Lamb Shanks: Bonegilla to Marrakech in One Easy Generation

Morocco

I am that contradiction, a New Zealander and sheep farmer’s granddaughter that seldom eats lamb.  For this I am waiting to be deported.

My maternal grandmother seldom prepared lamb or mutton.  Poles, generally, are not keen on sheep meat, but after many, many years in these green isles, she took to roasting the leg of lamb for the family.  In some small way, my very Polish grandmother “went native”.

Mum, on the other hand, could never take the cooking smell.  It reminded her of childhood years in an Australian displaced persons camp just after the war.  The mutton for the evening meal was boiled in the extreme heat of the afternoon, the stench of old sheep settling in a fug over the Bonegilla barracks.  She was revolted. Others quite literally so: the state of the food at Bonegilla was so bad that it eventually inspired a riot.

Lamb cooked in the homes of my father’s New Zealand farming family was an entirely different proposition.  Home killed lamb is sweet tasting and lacks the strong smell that store bought lamb can have.  It is testimony to the fact that if livestock are stressed by transport and handling at the works, it affects the meat.  Gentle handling makes for superior produce:  happy hogget is tasty hogget.

My American husband knows a good thing and loves New Zealand lamb, so I try to make sure we have it more often.

As the winter comes on, braised shanks are an ideal meal solution, filling the house with savoury aromas. I cook mine in the oven, but a slow cooker would also work.  The sauce will tend to be much runnier,  so add less liquid (you could reduce the stock that goes into the sauce) or add some lentils to absorb the surplus juices.

This is the kind of dish that benefits from cooking in advance, so make it on Sunday afternoon and come home to a quick and hearty meal on Monday night.

This makes a substantial meal for 4. Australians please note: my tablespoons are 15ml.

Moroccan Style Lamb Shanks

2 tbsp olive oil

4 lamb shanks

salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 onions, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 knob ginger, c. 1.5cm or 1/2 and inch, minced

2 chilies finely chopped

2 star anise

1  2 inch or 5cm piece of cinnamon quill

2 tbsp coriander seeds, lightly crushed

1 tbsp cumin seeds, lightly crushed

2 tsp fennel seeds, lightly crushed

2 tsp ground turmeric

1 tsp sweet paprika

2 chilies finely chopped

1 can crushed tomatoes (400g or 14oz)

3c beef stock

6 to 8 dried figs

1 small handful golden sultanas

1 handful fresh coriander (cilantro) finely sliced

Couscous to serve (c.400g or 14oz for four adults)

knob of butter (optional)

1. Set your oven to 180 Celcius or 350 Fahrenheit. Rinse the shanks, pat dry with paper. If you want the shanks to present nicely, french the bone: use a sharp, sturdy knife to trim away the sinew at the narrow end of the shank and scrape the exposed bone clean. Season the shanks, heat the oil in a large heavy casserole and add the shanks to the pan, in batches if necessary – if you crowd the pan, the shanks will not brown.  Brown on all sides at high temperature and set aside on a plate.

2. Drop the temperature, add onions, sweat over moderate heat until wilted and just starting to turn golden.  Add the garlic, ginger and chilies and cook a two or three minutes longer.  My girls aren’t good with hot spices, so I just leave the chilies out.

3. Add the star anise, the cinnamon and the crushed spices and cook a little longer – you should be able to smell the spices. You can crush the spices by pressing them under the blade of a broad knife or bruising them with the underside of a heavy saucepan.  Add the ground spices, stir into the mixture, cook for another minute or two.

4. Add the tomatoes, stock and dried fruit. Check sauce seasonings. Add the shanks, arranging them so that the meat on the shanks is covered as well as possible by the cooking liquid.  Cover the pan tightly and cook in the oven for about 2 hours.

5. If you are using a slow cooker, arrange the shanks in the crock and cover with the onion/tomato mixture.  Cook on low for at least 4 hours or until the meat comes off the bone, adding the fresh coriander near the end of the cooking time.  Serve.

6.  Drop the oven to 150 Celcius or 300 Fahrenheit, add the fresh coriander and cook for about another 1/2 hour uncovered.  Rotate in the sauce about half way through to prevent the meat from drying.  This step is primarily to let the sauce to thicken a little.

7.  Check seasonings.  Prepare couscous according to instructions and serve.

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