It’s chilly. I want a fire in the hearth and a simmering pot of stew, or a reasonable facsimile thereof on the stove. Indeed, braises and stews are foremost in my mind these days. That’s really all I want to cook and eat throughout the cold months. Anything from an Irish stew to a French beef Bourguignon suits my fancy. When lamb shanks came my way recently, I looked to Morocco for inspiration, so the shanks became a kind of tagine, cooked long and slowly to succulence.
My method for the lamb is a bit of a project when it comes to time, but it’s not complicated and, for the most part, it cooks itself while you wait. I first simmer the shanks in lightly salted water. Then, saffron-stained softened onions form the base of the braise, along with a bit of tomato, paprika and dried apricots. After three hours, the lamb is fragrant and tender. Parsnips join the pot later, and chickpeas top the final product. (Take the time to soak and cook dried chickpeas, if you can. Using canned is easier, but freshly cooked chickpeas taste far better, and the drained cooking liquid makes a delicious vegetarian broth for a future soup.)
Since big lamb shanks can seem daunting, I remove the cooked meat from the bone and cut it into more manageable pieces. Though the chunks of parsnip almost resemble bones at first glance in the final dish, the tagine’s overall impression is sweet and golden, both visually and on the tongue. The intermingling of flavors feels magical, perfect for the season.
As with most braises, this one improves after a night in the fridge, giving the flavors time to deepen and meld. It makes great leftovers for the same reason. It’s fine to make it even a few days before serving.
Lamb shanks with apricots and chickpeas
• About 4-5 pounds lamb shanks (4 total)
• Salt and pepper
• 1/4 cup olive oil
• 1 large onion, diced (about 1 1/2 cups)
• 1 1/2 teaspoons grated garlic (from 1 large clove)
• 1 dried bay leaf
• Large pinch of saffron
• 3 tablespoons tomato paste
• 1 tablespoon sweet paprika
• 1/2 pound dried apricots (1 generous cup)
• 1 pound parsnips, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks (slice any larger end pieces in half lengthwise)
• 1 (14-ounce) can chickpeas, drained (1 1/2 cups)
• 1/2 cup cilantro leaves, roughly chopped, and tender stems
Season lamb shanks generously with salt and pepper. Place in a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot. Cover with 6 cups water, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to a low simmer and cook, covered with lid ajar, for 1 hour. Remove shanks and reserve cooking liquid. Wipe out the pan. (You may cook the lamb shanks in advance, even a day ahead.)
Set Dutch oven over medium-high heat and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add onions and cook, stirring, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon garlic, bay leaf, saffron, tomato paste and paprika. Stir together and let sizzle for 1 minute, then add reserved lamb broth and bring to a boil. Add lamb shanks and apricots, cover with lid ajar and simmer for 1 1/2 hours, until meat is very tender, nearly falling off the bone.
Remove shanks and place on a cutting board to cool. Add parsnips to simmering broth, and cook until tender, about 15 minutes. Taste broth and adjust seasoning. If necessary, reduce over medium-high heat to concentrate cooking juices.
When shanks are cool enough to handle, remove the bones (use your hands). Cut the meat into large chunks and return to the pot to warm through. Transfer meat and sauce to a serving platter.
To finish, warm remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add remaining 1/2 teaspoon garlic and let sizzle without browning, about 30 seconds. Add chickpeas and warm them through, about
5 minutes. Season lightly with salt, and toss with the chopped cilantro. Spoon chickpeas over lamb and sauce.
Total time: About 3 1/2 hours, serves 4-6.