Lamb shanks: They take longer to cook, but it's worth every minute
With Spring slowly waking up in Ireland, two of my favourite calendar events converge: Easter and Spring lamb. Lamb, and especially Irish lamb, is one of my favourite dishes. I grew up with a very Greek influence in our family cooking, which of course includes unctuous, melt in the mouth lamb dishes.
Spring lamb is juicy and tender, but don't neglect the tougher, more sinewy cuts of meat. These can be made edible, and indeed delectable, by a low and slow cooking method, so warming casseroles, stews, tagines, and curries are ideal to use these cuts of lamb. These are more economical and ideal for feeding your Easter guests.
When you first look at a portion of raw casserole beef or lamb, you may seriously doubt that the gristly, sinewy, tough chunks can be transformed into a delicious dinner, and a lamb shank just looks like bone.
But it is exactly these unappetising bits that melt and dissolve during low slow cooking to give you melt in the mouth meat and a gorgeous, glossy gravy.
The lamb shank comes from the lower part of the leg, from the knee down. The kneeward part is the meaty part; there's practically nothing as you go further down.
As in any animal, the most-used muscles are the toughest ones. If you've ever seen a lamb at pasture, prancing and hopping, its knees working overtime, you won't be surprised to learn that the shank is one of the toughest cuts you can find on a lamb.
Lamb shanks used to be very reasonably priced as they require more effort to prepare correctly, but the prices are creeping up slowly as restaurants and home cooks realise how easy they are to cook. And most importantly, how enjoyable a properly prepared lamb shank is to eat!
Other cuts of lamb give you choices: you can grill them, braise them, even grind them up and make lamb-burgers. With shanks, there is basically no choice. You can cook them for hours, or not eat them at all.
But, once they are in the oven or the slow cooker, you can forget about them. A great argument that slow food is really fast food.
The same tough, connective tissue that makes shanks impossible to BBQ or sauté, makes them ideal for braising. Braising is a cooking method whereby you fry or sauté a food and then also cook it in liquid. First you brown the lamb shanks in a hot pan or pot, then you stick them in a casserole dish with some liquid.
Over the course of two hours, the rubbery, pale gristle slowly softens and grows transparent, yielding up its collagen. By three hours, it has turned to soft, velvety gelatin, coating the threads of succulent muscle and flavoured by the crisp, melting exterior fat.
For recipe inspiration look to Greek and Italian cuisine. Cook the lamb shanks in red wine flavoured with garlic, sturdy herbs like rosemary and thyme and a 'soffrito' of celery, onion and carrot. These all infuse flavour into the meat during the long, slow cooking process.
I always garnish my lamb shank with an Italian inspired 'gremolata' which is just finely chopped parsley, orange and lemon zest and slivers of garlic. It only takes moments to make and lifts the whole dish.
Lamb shank is particularly good served with seasonal root vegetables and some simply cooked green beans. Real comfort food, budget friendly and a good crowd pleaser.
When one thinks of lamb, you wouldn't consider lamb to have any special health benefits, but in Ireland, our lamb is free range and grazes on nutrient rich pastures, wild shrubs, and herbs. These all contribute to healthy animals whose body fat composition is made up of heart healthy fats – the opposite of intensively reared animals with an inferior diet.
• Heart Healthy: Lamb forms a large part of traditional Mediterranean diets, which have repeatedly been shown to help lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
• Healthy Fats: Despite the fact that about one-third of the fat in lamb comes from saturated fat, lamb can be a significant source of omega-3 fat and also contains a large amount of monounsaturated fat (40pc of its total).
• Decreased risk of heart disease: While pasture-fed lamb can naturally contain small amounts of trans fat, one of the trans fats it contains is vaccenic acid, a precursor for conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). CLA intake is also associated with decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.
• B Vitamin rich: Lamb is a good source of vitamin B12 and also provides important amounts of B1, B2, B3, B6, folate, biotin, pantothenic acid, and choline. Vitamins B6, B12, folate and choline are especially important for a healthy metabolism and can help prevent unwanted accumulation of excess homocysteine in the body. High blood levels of homocysteine are a key risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
• Omega 3 and Omega 6 Essential Fats: Trimmed lean cuts (like loin and leg) from pasture-fed lamb provide a ratio of omega-6:omega-3 fat of approximately 5:1. According to repeated research findings, this ratio falls into an ideal range for lowering risk of heart disease.
• Antioxidants: Lamb provides antioxidant minerals that have been shown to help lower risk of cardiovascular disease by reducing unwanted oxidative stress. Lamb provides a very good amount of the minerals selenium and zinc.
All recipes from 'Delish' by Rozanne Stevens. Available from good
bookshops and www.rozannestevens.com.
Follow me on Twitter @RozanneStevens.