Cooking for a living “is hardly glamorous” as Peter Sherwood suggests in his recent Cookingvillage.com piece, Celebrity Bites. And there are times—especially when I find myself slaving over a hot stove during the height of a dinner rush—I have to agree. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be a labor of love, or extremely rewarding in the end. And, sometimes, the most un-glamorous cooking methods yield the sexiest dishes.
Being in charge of the menus at my restaurants gives me a great deal of freedom, taking me out of the kitchen (with its attendant hot stove) to explore and taste. Most often, inspiration comes to me from cookbooks. When I’m looking for juice, I often find myself walking the racks of used bookstores; the tomes that usually catch my eye offer more stories than they do recipes, more process than precision.
My favorites share tales of kitchen lore, and Richard Olney’s biography, Reflections, is at the top of the heap. Olney tackles the subject of braising in the book, instructing the reader on the art of making a good daube. According to the author a daube—or a traditional French beef dish—must have at least three days between leaving the butcher’s shop and hitting the plate.
Day one involves seasoning and browning in a bit of lard surrounded by aromatic vegetables. A stock is then added, and the whole thing is brought to a simmer before being covered and tossed into an oven for several hours at 350 degrees. After the requisite time as passed, the dish is removed from the oven and the meat removed from the pan. The stock is strained and then poured over the meat. And then the meat and stock are stashed in the back of a fridge, where it will sit and soften for the next 24 hours.
On day two, the meat is removed from the fridge and the fat is skimmed from the top (talk about un-glamorous). As a reward, the cook can now open a bottle of red and add as much as he feels he wants to share with the stock to it before tucking into the vino himself. The meat is returned to braise in the oven for the second time, again at 350 degrees.
Two hours later it’s removed again and—we’re not even close to done here—returned again to the depths of the chiller until ready to serve.
When service approaches on the third day, the meat is removed, the fat once again skimmed and the whole pot is brought to a simmer on the stovetop. A bit of salt and pepper are added—as well as some fresh herbs—and then, 72 hours later, it’s ready to be eaten.
Is the above process glamorous? Hardly. But the dish—glistening under a rich sauce and mouth-wateringly fragrant—certainly is.
To make the dish successful, you’ve got to plan ahead. This is not just my advice, but Olney’s too—and it’s one that I’ve found works well for me. It allows me time to step out of the kitchen and listen to my customers’ thoughts on the meals before them. Often, their thoughts turn to praise—something I’m always eager to hear. After all, some of us got into the biz for the glamour of it all.
Chili Rubbed Lamb Shanks with Butternut Squash Puree & Sauteed Swiss Chard (serves 4):
2 “deluxe” lamb shanks (2-3 lb ea. If you can’t get shanks that big, just get as many as it takes to reach about 6 lbs)
2 dried guajillo chilies, seeded and pureed in a coffee grinder (if you can’t find guajillo’s, substitute 4 tablespoons of chili powder)
2 tablespoons of smoked paprika
2 tablespoons of garlic powder
1/4 cup reserved bacon fat or crisco
2 large onions, peeled & chopped
4 carrots, peeled and chopped
4 celery stalks, chopped
1 quart chicken stock
1 small can of tomato paste
12 oz. red wine
1/2 bunch parsley, stems removed and chopped
1/2 bunch cilantro, stems removed and chopped
1/2 bunch marjoram, stems removed and chopped
1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Rinse the lamb shanks then pat it dry. Mix the chili powder, paprika, and garlic powder together, then rub the shanks all over with the seasoning.
2. In a large skillet over medium/high heat bring the oil to temperature, then add the seasoned shanks to the pan and brown them all over. Now add the vegetables and continue to stir until soft.
3. Reduce the heat to medium, and then add the chicken stock and tomato paste to the pan. When the mixture comes to a simmer, cover the dish and place it in the oven for two hours.
4. After two hours have elapsed, remove the pan from the oven. Next, remove the shanks from the pan and place them in a bowl. Strain the stock over the bowl, so that only stock goes in with the shanks. Compost the refuse if possible and place the shanks in the stock in the refrigerator overnight.
5. On Day 2, remove the shanks from the cooler and skim the fat off the top. Preheat your oven to 350, again. Place the stock and shank back in a small braising pan and bring to a simmer on the stovetop. While that comes to a simmer, clean your herbs from the stems and set the herbs aside for the next day. Add the wine and the herb stems to the braising pan to infuse the stock.
6. Place the dish in the oven for another two hours. When two hours have passed, remove the shanks to the bowl and strain the stock over it as you did before. Cover and chill in the fridge once more.
7. Finally, Day 3! Remove the shanks from the fridge and skim the fat from the top again. Put stock into the braising pan and bring to a simmer over medium high heat on the stovetop to reduce the stock by half. While the stock simmers, place the shanks on the cutting board and carefully pull the meat from the bone.
8. When the stock has been reduced, place the lamb meat into the stock until warmed through. Just before serving, taste and add extra salt if needed. Add the chopped herb, and serve.
Cooks note: To each plate, I like to add ½ cup of steamed spinach seasoned with sea salt as well as ½ cup of roasted butternut squash puree seasoned with butter and sea salt. Ideally, I like to arrange the shards of meat like spikes between the sides, before drizzling the sauce all over.