Sunday 6 January 2013

Moroccan Braised Lambshank

Slow braises are quite possibly the best form of comfort food during the cold days of winter. To braise meat,  the cut is seared on all sides for colour and flavour and then cooked in liquid at a relatively low temperature for several hours. The result is usually a melt in your mouth, falling off the bone texture. In this example, I used lamb shanks. The shank of the lamb is essentially the shin, which contains quite a bit of connective tissue. Connective tissue is tough, chewy and not very palatable. Braising allows it to slowly melt away and the meat is left scrumptious. Braising is perfect for tough cuts like shanks, shortribs and brisket. These cuts tend to be cheapest and most delicious (when prepared right). 

In this post I'll show you how I made braised lamb shanks with Moroccan spices over a bed of fluffy couscous mixed with raisins, almond slices and herbs. I used the gravy to pour over the meat and also a cool, fresh yogurt sauce with fresh mint. The couscous was an ode to the Moroccan flavours of the lamb, but braised meats are also great with rice, crusty bread, or anything that can sop up the juices or sauce. Authentic Moroccan couscous requires a specific steaming unit and hours to make. In North America, a simpler store bought version is widely used, which just requires rehydrating in boiling water for a few minutes. I used the quick version, which works great, but follow the instructions on the package of your couscous. The instructions in this recipe pertain to the specific brand that I used. Interesting fact, many people think of couscous as a grain but it is in reality a form of eggless pasta and has been consumed by mankind for many centuries.

For the lamb shanks you will need:

4 lamb shanks
1 large onion, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
4 ribs of celery, chopped
3 crushed garlic cloves
1 red chili, chopped
1/2 cup of raisins
6-8 olives, pitted
1 thumb of ginger, peeled and finely grated
2 tbsp tomato paste 
2 cups of organic chicken stock
2 cups of dry red wine
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp ground fennel
1 star anise
1/2 cinnamon stick (about 3 inches)
1 bay leaf
Salt & pepper
2 tbsp cooking oil

For the couscous you will need:

2 2/3 cups of couscous
2 cups of boiling water
2 tbsp olive oil
2/3 cup of raisins
2/3 cup of sliced almonds
A small bunch of fresh mint, finely chopped
A small bunch of fresh cilantro, finely chopped
A small pinch of salt

For the yogurt sauce you will need:

4 tbsp organic, 0% fat plain yogurt
A small bunch of fresh mint, chopped
A small pinch of salt
1 tsp of olive oil

Preheat your oven to 300 Fahrenheit/150 Celsius.

Lamb Shanks

If you can, try to grind all of your own spices with a mortar and pestle. It makes all the difference. I didn't have any coriander seeds on hand so I used a purchased variety but the cumin seeds and fennel seeds I ground myself.

Fennel Seeds
Ground Fennel

Grinding Cumin Seeds

Here is a shot of all the aromatic vegetables and fruit that will be the base of the stew. The classic mirepoix that we've gone over several times before (onion, carrot, celery) works well in this application where there are 2 parts onion to 1 part celery and carrot. The amounts used in the ingredient list are just a rough idea. As for the olives (pictured bottom right), you must remove the pits before adding them to the stew. You can buy olives that have already been pitted but in my opinion they are lower in quality and flavour. Removing the pits from an olive is very easy. All you need to do is press on the olive with your thumb and the pit will come right out (see below). The olive will be flattened and less presentable but who cares! Everything's going to be cooked down and blended in the end anyway.

Now we're ready to start cooking, take your lamb shanks and season them on all surfaces with salt and a bit of pepper (to taste). Add 2 tbsp of cooking oil into a dutch oven over medium-high heat. To avoid overcrowding the pan (which would create a steaming effect rather than a sear), you may have to do as I did and do batches. 

Be sure to brown all sides for a couple of minutes. Don't forget the severed ends! They need to be browned too.

When all of your shanks have been seared on all sides, remove them from the oven and set aside. In the same dutch oven, turn the heat down to medium and add the onion. Allow it to sweat in the oil and lamb juices for 3 - 4 minutes. 

Once the onions have turned translucent, you can then add the celery and carrot. Continue to sautée for another 2 or 3 minutes. 

Next add in the chili and garlic and sautée for an additional two minutes. Cue the tomato paste. You could throw it right in and stir everything around. What I like to do, is make a little well in the center of the pan and add the paste to the center and stir it for about a minute before integrating it with the rest of the mirepoix. Tomato paste from the store tends to be a little too acidic. This will allow the acidity to cook away and the rich tomato sweetness to come out. 

When you have stirred the tomato paste into the sautéeing veg, then you can add the spices. Toss in the fennel, cumin, coriander, cinnamon stick, star anise and bay leaf.

