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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Roast Resurrection or What to do with the Leftover Pork?

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There’s something very satisfying about cooking a hearty family roast dinner.

We’re talking the kind of meal that speaks of quiet tradition and familiarity. It’s casual, but I set the kitchen table with a cloth and my favourite plates, because these days we don’t have much time together and I want, in some small way, to mark the occasion.

We all squeeze around. The family sit close by as I put the finishing touches on each course. Our affectionate banter is built on in-jokes reaching back to those  present only in memory. The dishes often have the same provenance. No trendy ingredients. No clever cheffy garnishes. Just the tastes and smells of our collective past served up one more time to feed, to nurture and to remind us of good times in other kitchens and in other times.

Then there’s that thing that happens the next day, because if you’ve done it right, there is always, but always, too much food.

You open the fridge door and it looks back at you, cold and diminished. Even from under a layer of foil, your pork joint manages to exude attitude. The kind of unblinking, bleary-eyed, belligerent stare you get from the drunk at the back of the bar after you tell him you’re not interested. “Here I am.”, it says, “So what are you gonna do about it?”.

In New Zealand it’s autumn going on winter. Like a hungover debutante with a crushed dress and smeared mascara, cold pork has limited allure.

My grandmother would have minced the meat and used it to stuff crepes dumplings called pierogi in Poland and vareniki still further east.  But today I don’t have any cooking juices left and there’s nothing very appetising about either dish if the filling is dry and crumbly.

I cooked the pork with star anise instead of my granny’s preferred caraway seeds, so I’m looking for something with an Asian feel. Not strict authenticity, but a direction that will let me turn what’s already in the fridge into a tasty, interesting and relatively healthy weeknight dinner. The pork was roasted on a bed of apples, pears and onions. I decide that onion and apple will work well in a dumpling filling, adding both moisture and flavour.  The pear might be a bit too wet.  A quick google suggests there’s a lot of napa cabbage happening in the pot sticker department. I don’t have one handy, but decide that carrot and zucchini will do.  And while I’m at it, I might as well have a crack at a hot water dough too.

Call it beginners luck, but this one has earned it’s place in my recipe book:  my vegetable-averse firstborn asked for seconds, they were remarkably quick to make,  and the leftover dumplings made a good lunch. Boxes ticked. Happy mummy.

Here’s how:

Pork and Apple Pot Stickers

Filling

700g/1 1/2lb cooked pork, cut into coarse boneless dice

2 medium onions, finely diced

2 medium courgettes/zucchini

2 small carrots, peeled

2 small cooking apples (I used Granny Smiths)

4 plump cloves of garlic, crushed

3.5cm/1.5″ piece of ginger, minced or grated

2 whole star anise

vegetable oil

3 tbsp* soy sauce

sesame oil

Dumpling Dough

3c flour

boiling water

To Serve

black or Chinkiang vinegar, soy sauce or other dipping sauce

Method

1. Put cook pork through the mincer or pulse in the food processor until finely ground.  Set aside.

2.Prepare the vegetables and apple.  Grate zucchini, carrots and apple, or cut into rough pieces (discarding the apple core) and pass through the mincer.  Set aside.

3. Heat about 1 tbsp of oil in a wide heavy skillet, add onions and whole star anise, sweat over moderate heat until the onions are wilted.  Add garlic and ginger, continue to cook, stirring from time to time, until the onions until just starting to turn golden.

4. Add grated vegetables and apple.  Increase heat and fry until the moisture has evaporated (you want the filling to be moist, but not soggy).

5. Stir in the soy sauce, cook for a couple of minutes more sauce.  Taste:  you need enough salt to balance the sweetness of the vegetables.  Then sprinkle a little sesame oil.  You want enough just to add the merest hint.  Go in small increments.  You can always add a little more.

6. Remove the star anise then add the vegetable mixture to the ground pork.  Mix thoroughly. Taste and check seasonings. Rinse out your skillet ready for cooking the pot stickers.

7. Next make the dough. Measure the flour into a good-sized heat proof mixing bowl (c. 4 litres/quarts). Add enough boiling water  to bring together a soft dough. As with the sesame oil, it’s easier to add more than to take it away, so add about a cup and then small amounts until the dough comes together.  It doesn’t take long.

8.  Sprinkle your work-surface with flour, and knead the dough until it’s smooth.  Divide into 3 even portions, roll each portion into a 30cm/12″ sausage and cut into pieces the size of a small walnut.

Mine were a bit big and as a result the dumplings were quite large.  Not so bad with a cooked filling, but if you had raw ingredients you might want to make sure they were a little smaller.)

9. Roll each portion out into a 6.5cm/2.5″ circle. (Ideal job for the kids.)  Holding the circle in the palm of your hand, put a tablespoon of filling in the centre.  Fold over the dough, pinch the edges together, taking care to seal the whole semicircle. Line them up on a lightly floured board or tray ready for cooking.  They should rest on their backs – the straight side of the semicircle.  Plump them down so that there is a flat surface for them to sit on.

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10.  When they are all done (or you have enough for a pan load), heat the pan again.  If you have more filling and dough, you can keep filling more dumplings while the first set are cooking.  Add about a tablespoon of oil to the pan.  Arrange the dumplings over the surface of the pan so that there is just a small gap between each one.

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11. Cook over moderate heat until the dumplings are golden brown on the underside.  (I like them fried a little more, so I let them cook on each side of the dumpling too, but this is not traditional as far as I can make out.)  Then add about 1/2 cup of water to the pan, cover it and let the dumplings cook until all the water is absorbed.  (About enough time to make yourself some green tea.)  If you don’t have a lid big enough for your pan, try covering with a baking /cookie sheet.  Your dumplings are now ready to serve.

The hyperobservant might have noticed in the second picture that one of the dumplings has a hole in it.  (Up near the red flour scoop) Either I rolled the dough to thin or stretched it a bit much getting it around the filling.   I dealt with that by lying the dumpling directly on the hole rather than the flat bottom when they first went into the pan (lower centre dumpling above), so that it formed it’s own crust and resealed.  Successful rescue.

*Australians please note my tablespoons are 15 not 20ml.

Pot Stickers