Praise the braise! It’s cold weather cooking time and I’d recently purchased a Martha Stewart knockoff of a Le Creuset cast iron/enamel coated Dutch Oven. It’s a great heavy duty pot that is currently on sale at Macy’s. Get the 5.5- or better yet, the 7-quart pot -- which I just discovered is currently on sale for a ridiculously low price of $31.99 at Macy's. I paid double for the 5.5 quart! Go to the store or order through Amazon.com; select a fiery red pot or a cheery blue one. The construction is pretty much the same as Le Creuset, and the pot heats up nice and hot, with steady heat – perfect for slow cooking.
[12/12/08 update: Last Saturday, I went to my local Macy's and got and extremely sweet deal on the 7-quart pot. The price went back up today though you can certainly use Macy's holiday coupons for a good deal.]
To give the pot a test drive, I decided to prepare lamb shanks since they take a very long time. The flavor combination for this Vietnamese dish is commonly used with beef shank or chuck for bo kho, a super popular beef stew of tomato, star anise, lemongrass and ginger. You’ve probably encountered this dish at Vietnamese pho shop. It's tangy, spicy, and savory with a wonderful fragrance brought from a combination of Vietnamese, Chinese, and French ingredients and techniques.
For years I’ve wondered bo kho would be like with gamy rich lamb shank and gave it a whirl. Vietnamese food is traditionally a low meat cuisine so serving up an entire lamb shank for each person seemed to contradict; it’s so Fred Flintstone. But then, once I dug into the shank, I realized that there isn’t much meat on the bone. My husband and I had no problem inhaling a shank each.
Treat this dish kind of like a Vietnamese osso bucco and serve it atop risotto if you like. Or consider it like a French boeuf aux carottes beef stew and sop up the heady broth with crusty baguette (maybe homemade baguette?!). You could also present it on a bed of fat rice noodles or egg noodles. In any event, you won’t be disappointed.
Braised Lamb Shanks with Star Anise and Lemongrass
6 lamb shanks, about 5 1/2 pounds total
2 hefty stalks lemongrass, trimmed, cut into 4-inch lengths, and bruised with the side of a cleaver or a meat tenderizer
1/4 cup fish sauce
2 1/4 teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder
1/4 cup peeled and minced fresh ginger
2 1/2 teaspoons brown sugar
2 bay leaves
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
3 cups peeled, seeded and chopped fresh tomato, or 2 1/4 cups canned crushed tomato
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 star anise (32 robust points total)
5 cups water
1 1/2 pounds carrots, peeled and cut on the diagonal into 1-inch-thick chunks
1. In a bowl, combine the lemongrass, fish sauce, five-spice powder, ginger, brown sugar, and bay leaf. Mix well. Add the shanks and use your hands to ensure that they are evenly coated. Set aside to marinate for 30 minutes.
2. In a heavy-bottomed 6-quart Dutch oven, heat the oil over high heat until hot but not smoking. Working in batches, add the shanks and sear on all sides, then transfer to a plate. Each batch should take about 3 minutes. Reserve the marinade in the bowl. .
3. Lower the heat to medium-low, add the onion, and cook, gently stirring, for 4 to 5 minutes, or until fragrant and soft. Add the tomato and salt and stir to combine. Cover and cook for 12 to 14 minutes, or until the mixture is fragrant and has reduced to a rough paste. Check occasionally to make sure the tomato mixture is not sticking to the bottom of the pan. If it is, stir well and splash in some water.
4. When the paste has formed, transfer half of it to a bowl and set aside briefly. Add 3 of the shanks, replace the tomato and add remaining 3 shanks along with the reserved marinade and star anise. Shanks and unwieldy so this is a good method for making sure things are well combined.
Cook, uncovered, for another 5 minutes to allow the flavors to meld and penetrate the lamb. Add enough water to just cover the shanks, bring to a boil, cover, lower the heat to a simmer, and cook for 2 hours, or until the lamb is tender (a sign that it is close to being done). To test for doneness, press on a piece; it should yield to your touch.
5. Turn off the heat and set aside to cool for 30 minutes; the lamb will cook further. Use tongs to transfer the lamb shanks to a large bowl or baking dish. Cover loosely to prevent drying.
Skim fat or refrigerate overnight to congeal the fat before removing and discarding it. (Remember to refrigerate the shanks too, if keeping overnight.) Return the stewing liquid to a boil, add the carrots and gently boil until nearly tender, about 25 minutes. Taste, adjust the seasoning with salt or a shot of fish sauce; add water if the flavor is too strong. Return the shanks to the pot, and simmer for about 10 minutes to heat through. The liquid should be soupy, not thick. If you’d like a thicker finish, boil the liquid down. However, you may make it too salty so reduce with care!
Serve in individual bowls, accompanied by warm French bread. Or serve atop wide rice noodles or egg noodles.