I love cooking, and I love working at home so that I can down tools around 4pm and futz around in the kitchen. It’s the only thing I do with my hands. I love chopping and slicing and pouring and kneading, and all those things you do with raw materials to transform them, almost magically, into a meal. In his book The Pudding That Took a Thousand Cooks, Michael Symons quotes the 18th Century literary biographer James Boswell who defines the human as “the cooking animal.” I like that. Grrr. I’m a cooking animal.
I answered the ‘phone the other day to a friend who has begun to cook since his wife kicked him out. He opened the conversation by asking “what do I do with shanks?” It was the Rugby League State of Origin match that night, he explained, and it was the tradition that he cooked something hearty to eat during the game.
“I’m glad you asked me that” I said to him “I’ve been thinking about them.” I had. Lamb shanks have become, as the Brisbane wit Jan Power once remarked, the frog’s legs of the noughties. She worries about all those poor little shankless lambs crawling around, just as the frogs hobbled about on crutches in the ‘70s. Looking at what people ate can be as good an indicator of the times as any other index. The ‘70s were flamboyant and glitzy, lots of razzle dazzle and platform heels. Gary Glitter and Grease. Frog’s legs were a perfect sign of the times. Exotic, fiddly and muscular. I remember eating a bowl of frog’s legs in rice in Bali. They had them sticking out as if the little frogs had dived into the rice. Whee, plop. Never to emerge. When people asked what they tasted like, you’d always say chicken.
Lamb shanks tell a far more convoluted story. They’re an item from what the Italians call cucina povera, the cuisine of poverty (although shanks are rarely seen on the Italian table, usually being left on the leg of the baby lamb that they love to roast). Like weeds (dandelion, arugula or rocket) and salted cod (bacalao), once real peasant foods, they’ve become, by the process of inverted snobbery, fashionable. If you can afford caviar, how amusing to eat weeds. Or the bits of the leg of lamb usually thrown away.
But before I told my mate how to cook shanks, I gave him a little background in the form of shank chemistry. Blokes want to know why is it so. Women just want to get on with it. Home cooking, for most women, is a chore. For men, it’s a hobby.
The shank, I told him, is the lowest portion of the far classier (and meatier) leg of lamb. It’s the bit just before the foot, with not much meat but a lot of gristle and cartilage – and that means collagen, the protein in connective tissue. The way I put it to my friend is “it’s horrible if you don’t cook the shit out of it – long and slow – but wonderful when you do.”
What happens when you cook it that way, is that you ‘denature’ the collagen, and it breaks down into gelatine, which makes for a thick, rich sauce. It works well for lamb, because the younger the animal, the more collagen it has – veal has even more, as would suckling lamb.
And by cooking the shanks slowly – you can braise them or stew them – you give the meat time to break down and release its juices, the water soluble bits of the animal responsible for the meaty flavour, called osmazome by the 19th author of The Philosopher in the Kitchen Brillat-Savarin and umami by Professor Kikunae Ikeda who synthesised what he called the fifth flavour in 1909. They mingle with the gelatine and the aromatic vegetables you’ll cook with them, along with any spices you might like to add (cumin, paprika, cinnamon) depending on the final flavour you’re aiming for.
Where you get into arguments is over what to serve with shanks. There are several possibilities, and you’ll find firm advocates for all of them. About the most popular is the similarly humble mashed spud. Choose a floury variety like Nicola , Pink Eye or Pontiac: add olive oil or butter if you like black pepper and salt: and mash them to a creamy consistency (see Bangers & mash for more information.)
Others will suggest couscous. I’m not mad on couscous with a thick sauce like this, it tends to lap it all up and go gluggy, but they’re your shanks. If you do couscous, stir some mint or caraway seeds or both through it. Yet others will argue for nothing more nor less than a crusty loaf of bread, something Italian and wood fired and hot from the oven.
For me, the best way to serve them is with the little rice shaped pasta sometimes called semini, puntine, risoni and numerous other things by the Italians, orzo by the Greeks. The sauce coats them but is not absorbed by them. You’ll want some bread as well.
To drink, I wouldn’t go past a big beefy Shiraz from the Hunter or North East Victoria, or a bottle of that wine that is itself a rich, chewy, broth, Morris Durif, also from the North East.
If looking beyond Australia, a Côtes du Rhône, a Barolo or a Rioja.
Before the recipe, a word or two about recipes. As those of you who cook regularly will know, they are not blueprints so much as signposts. With the exception of pastry cooking and baking, where ingredients and timings just be followed to the letter, most recipes are there to give you an idea of technique. Once you get the hang of that, you can add what you like. What follows is a pretty basic lamb shank recipe, with only one of my own additions, pimentón (or paprika) because if my cooking comes from anywhere, it’s Spain.
NB: This should all be done the day before you want to eat it. As Anthony Bourdain wrote in Les Halles Cookbook , “……What happens to a soup or a stew overnight, completely independent of what cooks may or may not have done, is magic.”
6 lamb shanks, cut in three pieces (ask the butcher)
2 big onions, diced
1 head of garlic, all the cloves peeled and whole (or less if you’re gutless)
1 parsnip, diced
2 carrots, diced
1 turnip, diced
2 sticks celery chopped including their leaves
250mls of red wine
ground black pepper and salt
2tspns sweet pimentón
3tblspns tomato paste
250mls beef, lamb or chicken stock
For the gremolata (optional, it’s something you throw on and mix through before serving)
1 big clove of garlic, very finely chopped
1 handful of flat leaf parsley, very finely chopped
the zest from one lemon, very finely chopped
the flesh from 3 large green olives, very finely chopped (that’s my addition).
Mix together and reserve.
Pre-heat the oven to between 100ºC and 120ºC – low – you’ll have to check while you’re cooking, it will depend on your oven.
Put some flour in a plastic bag (if it’s one of those condom thin supermarket bags use two, one inside the other) and grind in a fair bit of black pepper and a good heaped teaspoon of salt, put in the shank pieces one at a time and shake, remove, and shake off the excess flour until they’re all done
Heat a good slurp of olive oil in a big heavy (black iron best) pan, brown the shanks, and set them aside.
In the same pan and oil – add a bit more if you have to – gently cook the onions and the whole garlic cloves until the onions are translucent, then add the rest of the vegetables, more pepper and salt, stir in the paprika and the tomato paste. Cook over a medium flame, stirring, for a good ten minutes.
Turn up the flame, throw in the wine and the stock, bring to a simmer.
Put the shanks in a largish casserole with a cover – preferably earthenware or at least heavy enamel – and pour the vegetable mixture over them. Shake it through so they’re well covered, and push them under the liquid. Put the top on firmly (if there’s a steam hole seal it up with a little flour and water paste) and put it in the pre-heated oven for at least 2 ½ hours.
At the end of one hour, take a look to make sure it’s not cooking too fast – it should be bubbling along slowly (plop plop). If it’s too fast (burble burble) turn it down. If it’s not moving at all, turn it up a little or you could be waiting for hours. If it cooks too fast, you won’t break down that tissue. It’s ready when the meat comes away from the bone with a fork.
Take it out of the oven, let it cool, and leave it in the ‘fridge overnight (at least, this kind of dish gets better and better). Next day, skim off a bit of the fat (only if you want to) and re-heat on the stove top gently, adding a bit more stock if it needs it. Just before serving, throw in the gremolata (if you’re using it) and stir through. Serve it with the mash, bread, couscous or orzo.