Lamb Shanks & Life Skills
(written for Family Spotlight magazine)
Growing up, I would spend summer afternoons hosting imaginary cooking shows.
I’d collect overgrown and past-their-prime vegetables from my dad’s garden. Slicing and dicing them in my make-believe outdoor kitchen, I’d create vegetarian feasts for my mom’s hens. All the while, I’d speak into a pretend camera, detailing what I was making with great seriousness. It was so much fun.
Cooking remains a true joy in my life. I was thrilled when my youngest started recording cooking shows for us to watch together. The current favorite: "Farmhouse Rules." Host Nancy Fuller shares family recipes with her viewers, often cooking for or with her grandchildren. I rate a Saturday morning curled up on the sofa watching the Food Network with my kiddo as about as good as it gets.
What I’m less excited about is what happens during the evening hours on food channels - cooking becomes combat. While I appreciate witnessing the creative spark required to produce something edible out of a mystery basket of food and a 30-minute time restraint, I don’t care for the concept of food as competitive sport.
In some ways, TV cooking has hampered would-be home chefs by portraying cooking to be intense and often overcomplicated. I totally get that time in the kitchen is not everyone’s cup of tea. Nevertheless, I think that being able to fend for oneself around a stove - even feed others - is actually a pretty simple thing and a fundamental ability.
When we give our kids the skills to navigate a grocery store, operate appliances beyond the microwave and understand the basics of cooking, we are teaching life lessons while adding a layer of happiness in their lives.
Getting kids in the kitchen
Baking makes for the perfect entry point to cooking with kids. Tasks are specific, and the baking process teaches about the importance of sequencing. The exactness of dessert recipes enables parents and kids to bring math to life. As kids get older, they can go beyond cooking based on strict adherence to a recipe and learn the general principles of cooking.
My mom thinks she got the lamb shank recipe she’s made for decades from a newspaper many moons ago. When I got my kids involved in making the shanks this time around, they learned about the benefits of braising - the low, slow, stovetop method turns tougher cuts of meat tender. My kids and I talk about different cuts of meat and the importance of purchasing the best quality and most responsibly sourced ingredients you can afford.
The dish enables an intro lesson in sauce making, too. Knowing that you begin by making a roux of equal parts of fat and flour is key. For every cup of liquid, the sauce needs two tablespoons of fat and two tablespoons of flour. With this top tip, a home cook can make sauces from béchamel to Thanksgiving gravy. We used butter as the fat in our roux. It was added to a hot pan and then cooked briefly to add some color and remove the raw flavor of the flour. The longer you brown the roux, the more color your sauce will have. If you were making a white sauce, you’d omit the browning step.
Next, we addressed the dreaded lumpy gravy conundrum. Understanding that the way to avoid lumps is to incorporate small amounts of liquid at a time, whisking the liquid into the roux before adding more, is totally empowering information for kitchen success.
Making simple lamb shanks
We like lamb in our house. The pleasantly earthy and slightly sweeter red meat is something I’ve served my children since they were really young. Lamb shanks are somewhat of a special treat. There are glorious ways to cook shanks with piles of aromatics, herbs and wine or broth. This simple version that my mom taught me is the most satisfying I’ve ever had. The meat is braised humbly in water. You don’t even season the meat with salt or pepper prior to cooking. It is in making the gravy at the end that you add seasoning and spice.
While I cook nearly every day, weekdays tend to stay in the culinary fast lane - meaning dinners that get on the table quickly. I consider these lamb shanks a Sunday supper, when we have the luxury of time. Time, by the way, is a key kitchen tool and friend of all home cooks. Time creates magic by concentrating flavor and transforming texture in food. When available, I’ll always partner up with time when I’m cooking.
• 3-4 lamb shanks
• 1 tablespoon avocado or olive oil
• 4 tablespoons butter, room temperature
• 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
• 1 garlic clove, minced
• Salt and pepper to taste
• Lamb or chicken broth as needed
In large braising pan, heat oil at medium high. When oil is shimmering, add lamb shanks. Brown 5-7 minutes per side - browning all four sides will take 20 minutes or so.
While browning, boil water in kettle. Once lamb is thoroughly browned, add water so that it comes approximately 1 inch up side of pan. Reduce to very low simmer, cover and let braise for several hours. You’ll know meat is done because it will look loosely pulled away from bone.
Carefully remove lamb from pan and set aside. Skim and discard fat from top of broth created in braising process and pour liquid into fat-separator measuring cup. Next, add lamb or chicken broth to measuring cup so that you have full 2 cups of liquid.
Create roux by mashing together flour and butter with fork. Add to pan and brown. Add garlic and generous amount of salt and pepper. Begin to slowly add broth, whisking each addition into roux completely before adding more. When roux begins to be more sauce than roux, add remaining broth all at once.
Bring to simmer and gently add back lamb shanks. Allow meat to be rewarmed and flavored in simmering broth (approximately 15 minutes).
We serve lamb with egg noodles. Cook noodles according to package directions while lamb is simmering in gravy. Drain noodles and pour onto large platter. Ladle sauce over noodles, sprinkle with chives or other fresh herb and lay shanks on top. Pour any remaining gravy over lamb. Pan-roasted carrots with rosemary or spring greens are the ideal side dish.