steamed spring vegetables (carrots and turnips for now, peas and asparagus tips soon) is a welcome accompaniment.


By David Tanis

  • 6 meaty lamb shanks (about 6 pounds total)
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 1 large onion, cut into thick slices
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 1 thyme sprig
  • 1 bay leaf
  • >> Sauce:
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, diced (about 1-1/2 cups)
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • Pinch saffron
  • Pinch cayenne
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • Zest of 1 orange, peeled into wide strips
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 tablespoon arrowroot or cornstarch, dissolved in 2 tablespoons cold water
  • >> Vegetables:
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch batons
  • 1 pound turnips, peeled, cut in wedges
  • Salt, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons roughly chopped parsley
  • 2 tablespoons roughly chopped mint
  • 2 tablespoons roughly chopped dill
  • Handful small basil leaves

Season shanks generously with salt and pepper. Transfer to a large pot and add herbs and spices. Add enough water to cover shanks, place pot over high heat and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce to a simmer and cook 60 to 90 minutes, until meat is very tender when probed with the tip of a knife.

Place shanks on a baking sheet to cool. Strain broth into a bowl; skim fat. Measure 4-1/2 cups broth and set aside. When shanks are cool enough to handle, gently remove bone from each, leaving meat in 1 or 2 large pieces.

>> To make sauce: In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, warm olive oil over medium-high. Add onion, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until softened and slightly browned. Add garlic, saffron, cayenne, tomato paste and honey; stir to incorporate.

Add orange zest, orange juice, broth and wine to pot, and bring to a boil. Turn heat to a brisk simmer and return meat to pot. Simmer 20 minutes, until broth has reduced by an inch or so. Taste broth and adjust seasoning. Add arrowroot mixture and cook for a minute or two, until slightly thickened.

Meanwhile, cook the vegetables: In a separate pot, melt butter over medium heat. Fill pot with 1 inch of water. Add carrots and turnips, salt lightly, cover and turn heat to high. Cook 10 minutes, or until tender.

Transfer meat and sauce to a large, deep platter or serving dish. With a slotted spoon, arrange vegetables around the meat. Sprinkle with parsley, mint, dill and basil. Serves 6 to 8.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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