Ah, braising! Delicious and painless process boosts meats' flavor and tenderness
Question: I'm braising lamb shanks with red wine and chocolate. Should I marinate beforehand?
Answer: Braising is perhaps my favorite winter cooking technique. It's a long, but entirely painless, process that — when done correctly — reliably results in restaurant-quality flavor and tenderness.
Marinating the meat overnight isn't a criminal offense, but it's not necessary. The beauty of braised lamb or beef or pork shoulder is how the flavor of the braising liquid infuses the protein as it slowly simmers.
A few notes on braising:
1. Season your meat with salt and pepper before you sear. Searing adds color and texture to the finished dish. Seasoning beforehand adds to the depth of flavor.
2. Choose complex and concentrated flavors for the brining liquid — wine and pastes — that will add a flavor to the dish. The braising liquid acts as the marinade as it cooks slowly for hours (and hours).
3. Cover your heavy-bottomed pot tightly, and let the pan do the work. Once you've added vegetables and herbs, then reintroduced the protein to the liquid, step away from the stove and let the mixture bubble away.
The red wine and chocolate combination is a stroke of genius: a mole-esque braise that's sure to wow your dinner guests.
One of my favorite preparations of braised lamb is a dish of lamb shanks with leeks and grapes. If you're feeling ambitious, make your own stock. Homemade stock isn't imperative but it will change the quality of the liquid and, therefore, the finished dish. Stocks can be frozen for weeks, so double your batch and store the stock for your next braise (or soup or risotto).
Use a rich grape, like concord, to bring a sweetness to the meat. Cook slowly, and you can't go wrong.
Mario Batali is the award-winning chef behind 24 restaurants. His twice-monthly column frequently answers questions submitted via social media. Follow him on Twitter @mariobatali.
Lamb Shanks with Leeks and Grapes
10 large, meaty lamb shanks
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 Spanish onions, chopped into 1⁄4-inch dice
18 garlic cloves
5 carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
6 leeks, white and light-green parts only, trimmed, halved lengthwise, cut crosswise into thing half-moons, rinsed thoroughly and drained
2 cups dry white wine
1 cup basic tomato sauce (for quick results, try my Mario Batali pasta sauces)
3 cups brown chicken stock
2 cups red grapes, wine grapes such as Sangiovese, or, even better, Concord grapes, halved and seeded
Heat the oven to 375 degrees.
Rinse and dry the lamb shanks, and season them liberally with salt and pepper. In a large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until smoking. Add the lamb shanks, 5 at a time, and sear until dark golden brown all over, 10 to 12 minutes per batch. Remove the shanks and set them aside.
Add the onions, garlic, carrots and leeks to the pot, and cook until softened, 8 to 10 minutes.
Add the wine, tomato sauce and stock to the vegetables and bring to a boil. Return the lamb shanks to the pot and bring back to a boil. Cover the pot tightly, place it in the oven, and bake for about 1 1⁄2 hours, until the meat is fork-tender.
Remove the pot from the oven, check the sauce for seasoning, and then add the grapes. Stir them in gently, and serve directly from the pot.
Makes 8 to 10 servings as a main course.