Shanks for the Memories
This article first appeared in the Wine Spectator.

In golf, a shank is not a good thing. But in cooking, a shank can be a very good thing indeed. Shanks, or shins, are the fore and (less often) hind legs from the knee joint to the foot of lamb, pork, veal, and beef. They make mighty fine eating, especially in bone-chilling weather.
 
Shanks have “an intense flavor and a soft, silky texture,” write Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly in “The Complete Meat Cookbook” (Houghton Mifflin). When braised, as they almost always are, they provide a rich, satisfying sauce. Shanks are also great for entertaining because they can be made well ahead and reheated easily.
 
“There’s something very primal about shanks. It’s that falling off the bone thing,” says Tom Valenti, chef of ‘Cesca in New York. “A lot of people respond to this kind of dish. They don’t immediately respond to grilled tuna.” If there is a sultan of shanks in New York, it’s Valenti. In the late 1980s and early 90s he made his reputation at New York restaurant Alison On Dominick Street with his legendary lamb shanks. At ‘Cesca, he is featuring pork shanks, which he lovingly braises for 3-1/2 hours before serving them with roasted vegetables and pastina.
 
Unlike lamb and veal shanks, fresh pork shanks—not to be confused with smoked shanks or hocks used to flavor bean soups and hearty greens—are a relatively new restaurant phenomenon. “It’s common in Germany, where it is usually spit roasted and served hofbrau house style with mustard, potatoes, sauerkraut and dumplings,” says David Burke, who introduced the crackling pork shank at Maloney & Porcelli in 1996 as executive chef of the Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group based in New York.
 
As with the Germans, Burke, who is chef and an owner of Burke and Donatella in Manhattan, used the larger hind leg shank, which weighs in at a whopping 30 ounces. After making a confit by slowly cooking it in lard, Burke roasted it. Finally it was deep fried to give that crackling finish and served with jalapeno-laced applesauce.
 
Burke’s shank dish is too arduous for most home cooks, even if you could get the hind shank, which normally goes into hams. The foreleg will still require a special order. As with lamb and veal shanks, you’ll want a pork shank somewhere between 16 and 20 ounces.
 
The most well-known shank dish is osso buco, made with veal shanks. Though still rustic, osso buco is more delicate, with a silkier texture than shanks of pork, lamb and beef. It’s also more expensive, though considerably cheaper (and more flavorful) than a veal chop. I have also made Marcella Hazan’s veal shanks Trieste style, in which the entire shank is braised. Though delicious, it doesn’t portion as easily as individual pieces of osso buco.
 
Two features of osso buco are the marrow and gremolada. The marrow’s importance is illustrated by the fact that osso buco literally means, “bone with a hole.” Classic presentations of osso buco come with a small fork or knife to scoop out the marrow and spread it on bread. The gremolada is usually a mixture of finely minced lemon rind, parsley, garlic and anchovy, which is folded into the dish a few minutes before serving. Valenti pays homage to the gremolada by transferring the concept to his pork shanks when he drizzles a garlic-infused parsley puree over the dish.
 
Because of the nature of the animal, lamb shanks are less squat and uniform in size than veal or pork shanks. They taper up to a bony point with little meat on top. Sometimes butchers will “crack” these bones, meaning they make two vertical cuts about three-fourths through each shank. This is a good place to put seasonings like a paste of rosemary, garlic, and prosciutto.
 
While veal shanks are almost always prepared in Italian or French style, lamb shank dishes can run the length of the Mediterranean from Spain to Syria, and continue east to India. Since lamb has such a robust flavor, it can hold up to more intense seasonings such as saffron, cinnamon, and chiles. I’ve even seen coffee used.
 
Beef shanks are most often used in stews or stocks, especially in pot-au-feu, the French boiled beef dish. But they can be wonderful when braised like other shanks. In fact, my favorite of the shanks I cooked was a braised beef shank with coconut milk, ginger, and cumin from “The Complete Meat Cookbook.”
 
Beef shanks are considerably larger than other shanks, weighing upwards of two pounds each. So, when serving six (six to eight is the ideal number of servings for shanks), you’ll need three beef shanks, which will give you seven or eight ounces of meat per person.
 
Cooking shanks involves basic braising techniques and five rather simple stages. It’s even easier if you use just one sauté pan no less than 12 inches in diameter and 2-1/2 inches deep. First brown the well-seasoned meat in oil on top of the stove. Valenti doesn’t flour the meat, but I like the way flour gently thickens the sauce.
 
Then remove the shanks to a platter, add fresh oil (or butter) to the pan and sauté a cup of chopped onions, slightly less of chopped carrots and celery, and a few chopped cloves of garlic until softened.
 
For stage three, add the liquids and seasonings. For lighter meats like pork or veal, white wine (about a cup) is used to deglaze the pan. Then chicken broth - approximately 1-1/2 cups -is added. Use red wine and beef broth for beef and lamb. For Asian presentations, wine is not normally used. Nor are tomatoes (a cup or more), which are in most other shank recipes. Add the seasonings and bring the mixture to a boil.
 
Thyme and bay leaves are basic to most shank recipes. Rosemary goes well with lamb and sage with veal. The secret ingredient though (at least for Mediterranean presentations) is anchovies. A few chopped teaspoons add that je ne sais qua that will stump even hard-core foodies. In his “Complete Book of Pork Cooking,” written with Lisa Weiss (HarperCollins), Aidells seasons his pork shanks with ginger, garlic, cilantro and fermented black beans. “The Complete Meat Cookbook” goes the Germanic route with cabbage and caraway.
 
For the fourth step, return the meat to the pan, cover and cook in the oven at 325 degrees. Veal will need about two hours, while beef shanks should cook for about 3-1/2 hours, and pork and lamb somewhere in between. More important than time is that the meat should be easily pierced with a knife but not falling apart. For added caramelization, uncover the meat after an hour of cooking, allowing part of the shanks to be exposed. Turn the shanks (except beef shanks, which are too large) every half hour to get even color.
 
To finish the dish, remove the shanks to a warm platter while you skim the grease from the top of the pan juices and reduce them on top of the stove. Valenti strains out the vegetables, but I keep them in. If needed, thicken the sauce with a beurre manié of softened butter mixed with flour.
 
Valenti thinks a “neutral white puree” is a good foil for most braised dishes. Osso buco is typically accompanied by risotto. Polenta would also be good. For lamb, a simple white bean puree is almost de rigeur. I put a ring of this puree around the inside rim of a large soup plate. The shank goes in the middle and sauce on top and around. Don’t overdo it with the sauce. Hearty greens like braised chard, broccoli raab, and mustard greens give a color and textural contrast.
 
Rustic wines fit shanks of every persuasion. Côtes du Rhône is great with lamb. Pork requires an earthy white like older Vouvray, Savennières or a white Rhône. Veal falls somewhere between pork and lamb, so a lighter style Tuscan Sangiovese would work. Zinfandel is a good match for beef, though with that Asian version, an Alsace Gewürztraminer was delightful.
 
With wonderful wines and succulent meat, you’ll be hitting the green every time.
 

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