Like a fair few folks I know, I don’t really get excited about meat. I’ll eat it, and enjoy it just fine, but it doesn’t ring my chimes the way, say, an over-medium egg yolk does. For me, at least, it’s a texture thing: I like the flavor and richness of meat, but not the way it feels under my teeth. For the most part, when I cook with meat, it’s as a component of a larger and more complex dish, rather than simply a piece of animal on a plate. The joy of a juicy, medium-rare steak or a lovely Sunday roast is mostly lost on me.
When that meat is braised, though, all bets are off. I love me a tender hunk of falling-apart meat. I grew up eating brisket braised in red wine every year for Passover, and it was basically the only time of year I’d willingly eat red meat. When a piece of tough, bone-in beef or lamb gets cooked for hours in a powerful liquid, it turns into something totally deserving of swoons. Stick a fork in, and the meat falls into tender strands. The liquid and the meat juices become thick, gelatinous, slow-moving on the tongue. There’s barely any chewing required, and so much more flavor and interest than a simple steak can muster.
Of all the braise-able cuts of meat, I think lamb shanks are my favorite. Cook a lamb shank for long enough, and the meat becomes soft, almost cushiony, and relaxes away from the bone. It’s juicier and gamier than many braised beef cuts I’ve had, and it plays remarkably well with explosive flavors from around the world. I’ve had a Thai curried lamb shank, and a Moroccan lamb shank tagine, both of which blew my mind. But when I wanted to make a special dinner for Sam recently, I decided to go for something simpler, using two of my favorite flavor partners with lamb: pomegranate and rosemary.
This is the kind of dish that takes practically forever to cook, but almost all the time is hands-off. I stuck the lamb in the oven for a few hours while I was working, and it perfumed my little dining room office most distractingly. You could turn up the oven temperature and braise for less time, but I love meat cooked like this, as slowly and gently as possible. You can reduce the braising liquid right down to a sticky glaze, if you want; I left mine a bit saucier, the better for spooning over couscous. Not only was the meat exactly how I love it–tender, plump, nearly falling apart–but the sauce itself was phenomenal, sweet and sour and slightly resiny from the rosemary. This one is a keeper.
Pomegranate Braised Lamb Shanks (serves 6, or 4 with leftovers)
Note: I’ve seen huge variation in the size of lamb shanks at my local grocery stores, from about 3/4 lb to 1 1/2 lb each. If you can, choose shanks that are about the same size, so they cook evenly. If you don’t have an oven-safe pan big enough to fit all the shanks, you can do the prep in a regular skillet (browning the lamb in batches if you have to), then transfer everything to a 9×13 baking dish and cover with aluminum foil.
3-6 lamb shanks (about 4 lb total, see note)
Salt to taste
1/4 cup canola, peanut, or vegetable oil
1 sweet yellow onion, sliced
2 cups (16 oz) pomegranate juice
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar, or to taste
4 large or 6-8 small garlic cloves, crushed with the back of a knife
3-4 sprigs fresh rosemary (about 1 tbsp fresh rosemary leaves)
1/4 tsp crushed red chile flakes, or to taste
1 tsp honey, or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Pomegranate seeds for garnish (optional)
Preheat oven to 250º F, and position an oven rack in the middle. In a large, deep-sided, oven-safe pan (like a saute pan or Dutch oven), heat vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Season the lamb shanks generously with salt, then brown them very well on all sides, about 3-4 minutes per side. Transfer the shanks to a plate and set aside.
Pour off all but about 1 tbsp of the fat from the pan. Lower the heat under the pan to medium. Add onion and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes, or until the onion is starting to soften. Add pomegranate juice, scraping the bottom of the pan to release any browned bits. Add balsamic vinegar, garlic cloves, rosemary sprigs, and chile flakes, and bring the liquid to a boil.
Return the lamb shanks to the pan, along with any juices that have accumulated on the plate. Let the liquid come back to a boil, then cover the pan with a lid or aluminum foil. Bake for about 3 to 3 1/2 hours (depending on the size of your shanks), until the meat is very tender and almost-but-not-quite falling off the bone. Remove the pan from the oven and let stand, covered, for 30 minutes. Turn the oven down to 150º F.
Transfer the lamb to a serving platter or individual plates, and cover with aluminum foil. Place the shanks in the oven to keep warm. Strain the braising liquid through a fine mesh strainer into a measuring cup or small bowl, and discard the solids. Let the liquid stand for a minute or two, so that the fat rises to the top. Use a ladle or spoon to skim off as much of the fat as you can–don’t worry about getting it all.
Pour the liquid into a small saucepan (or wipe out the pan you cooked the lamb in, and use that). Place the pan over medium-high heat and bring the liquid to a boil. Add honey and black pepper, then let the liquid reduce for 5-10 minutes, or until it’s the consistency you like. Taste and add more salt, chile flakes, vinegar, and/or honey as needed.
Remove the lamb shanks from the oven and spoon over the reduced braising liquid. Scatter over pomegranate seeds (if using). Serve warm.
Make ahead: You can make the lamb up to a day ahead. After taking it out of the oven, let it cool completely and refrigerate (you may want to take the shanks out of the liquid and refrigerate them separately). The next day, scoop off as much of the solidified fat as you can, then reheat, covered, over medium-high heat until the meat is softened and heated through. Transfer the shanks to a platter or plates, put in a 150º F oven to keep warm, then strain and finish the sauce as instructed. Leftover meat will keep, tightly covered, in the fridge for up to 3 days, or in the freezer for up to 2 months.