Let that cook for another 2-3 more minutes, stirring occasionally. The smells erupting from the dutch oven at this point are outrageous! Then, you can add in the ginger, raisins, and olives. Cook that for about a minute or two. 

Now you can reintroduce your seared lamb shanks to the story. Nestle them on top of the veg and make them fit as best as you can. It doesn't have to look perfect, as long as there's room so you can fit the lid on the pot then you're golden. 

Now comes the liquid, add your red wine and organic chicken stock. In a braise, you want the liquid to just come up to the top of everything in the pot. 4 cups of liquid was not enough to achieve this. Use water to finish the job. If you want to use more stock or wine, that's up to you. Turn up the heat and let the liquid come to a low boil.

Now pop the lid on that bad boy and place it in the middle of your preheated oven. Allow it to braise in the oven for 3 hours. Most ovens have hot spots, which means slightly uneven heat distribution. So what you can do is every hour or halfway through the cooking time just rotate the pot around on the rack 180 degrees. 

After three hours you can place the dutch oven back on your stove. Remove the lid and the lamb shanks (after taking a moment to admire what you've created). As you set the shanks aside, be careful because the meat will be ready to slide right off the bone. With the liquid that's left over, remove the star anise, the bay leaf and the cinnamon stick. They've done their job. At this point you have two options for the sauce, you could either strain all the solids out and bring the liquid to a boil and let it reduce by about half. During that time, use a ladle to skim off any foam or impurities that will rise to the top. This is, in my opinion, the ideal process. We were a little strapped for time, so a quicker method is to take a hand mixer and blend the vegetables into the liquid. It will thicken up right away. Whichever you choose, they are both great poured over the lamb and couscous.

*Don't even think about serving the sauce without tasting it for salt & pepper first. Just in case you needed to know. 


Follow the instructions on the package of the couscous you've purchased. The brand that I used called for a small pinch of salt and 2 tbsp of olive oil. That goes into some kind of bowl or vessel with a tight fitting lid. I don't recommend using metal, as metal can impart the flavour of the couscous. Ceramic, glass or pyrex is best. Add 2 cups of boiling water from a kettle and stir in 2 2/3 cup of couscous. The couscous must be completely submerged in water. Quickly place the lid on the bowl and allow it to steam. A tight fitting lid is key or else the steam will escape and your couscous will be ruined. After the cooking time is up, remove the lid and gently fluff the couscous with a fork (just like how you would rice). Pretty easy, right? 

When the couscous is fluffed, you can add your raisins, almonds, mint and cilantro. If you can, wait a couple of minutes for the couscous to cool before adding the herbs or else they could wilt. If they do, it's not the end of the world but it's more favourable if they don't. 

You can use the same fluffing technique with your fork to mix everything together until evenly distributed. This on its own makes a great, light vegan meal. You could add all sorts of things to your couscous like chopped peppers, cucumber, shallot, sultanas, other nuts, other herbs, beans, etc... Be creative and adapt to your personal taste.

Yogurt Sauce

Add a small bunch of chopped mint and a small pinch of salt to your mortar and pestle.

Grind and mash into a fine, green paste. Then add a tsp of olive oil. 

To this, add 4 tbsp of organic, 0% fat yogurt.

Stir to incorporate and you're done! 

For assembly, make a bed of your warm couscous salad on a plate and place a lamb shank on top. Pour a bit of the gravy over the meat and a little over the couscous as well. Then you can either make dollops of the mint yogurt sauce wherever you like or you can dip a spoon into it and make a zigzag formation over the plate, letting the yogurt fall as it will. 

This was such a gorgeous, well-balanced meal. There is a knife in the photo above which was completely unnecessary. The meat was so moist and flaked right off the bone with a fork. The warm, earthy, slightly spicy gravy played so well with the cool, creamy mint yogurt. The variety of textures in the couscous was incredible. Fresh mint and cilantro are a great pair and provide an interesting, exotic note. Each mouthful was just a little different than the one before it. A varying combination of rich, meaty, melt in your mouth lamb, fluffy couscous, crunchy slivers of almonds, pops of sweetness from the raisins all tied together by the grassy herbaceousness of the mint and cilantro. If you try this recipe at home it will be sure to impress your guests. One of my two friends who I ate this with last night has been a butcher for several years and he said that this was the best lamb shank he'd ever had. Now, whether or not that's lip service I can't rightly say. None the less, it was a big hit. Here's a little taste of Morocco from me to you.

Stay tuned, my next post will include an essential kitchen technique for lean, flavourful and very quick fish perfect for a weekday evening on the go. If it isn't already, this French technique is sure to be a culinary cornerstone in your life. 

In the meantime, be happy and stay fed.


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