I recently read that the average American consumes just 1lb of lamb vs. a whopping 61lb of beef each year and up to 50% of Americans have never even tried lamb! I guess if I was a member of the sheep family I’d let out a grateful bleet at this news.
Growing up in the UK, we would quite often have roast lamb for Sunday lunch and my home-town dish of scouse wouldn’t exist without lamb. Here in Maine, we have fabulous local lamb available to us and when I saw the lamb shanks from North Star Sheep Farm I couldn’t resist buying them to make this flavorful Morrocan-inspired Fragrant Lamb Shank Braise.
Lamb is super tasty, rich in iron, zinc, selenium, vitamin B-12 and niacin, AND grass-fed lamb is loaded with alpha-linolenic acid (ALA, an important omega-3 fatty acids), in fact lamb contains 5 times as much healthy ALA as beef!
Lamb shanks are one of my favorite cuts of lamb, braise them slowly (similar to beef short ribs), and they’ll transform into fork-tender, melt-in-your-mouth shreds of juicy meat. Lamb also holds up well to bold flavors so I decided to look to the countries bordering the Mediterranean sea – Greece, Turkey, Morocco and North Africa.
Za’atar (Zahtar) is Middle Eastern mix of up to 90% toasted sesame seeds and dried sumac with the remaining made up of a mix of other herbs including thyme, oregano, marjoram, cumin. Great to mix with olive oil for a tasty dip with fresh bread or coat a chicken before roasting.
Ras El Hanout is a North African spice mix of ginger, paprika, cassia, coriander, cumin, sugar, salt, tumeric, chili, black pepper, cardamom, coriander, rose petals, nigella, allspice, nutmeg, galangal.
I generally like to make this fragrant lamb shank braise the day before I want to eat it, the flavors improve overnight and I can chill, defat and then reduce down the braising liquid but most lamb shanks aren’t too fatty so in a pinch you could make and serve it on the same day. The last time I made these I ended up with ~6 cups of braising liquid (this includes the onions, tomatoes, eggplant etc) which I reduced down to about 3 1/2 cups the next day. Here’s the lamb and the braising liquid after a night in the fridge – you just scrape off the layer of yellow fat:
Cliff notes for the experienced cook: Just brown the lamb shanks for extra flavor, add in all of the vegetables, herbs and spices, and cook until the lamb is falling off the bone. Chill and defat the braising liquid, reduce it for a thicker sauce, add back the lamb and brighten with a little lemon juice. Great to make ahead when entertaining, also freeze well!
Fragrant Lamb Shank Braise
4 lamb shanks (~3lbs)
1 tbsp butter and 1 tbsp olive or vegetable oil
1 large onion, half-moon slices
2 cloves garlic, crushed or finely sliced
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1/2 tsp each cayenne, ras el hanout, za’atar, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, pink peppercorns.
~3oz medjool dates, chopped
1 large eggplant or 2 small. Peel skin and chop into 1 inch squares
14.5 oz can of Muir Glen fire roasted tomatoes
32 fl oz chicken or vegetable stock (low sodium)
Fresh cilantro (or flat leaf parsley if you’re not a cilantro fan!)
Salt and pepper.
- In an oven-safe casserole dish over a medium high heat, sear lamb shanks in the butter and oil, remove from dish and set aside
- Add a little more oil if dish is dry, over medium heat, add chopped onion, crushed garlic and grated ginger and stir well to combine.
- Add 1/2 teaspoon each cayenne, ras el hanout, zaatar, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, pink peppercorns, stir well to combine, cook 5 minutes, your kitchen will start to smell amazing.
- Add chopped dates and the cinnamon stick, diced eggplant/aubergine and the can of fire-roasted tomatoes and stir well to combine.
- Nestle lamb shanks back in and pour over just enough stock to just cover. If your carton of stock doesn’t cover the lamb, add water.
- Cover and pop in a 325 degree oven for about 3-4 hours. Gently turn the lamb shanks every hour or so. The exact time will depend on the size of the shanks and your oven. Check them after 30 minutes, you want a simmering/little bubbling but not frantic boil. Adjust the oven temperature as necessary. If the shanks are particularly large, you might need to cook for up to 4 hours. They’re done when a little poke with a fork makes the meat just flake off.
- Take out of oven and put shanks in a shallow dish (handle them carefully, the meat will fall off the bone), pour over a little cooking liquid to keep them moist, cover tightly and pop in fridge. Remove the cinnamon stick. Cool cooking liquid overnight in fridge.
- The next morning, remove the thin layer of yellow fat that’s collected on the top of the braising liquid. Put the braising liquid back in the oven (uncovered) at 400 degrees for about 30 minutes until it has more of a sauce-like consistency. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste.
- Squeeze in the juice of 1/2 lemon to brighten the flavors.
- Reduce oven to 350 and gently add back lamb shanks, cook until piping hot.
To serve, you can take the meat off the bone if you think bones will freak out your guests but I like to serve a whole shank per person on a bed of lemon couscous (cook couscous according to directions, replacing liquid with juice of 1 lemon and unsalted chicken stock, stir in lemon zest and a spoon of butter) or quinoa. Sprinkle over the fresh cilantro or parsley.
This is a very forgiving dish. If you skipped all the herbs and spices it would still be a tasty meaty dish, just not with the same fragrant depth. Although I’d try to at least get your hands on the Za’atar (because you’ll definitely use it again with a little olive oil as a dip).
You can also really make it your own recipe. If you want to add a can of drained and rinsed chickpeas in the last 30 minutes of cooking, go for it! Throw in a bunch of chopped carrots in the last hour – why not? Feel free to substitute zucchini/courgette instead of eggplant/aubergine – try it! It also adapts well for the slow cooker, just reduce the amount of stock as it won’t reduce down as much.