I read somewhere once that conscientious food bloggers start planning and posting holiday recipes as early as July. It gives Google time to crawl and index the new recipes, and it gives the blogger time to build a small archive of holiday food. I don’t consider myself a conscientious food blogger in that sense but I do think about good food from January to December. This dish of braised lamb shanks, for instance, while undoubtedly fit to grace the holiday dinner table, was cooked just because we happened to find great-looking New Zealand lamb at the grocery.
Seasoned with traditional Vietnamese spices and herbs, the lamb shanks looked so delectably festive. Served over rice drizzled with its own cooking liquid, the specks of red chilies and green mint leaves give the rather dull-colored meat a much needed visual boost.
The meat itself, despite the pallid appearance, is a treasure trove of flavors and textures. Interspersed in the tender meat are strands of gelatinous tendon. And, after braising for two and a half hours, the gamey smell of lamb was hardly discernible. Instead, the lamb shanks smelled and tasted of garlic, citrusy lemongrass and ginger. The sheer amount of fish sauce that went into the cooking liquid should give you a good idea that the salty component of the flavors goes beyond the brininess of salt. The heat of the chilies, while still quite distinct, has lost much of its sharpness as the chilies melded with the sugar.
These Vietnamese-style braised lamb shanks are splendid in just about every way. Surprisingly, it doesn’t take professional culinary training to pull it off. Preparation is minimal and the cooking procedure is basic.
It starts by browning the lamb shanks to give the meat good texture. Browning also caramelizes the natural sugars in the meat and that gives off a richer and more complex flavor.
The browned lamb shanks are removed from the pan and the aromatics are cooked slowly to bring out their flavors.
Meat and aromatics join each other in the pan. Meat broth, fish sauce and sugar are added, and the lamb shanks are simmered until the meat is literally falling off the bones.
Sliced raw chilies and torn mint leaves are added to garnish the lamb shanks. Yes, they do make the plain meat look bright and gorgeous, but they aren’t there for decoration alone. Mint has long been considered to be a partner of lamb for a reason. With every forkful of meat, the mint gives the mouth a fresh and cool sensation that is hard to describe but easy to understand once experienced.
Based on a recipe from BBC Good Food.
- 2 lamb shanks, total weight about 1 kilogram
- 4 tablespoons cooking oil
- 1 large onion, thinly sliced
- 6 cloves garlic, lightly pounded
- a one-inch knob of ginger, thinly sliced
- 3 stalks lemongrass, minced
- 5 bird's eye chilies, finely sliced
- 3 cups meat broth
- 3 to 4 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons lime or lemon juice
- cooked rice, to serve
- mint leaves, to ganish
- Pat the lamb shanks dry with paper towels.
- Heat the cooking oil in a wide shallow pan. Over high heat, brown the lamb shanks, rolling them in the hot oil to brown as much of the surface as possible.
- Lift out the lamb shanks and move to a plate.
- Lower the heat to medium. In the remaining oil, saute the onion, garlic, ginger, lemongrass and three of the chilies until softened.
- Put the lamb shanks back in the pan. Pour in the broth and fish sauce. Stir in the sugar. Bring to the boil, lower the heat, cover and simmer for two to two and a half hours.
- It's a good idea to flip the shanks over midway through the cooking.
- It is also a good idea to taste the cooking liquid once in a while. Add more fish sauce, as needed.
- It is NOT a good idea to pour in additional broth. There should be less than half a cup of cooking liquid by the time the shanks are done. That liquid has very concentrated flavors and you do not want to dilute it.
- When the shanks are done, assemble the the dish. Spread rice on a serving platter and arrange the lamb shanks on top of the rice.
- Stir the lime or lemon juice into the cooking liquid then spoon the liquid, along with the aromatics, over the meat. Sprinkle in the mint leaves and remaining chilies. Serve the braised lamb shanks hot.