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The word ‘braised’ is a beautiful thing. Whenever it chooses to make an appearance on a menu, a force beyond my control pulls me to it like an unsuspecting baby moth to a big’ole orange flame. The magic of turning a simple, inexpensive, tough cut of meat into a deep, fiercely flavored, melt-in-your-mouth tour de force … all happening under the roof of a single pot – is the stuff culinary dreams are made of.

As much as I love to see it on a menu, braising at home soothes the soul in a way no restaurant kitchen can. Maybe it’s the satisfaction of hearing the initial SIZZZZle of searing meat, seeing the carmalization of the meat, smelling the goodness of the wine, stock, and aromatics permeating through the house, or maybe it’s because you’re just so damn hungry after waiting 3 hours that you’d eat your own shank.

For me, I know it’s those last moments of anticipation – when I scurry over to the oven, put on my big red oven mitts, pull out my Le Creuset (the one piece of kitchen equipment I would run back into a burning house to retrieve) and open the lid to discover what’s transpired inside. Voila! A surprise every time, it’s even better than Christmas morning. The weather turned on us once again, so last night’s cold, wet and howling night made for a perfect excuse to hunker down with a big glass of wine and a big slab of meat.

braised-lamb-shank

Braised Lamb Shank with Creamy Yellow Polenta & Mint Gremolata
Tweaked from Bon Appétit and Martha Stewart Living, yields 4 heaping servings

Though gremolata is traditionally made with parsely, the mint is what makes this braised lamb dish shine. Oh, and don’t be intimidated by the length of the recipe. Everything comes together in a snap and the bulk of the time is spent just in the waiting.

Music Pairing: Night Train, Oscar Peterson, Night Train

Ingredients
lamb:

  • 4 lamb shanks, about 1 pound each
  • 1/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/2 cups finely chopped yellow onions
  • 3/4 cup finely chopped carrots
  • 3/4 cup finely chopped celery
  • 1 tbsp chopped garlic
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup chopped tomatoes
  • 2 cups dry red wine
  • 2 cups low salt chicken broth
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 4 sprigs fresh flat leaf parsley
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 2 bay leaves

polenta:

  • 5 cups salted water
  • 1 cup organic yellow polenta (found in my favorite bulk food section)
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream or whole milk
  • 3 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup mascarpone or cream cheese
  • grated Pecorino (optional)

gremolata: (i like my gremolata very minty, garlicky and lemony – so adjust to your own tastes)

  • 1/4 cup finely chopped mint
  • 2 tbsp minced garlic
  • 1 1/2 tbsp finely grated lemon peel

Method
for lamb:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Season all sides of lamb shanks generously with salt and pepper. In a large baking dish, dredge the shanks in flour and tap to remove any excess. Heat oil in a Dutch oven just large enough to hold the shanks in one layer over medium-high heat. Add the shanks and sear until well browned on all sides, about 8 minutes. Transfer the shanks to a platter. Add the onions, carrots, and celery, and cook, stirring, for 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the wine and cook, stirring, to deglaze the pan, stirring to loosen any brown bits on the bottom and sides of the pan. Cook until slightly reduced, about 5 minutes.

Return the shanks to the pot and add the tomatoes, tomato paste, stock, thyme sprigs, parsley sprigs, cinnamon sticks and bay leaves, and bring to a boil. Cover and place in the oven. Bake until the shanks are tender, 2 1/2-3 hours.

for polenta:

In a large, heavy saucepan, bring 5 cups of salted water to a rolling boil. Whisking constantly, pour the cornmeal into the water in a steady stream until all is combined. Continue to whisk until you are sure there are no lumps of unincorporated cornmeal. Reduce heat to low, add the butter and cream. Cover, and cook 20 minutes, uncovering frequently to stir. Stir the mixture until thick and creamy, with no taste of rawness, an additional 20 minutes or so. If mixture becomes too thick, add water or milk as needed. Season to taste with salt and pepper, add mascarpone and serve with grated Pecorino.

for gremolata:

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and stir to blend.

