It was the Roux Brothers who first introduced me to lamb shanks, although they didn’t know it at the time. But they did, thanks to a recipe in their book Cooking For Two, which was a very French-peasanty take on something we down south think of as a Karoo thing.
I was reminded at the weekend, when debating the merits and demerits of celebrity chefs, of quite how much the French have influenced my own cooking style. Carol, a friend of friends who turns out to be my regular reader (I am hoping there are others), favours happychap Jamie Oliver and the deliciously moreish Nigella Lawson, and yeah, their way with food is sensible, appetising and relatively fuss-free.
Ethene, our host for a superb lunch, had used a Jamie recipe for the bruschetta nibbles we started with. Our own Jane Anne Hobbs was the inspiration (with a nod to Oliver) for the main course of chicken breasts cooked in the style of veal saltimbocca. The original uses Parma ham, sage and lemon. Ethene’s version had a layer of provolone between the maple bacon (which substituted for Parma ham), and it was seriously good.
But my influences veer more towards Marco Pierre White and the Roux brothers. My parents had both, as Yorkshire folk, somehow been influenced in the kitchen by their cousins across the channel, and those methods rooted in the humblest kitchens of the French rural peasant were practised in our kitchen in farflung Namibia. I love the deeply reduced, luscious sauces, the deglazing of the pan to capture every last of the essences that have been developing during cooking.
The Roux brothers’ lamb shanks recipe is slow-cooked in a large heavy pot, either on the stove top or in the oven. You start by browning the shanks in butter, then simmer chopped carrots, onions, leeks and garlic, return the shanks to the pot, sprinkle everything with a coating of flour, and simmer for the flavours to infuse. Then you add your stock (chicken or vegetable will do), season and cover to simmer for two hours.
At this point, I would pour off the juices, strained into a saucepan, to reduce them down to make a fabulously flavourful sauce. You could add red wine to it at this point for a really sensuous sauce. But I moved on from that shanks recipe when we had our restaurant in the Karoo, and I developed a recipe which I called my ‘Greek lamb’ although it is far from traditional. But I’ve tweaked it over the years, and I’d rather think of it as Mediterranean now.
So let’s call it Mediterranean lamb shanks with gremolata couscous, which means that as well as a touch of Greece it also has a hint of Italy (the gremolata) and a soupcon of Morocco (the couscous).
There are essentially three elements – the shanks, the juices that develop while they are cooked which becomes a sauce, and a finishing touch of a dollop of herbed lemon yoghurt.
I made the yoghurt first. One small tub of plain yoghurt will do for three or four servings. Pour this into a bowl and add the juice and grated zest of one ripe lemon, one scant Tbs each of very finely chopped picked thyme and oregano leaves (no stems, please, Daisy), and salt and white pepper to taste. Mix thoroughy and refrigerate until needed. The mixture should not be too runny, so add the lemon juice a little at a time and stop while it is still thick enough to be draped over a shank without melting away.
The gremolata couscous, which you will make last, needs a hint of sweetness, I think, to balance the herby flavours of everything else, so to the trio of the original I added lemon juce, honey and olive oil.
Gremolata is a combination of finely chopped parsley, garlic and grated lemon zest (the aforementioned trio, Daisy). So chop and mix two or three cloves of garlic, 2 Tbs chopped flatleaf parsley and 1 Tbs lemon zest and stir in 1 Tbs honey, 2 Tbs lemon juice and 2 Tbs olive oil, with seasoning to taste. There should be enough of the gremolata-inspired mix for sufficient couscous for three or four people, but use your eye (and your head, Daisy) when making it, as you may want to use more or less of any of the ingredients to suit your own taste and quantities.
Spoon the gremolata into the bottom of a large bowl, cook the couscous according to the packet instructions, and when it’s ready add the couscous to the bowl. Stir quickly with a fork. (Obviously you’ll start the shanks much earlier, Daisy.)
Now, the shanks. Preheat the oven to 200°. Heat a little olive oil in a flat roasting pan and brown the shanks all over, one at a time. Remove from the heat, season the shanks on all sides with salt and black pepper, and lay them in the roasting pan with space between them. Sprinkle liberally with finely chopped oregano and thyme, squeeze the juice of a ripe lemon all over it, drizzle with olive oil, cover with foil and put into the oven for 20 minutes.
Now turn the heat right down to 150° or thereabouts (but not lower, Daisy) and leave for three to four hours. About 45 minutes before they’re ready, remove the foil and turn up the heat a little (not more than 170°) for the shanks to brown a little more. Switch off the oven when done, leaving the door ajar, for half an hour.
Remove the shanks, wrap tightly in foil, and keep warm. Now add a glass and a half of lamb, vegetable or chicken stock to the pan, place on the stove top and scrape up all the bits and pieces from the bottom of the pan.
Strain the juices through a fine sieve into a saucepan (wrap the shanks tightly in foil to keep them warm), skim off any excess fat, and reduce until it becomes a wondrous sauce. What makes this recipe work is the freshness of all the flavours, the perkiness of the lemon, the spike of the herbs. Adding wine would not enhance it, much as I love adding wine to a sauce. Add it to yourself instead.
To serve, place a shank proudly atop a mound of the gremolata couscous, pour the sauce over liberally, and top with a generous tablespoon of the lemon herb yoghurt. It’s a far cry from the peasanty shanks of the Rouxs’ French way, but I haven’t had a complaint yet.
Cook’s tip: if you haven’t yet discovered the brilliant Nomu ‘fonds’ (seriously concentrated stocks – 2 Tbs diluted in a glass or two of water is perfect for the sauce described above), I swear you’ll never want your kitchen to be without them. There’s lamb, beef, chicken and vegetable, they last for ages, and no, Daisy, I am not in their pay.