Okay, so perhaps the first time it was just "puppy love," but I can remember the exact moment. It was at Les Deux Garçons in Aix en Provence. I was among many in attendance at a monthly luncheon/lecture program. (Organized by a local businessman, this series brings together ‘Aix-pats’ and Aixoise for lecture/discussion formats on topics ranging from local to global.) The often-interesting presentation is followed by a lively discussion but on this particular day, there was a moment in which the room became a blur. Time seemed to stop. I lost all contact with auditory and visual cues and stepped out of the activity of the luncheon and into the rather profound experience of my first bite of souris d’agneau. We know this as "lamb shanks" and the delicious braised version served at Les Deux Garcons, is my first choice when I attend those monthly luncheons.
To have discovered another even more lovely version at Le Zinc d’Hugo, deeper in the heart of Aix, was like recognizing that you may have been really attracted before, but this time...yup... this time it’s the real thing: you’re in love. Yeah…it was like that. And so of course, as can always be anticipated in the early stages of a love affair, I wanted to see that souris d’agneau more often. I began researching and tweaking recipes to get as close to Zinc’s version as possible. So much "research" was being done, that when I told my sister over the phone one afternoon that I was braising yet another pot of souris d’agneau, her questioning comment (given the frequency of my current activities) revealed her suspicion: "There must be a lot of stubby-legged little lambs running around Provence?!"
Not one to shy away from acknowledging the origins of my food, I go to my local boucherie to choose from the array of fresh meats in the case and hanging in the back. Recently, though, I have aroused some curiosity at this local butcher shop because of my repeated requests for orders from their supply of lovely lamb shanks. What can I say?! I’m in love!
The butcher at the Boucherie du Palais insists that each of my guests have their own "shank", which has resulted in very large portions, indeed. When I balked (ever so slightly, believe me!) at the amount of meat he was suggesting I carry out of that place for three people, with a slight upward toss of his head and an audible ‘sniff’, he mumbled something in my general direction about how it would not "be very pretty" if each person did not have their own shank on the plate….something my butcher at the local organic market in California was never worried about, I can assure you! Lest I become the topic of conversation in the back of the butcher shop during the smoking break, I took his recommendation and carried out several more kilos of lamb than I had anticipated. After all, aside from the fact that serving food in a "not-so-pretty manner" may be a misdemeanor here, the leftovers can easily be transformed into a lamb, olive and mozzarella filled streudel for friends who come in for aperitifs (but that's another post!)
Braised Lamb Shanks in Port Wine Sauce was the star of the evening on a day that was still quite mild. Atop a fig and apricot studded couscous, grilled carrot and zucchini slices rounded out this satisfying meal. As the days grow a bit cooler, it will be served up "family style" with garlic-smashed potatoes. The rich sauce that cooks down during the braising process is as close as I’ve gotten to the "souris of my dreams." (Ain’t love grand?!)
Consider these suggestions from Jean-Marc Espinasse at French-Wine-A-Day, for a little something to accompany this dish and really make it "sing"! Given the spicy rub, and depending on your preference of more or less spices, try:
2002 Cornas (minimum spice)
2003 Bandol (average spice)
2000 Vacqueyras (lots of spice)
BRAISED LAMB SHANKS IN PORT WINE SAUCE
(Inspired by le Zinc d'Hugo and adapted from Bon Appetit)
For the rub:
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
4 large lamb shanks (about 5 pounds)
For the braising:
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 large white onion, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
10 garlic cloves, peeled
3 celery stalks, roughly chopped
1 small leek, white and pale green parts only, cut crosswise into 1 1/2-inch pieces
3 cups ruby Port (It is worth it to use a good port for this sauce.)
4 cups low-salt chicken broth
4 cups beef broth
6 whole cloves
2 whole star anise*
2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
Mix coriander, fennel, and peppercorns in heavy small skillet. Toast on medium-high heat until they are releasing their fragrances and beginning to turn slightly darker, about 2 minutes. Transfer to spice grinder; process until finely ground. Rub each shank with 1 rounded teaspoon spice blend. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in heavy large wide pot over medium-high heat. Add shanks to pot. Cook until brown on all sides, about 20 minutes. Transfer to large bowl. Add remaining 2 tablespoons oil to same pot. Add onion and next 3 ingredients; sauté over medium heat until vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add remaining spice blend to taste (I only added half of what was left and saved the other half for a rainy day.) and stir 1 minute. Add Port and simmer until liquid is reduced to 2/3 cup, about 15 minutes. Add both broths; boil until liquid is reduced to 3 1/2 cups, about 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Return shanks to pot. Add cloves, star anise, bay leaves, and crushed red pepper. Cover pot with foil, then lid and place in oven to braise until tender, about 2 hours. (Can be made 2 days ahead. Uncover and cool slightly. Place in refrigerator until cool, then cover and keep refrigerated. Rewarm in 350°F oven for 20 minutes before serving.)
Place 1 lamb shank on each of 4 plates. Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon sauce and vegetables over lamb and serve.
*Star-shaped seed pod available in the spice section of some supermarkets, Asian markets, and specialty foods stores.