Hibernation Mode

I hibernated over New Year's -- my daughter wasn't around, I didn't feel like driving to New York City to meet friends, I was obsessed with knitting and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The time was ripe for a good old-fashioned hibernation, in other words. I mostly ate popcorn and mandarin oranges, but I did manage to make one meal that I thought was fitting for my cozy lair.

Braised Lamb Shanks with Prunes and Ras-el-hanout
Serves 2

I made this in a pressure cooker, which cuts the cooking time down considerably. You can also make it in a heavy braising pan (a deep-sided covered skillet or Dutch oven); I've added timings/directions below. Ras-el-hanout is a North African spice blend that includes cinnamon, pepper, ginger, cumin, and other aromatic additions. It's available in many supermarket spice sections, but I have given a substitute spice blend if you can't get hold of it.

2 meaty lamb shanks
1.5 TB plus 1.5 TB olive oil
kosher salt and freshly-ground pepper
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1.5 TB ras-el-hanout, OR a mixture of 1 tsp ground ginger, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp cumin, 1 tsp coriander powder, 1/4 tsp pepper, 1/4 tsp allspice, 1/4 tsp nutmeg, 1/4 tsp cloves
2 bay leaves
2 TB tomato paste
2 c beef broth (4 c if using a regular pot)
1/2 c minced flat-leaf parsley, divided
1/2 c minced cilantro, divided
1/2 c prunes
1 c good-quality couscous (not instant)
1 TB butter (optional)

1. In a heavy pan (or the bottom of your pressure cooker), heat 1.5 TB olive oil over medium-high heat till shimmering. Season lamb shanks liberally with salt and pepper. Add shanks to pan and brown well on all sides, adjusting heat as necessary so nothing scorches. When nicely browned, remove to a plate.

2. Pour fat out of pan and add additional 1.5 TB olive oil. Over medium-high heat, soften onions and garlic till golden. Add ras-el-hanout or spice mixture, along with a hefty pinch of kosher salt, and stir until mixed with the onion, then add the tomato paste. Allow the paste to cook for a minute or so until it loses it's raw smell. Add beef broth (2 c if using a pressure cooker, 4 c if using a regular pan) and 1/4 cup each parsley and cilantro. Stir until combined; add lamb shanks back to pan.

3. For pressure cooker: Close the lid of the pressure cooker and bring the pan up to pressure over medium-high heat. When the pressure cooker reaches pressure, turn heat down to medium-low and allow to cook for 35-40 minutes (use the longer time if your lamb shanks are very large). When the cooking time is up, run the pressure cooker under cold water to release the pressure. Open the lid, and place the pan back on the stove. Taste braising liquid for salt; add more if necessary. Remove 1/2 c braising liquid to a measuring cup and reserve. Add prunes and allow to simmer at a lively pace at medium heat, uncovered, for about 10-15 minutes or until sauce thickens and the prunes soften.

For regular cooking vessel: Cover the pan and turn the heat to medium low. Allow the shanks to braise for 1 hr 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste for salt at this stage; add more if necessary. Add prunes to the pot and allow mixture to cook for an additional 15 minutes. If the sauce is quite thick cover the pot for this last simmer; if it's too thin, leave the pot uncovered.

4.  In a small saucepan, bring 1 cup of water and 1 TB butter to a boil (or, if you've used the pressure cooker, 1/2 c of braising liquid plus 1/2 c water; no butter necessary). When boiling, stir in your couscous. Allow mixture to come back to the boil, cover snugly, and turn off the heat. Allow to sit for 10 minutes till you're ready to serve.

4. Serve shanks and sauce over a scoop of couscous. Garnish with a final, generous sprinkling of cilantro and parsley.