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Let's say you want to have a special evening. There's a fancy bottle of wine you've been saving, and you've invited a few friends over for a home-cooked meal. You have something to celebrate.
But you don't know exactly what time they're arriving—they could be stuck at work, or their train could take forever to come. If you plan a dish with too many last-minute preparations, you'll be bustling around while your friends relax and catch up. And you clearly don't have time for lots of shopping and complicated prep between the time you leave work and the time they come over. It's a challenge, the weeknight dinner party.
But take a deep breath. There is no reason you can't entertain on a weeknight, even have a truly decadent, enjoyable meal, without any stress. That's what braising is for. Everything is prepared in advance. You can gently reheat these port-braised lamb shanks for 45 minutes or an hour or longer while your guests arrive, while you drink toasts and eat lovely cheese, and the meal will be none the worse for wear. In fact, it will just get better.
It always amazes me how recipes for braised dishes fail to emphasize the value in cooking ahead. Cook for three (or more) hours the evening before your party, and let the pot cool off outside before you stash it in the fridge overnight. The flavors will mingle, and, most importantly, the fat will separate from the cooking liquid. On game day, you skim the now-solidified fat from the surface before reheating. And this dish has plenty. It's quite satisfying to remove it, knowing you're saving your guests from a greasy meal.
So the lamb reheated happily on the stove, and we sipped the wine and ate lovely cheese from Fromaggio in Essex Market. And Matt asked Peter to be his best man in our wedding, and they were both blushing and adorable, and the lamb fell off the bone as I tried to serve it, and it was as tender as can be.
Port-Braised Braised Lamb Shanks with Coriander, Fennel, and Star Anise
Adapted from Bon Appetit, March 2006
2 1/2 tsp ground coriander
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 large lamb shanks (about 5 pounds)
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 large white onion, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
10 garlic cloves, peeled
3 celery stalks, cut crosswise into 1 1/2-inch pieces
2 carrots, peeled, cut crosswise into 1 1/2-inch pieces
1 small leek
3 cups ruby Port
2 1/2 cups low-salt chicken broth
2 1/2 cups beef broth
6 whole cloves
2 whole star anise
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
The day before the party, prepare and braise the lamb shanks. Measure coriander, fennel, and pepper in a heavy skillet. Toast on medium-high heat until aromatic and slightly darker, about 2 minutes. Transfer to spice grinder or mortar and pestle; grind finely. Rub each shank with spice blend, reserving a tablespoon or so. Sprinkle each shank with salt.
In large pot, heat port to a simmer. Simmer until reduced to about 1 cup, about 20 minutes. Add broth, boil until liquid is reduced to about 4 cups, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, eat 2 tablespoons oil in heavy large dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add shanks to pot. Cook until brown on all sides, about 20 minutes. Remove to bowl. Add remaining 2 tablespoons oil to same pot. Add onion and next 4 ingredients; sauté over medium heat until vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add remaining spice blend and stir 1 minute. Add hot liquid when reduced, scraping the pan and using the liquid to deglaze.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Return shanks to pot. Add cloves, star anise, bay leaves, and crushed red pepper. Cover pot and place in oven. Braise lamb until tender, 2 to 2 1/2 hours.
When cooked, uncover and cool slightly. Remove shanks from sauce, holding on a plate or bowl, and strain sauce. Return shanks and sauce to pot. Cover and keep refrigerated up to two days.
The day of the party, skim fat from top of the dish. Rewarm, covered, in a 350°F for 45 minutes to one and a half hours (until warm) before serving.
Place 1 lamb shank on each of 4 plates (can be served on top of polenta). Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon sauce and over lamb and serve.