Serving

Remove the pot from the heat and discard bay leaves. Place a ladle of the polenta in the middle of 4 inch wide, shallow bowls, and top each with a braised lamb shank. Drizzle with some of the sauce and top with a sprinkling of gremolata. Pass the remaining sauce and gremolata at the table. Serve immediately.

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Ahhh, Spring.  Spring is the eternal optimist.  Spring is the hopeless romantic.  Spring is the lofty dreamer.

Spring is….not quite here yet.

It’s that time of year again. Just when you think you’re in the clear. The flirtatious teasing of warm and sunny days – rudely interrupted by the sudden and more-scary-than-you-would-think, afternoon hailstorm. When did hail become SO large??  The refuge of seeing spring produce slowly trickling into the market makes up for the postponement of consistent sunshine.  More than makes up for it, in fact.  My heart went pitter-patter this morning when I saw bright green sugar peas in their cute pods, strawberries so bright and cheery, there was nothing left to do but smile.  And to take a big whiff.  WOW.   It still gets met every time.  Every single time.  One whiff and you almost FEEL healthier.  That sweetly distinctive smell of fresh strawberries should be bottled up and archived in the Smithsonian as a national treasure.  The zucchini, watercress, asparagus, shittake mushrooms, all seemed to be doing back flips and somersaults..showing off their newly discovered youth, vibrancy and brightness.

strawberry

T. is out of town, so I will save all the spring goodies for us to enjoy when he returns.  In the meantime, since there was still a bit of chill in the air this morning, I decided to make use of the lovely rosemary in our herb garden to bake up a batch of Rosemary and Garlic Focaccia.  Rosemary and Garlic.  The dynamic duo.

This focaccia is perfect on its own (ideally warm and straight out of the oven) to dip in small pools of olive oil and balsamic vinegar with a side of mixed olives to boot; and the remaining can be used to give turkey or vegetable weekend paninis that extra kick.

Instead of shaping the focaccia into a circle as in the original recipe, I chose instead to use a 17X11 inch baking pan since I love the look of the large rectangular shape when presented in its entirety at the table. Also, the rectangle allows you to cut out perfect sandwiches for your paninis. Just slice in half horizontally and watch those fingers. In addition to the delicious results of this simple focaccia, I must admit, the thing I enjoy most is creating those adorable dimples (you’ll see what I mean…it is so much fun)!

rosemary-garlic-focaccia-bread

Rosemary and Garlic Focaccia
Tweaked from Saveur, Serves 8

Music Pairing: My Eyes, Travis, The Boy with No Name

Ingredients

  • 1/4 ounce active dry yeast (1 envelope)
  • 4 cups flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 8 sprigs rosemary (less if you happen to not have 8 sprigs)
  • 6 garlic cloves, chopped (more if you love things garlicky)
  • coarse sea salt

Method

Dissolve yeast in 1/2 cup warm water in a small bowl and let stand 10 minutes, then add 2 tbsp. of the oil. Combine flour and salt in a large bowl. Strip and chop leaves from 5 of the rosemary branches and stir into flour with chopped garlic. Add yeast mixture and 1 1/4 cups water and stir until dough becomes too stiff to stir. Turn out dough onto a floured surface and knead until smooth. Shape dough into a ball, transfer to a large oiled bowl, and cover with a damp cloth. Allow dough to rise in a warm spot for 2 hours.

Transfer dough to lightly oiled baking sheet . Knead dough down and press with oiled hands into baking sheet. Cover with a damp cloth and set aside for 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 400°. Whisk together remaining 3 tbsp. oil and 1 tbsp. water in small bowl. Remove cloth from dough and dimple dough with your fingertips, then brush with oil-and-water emulsion. Arrange small springs of rosemary from remaining 3 branches over dough and sprinkle with salt. Bake until golden, about 30-40 minutes. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before slicing.

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