Braising yields some of the best dishes I know to serve on a chilly winter evening. This moist-heat cooking method generally involves larger pieces of meat or poultry, which are first browned to give them a beautiful color and enhance their flavor, and then very gently simmered in just enough flavorful liquid to submerge them. During a few hours of mostly unattended cooking, the main ingredients become fall-apart tender, and infused with the rich flavors of their cooking liquid. Often, that liquid is then briefly boiled to reduce it into a luscious sauce.
The results are surprisingly complex and thoroughly delicious, yet many home cooks aren’t aware of how simple braising really is. Essentially, it’s a three-step cooking process: brown, simmer and reduce. But thanks to the wide range of choices you can make in the type of protein, accompanying vegetables, cooking liquids and seasonings, basic braising can yield so many different finished dishes that you could never cook them all.
My recipe for Braised Lamb Shanks With Squash and Peas is a great example of how a basic braise can yield an elegant yet home-style main course for a casual dinner party or special family meal. Follow the recipe carefully, and in the process, you’ll gain a good understanding of how the method works.
For this dish, you start with lamb shanks. They’re a relatively inexpensive cut, being tough, and this quality makes them perfect for the braising process. Such cuts from harder-working muscles are also incredibly flavorful, and the slow, gentle, moist cooking method softens the meat to absolute tenderness. Cubes of hardy winter squash, cooked along with the meat, also achieve a melting softness, while developing a savory-and-sweet flavor that complements the lamb beautifully.
To begin, brown the shanks in the same Dutch oven in which they’ll be simmered. This step gives them an attractive, deep-brown, flavorful surface. Some diced aromatic vegetables, browned after the meat, add even more flavor to the results. And deglazing the caramelized pan juices in the cooking vessel with some red wine captures every last bit of that flavor.
The wine is then combined with canned tomatoes and beef broth to form a cooking liquid that mingles its own profile of flavors with those of the meat and vegetables. Once the lamb is done, reduce that liquid to thicken and concentrate it, producing a perfect sauce that ties everything together.
I’m sure you’ll agree that it all sounds fairly straightforward. It really is. So, I hope you’ll give braising a try. Start cooking this recipe on some cold weekend afternoon. By evening, you’ll have a main dish that’s so delicious and satisfying you’ll want to make it again very soon.
BRAISED LAMB SHANKS WITH SQUASH AND PEAS
6 lamb shanks, each 1/2 to 3/4 pound
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium-to-large yellow onion, chopped
2 medium organic carrots, peeled and chopped
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/2 cup dry red wine
3 cups organic beef broth
1 cup drained canned diced tomatoes
1 cup frozen pearl onions
1 1/4 cups peeled acorn or butternut squash cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 cup frozen baby peas
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley leaves, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Meanwhile, season the lamb shanks all over with the rosemary, salt and pepper to taste. Heat a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil. As soon as it’s hot enough to flow freely, add the lamb shanks, working in batches to avoid overcrowding. Saute the shanks, turning them occasionally, until evenly browned (about 10 minutes per batch). As each batch is browned, transfer the shanks to a plate and set aside.
Pour off excess fat from the Dutch oven and return it to the heat. Add the remaining tablespoon of oil. Add the onion and carrots and saute, stirring frequently, until they are tender and just beginning to brown (about 5 minutes). Stir in the garlic and saute, stirring continuously, until fragrant (about a minute).
Add the wine. Stir and scrape with a wooden spoon to deglaze the pan deposits. Return the lamb shanks to the Dutch oven. Add the broth, tomatoes, pearl onions and squash. Season lightly with more salt and pepper, cover, and transfer the pan to the preheated oven.
Cook until the meat is almost tender enough to fall off the bone when touched with a fork (1 1/2 to 2 hours, depending on the size of the shanks). Add the peas about 30 minutes before the lamb is done.
With a slotted spoon, transfer the vegetables and lamb shanks to a heated serving platter, arranging the shanks on top of the vegetables. Cover with aluminum foil.
With a large shallow spoon, skim as much fat as you can from the surface of the cooking liquid in the Dutch oven. Place the Dutch oven, uncovered, on the stovetop over medium-high heat. While the liquid comes to a boil, skim off more fat as it rises to the surface. Adjust the seasonings to taste with salt and pepper.
Spoon the sauce over the lamb shanks and vegetables. Garnish with parsley and serve.