Braised Lamb Shanks with Tarragon

[This entry is cross posted at]

“Agnus Day with gnocchi and some zucchini. Easter is this Sunday.”
– Gregorian Chant (alternate)

I don’t use direct salt when I cook stir fries because I let soy sauce lull me into complacent bliss by hiding its sodium content in that little white square on the back of the bottle, filled with numbers and uninteresting acronyms, that nobody ever reads. According to Waverley Root, tarragon does the same thing but with no scolding square to ignore. He goes further. From his book, Food: An Authoritative, Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World:

“In the less than a thousand years that it has been known to Westerners, food writers have extolled [tarragon] for its ability to replace salt, pepper, and vinegar. (It can also replace garlic for those for those allergic to this food.)”

This was news to me, although since reading I’ve found numerous dietary web sites that make the same claim. I can see the peppery and maybe some of the brightening of flavor you get from vinegar or other acids. That brightening may be what he means when he says tarragon replaces salt, but I have to concentrate to find it. It is there on the tongue, but as a shadow.

Root notes MFK Fisher writes that tarragon is “faintly licorice-like in flavor” in her The Cooking of Provencial France to which he responds “I fail to detect any such taste in tarragon myself, and this deficiency is shared by several French friends to whom I put the question.” This is a twofold misstep on his part. First, I agree with Fisher, as does every one that I’ve discussed the herb with which turns out to be a surprising number of people, at least one of them French. I have concurring reference books and Google to back Mary Frances and I up as well. Second, Root is new to my cookbook/food shelves and doesn’t yet have a grasp on the relationships I’ve formed with various authors he’s now sharing space with so, like an ambitious new student trying to make schoolyard friends he sees fissures where there are none and thinks he’s found solid insinuating ground when he hasn’t. It wasn’t wise to challenge Fisher.

Thankfully for him, he’s an entertaining writer. Food is a reference book and not meant to be read through, but when my “used – good condition” copy arrived with “used – acceptable” cracks in the spine on Monday I opened to a random page to see what it was I’d bought. There was an entry for soump oil. I’d never heard of it, but now I know that is “a fat universally used in the Ivory Coast, Chad, and East Africa, made from the intensely bitter fruit of the zachun-oil tree, which fails to explain why it is also called heglik oil” and then rambles in the same entry about cherries, sour grass, and soursop before mentioning Southdown sheep, “reputed to be particularly flavorful, but I cannot say, though I once owned twenty-five of them myself, for I sold them, idiotically, untasted.” My suspicion is that Root’s the kind of food writer that never cooks with wine he wouldn’t drink. It’s a really fun book, but still, he needs to back off Fisher. At least he hasn’t tried to cross swords with Marcella Hazan (Her Name Be Praised) yet.

The French famously pair tarragon with lamb in a mustard sauce or in a cream sauce over chops crusted with mustard. I’m not normally a picky eater but there are certain condiments [link] that I’ll never be friends with. Mustard is one of those. Wanting tarragon lamb but not wanting what was held up, I put some distance between my recipe search and Dijon and started looking at the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean is where my preferences usually lie anyway, Italy in particular. I started playing around with traditional cupboard ingredients from the region and decided on the following combination to make me happy.

Lamb is the traditional centerpiece of an Easter feast. This kind of surprised me when I was younger because lamb was the traditional centerpiece of all our non-Thanksgiving holiday and major celebration meals growing up. As a kid I didn’t realize the symbolism that echoes from Abraham, from the paschal sacrifice, to the Resurrection. When lambs die, sons live. I just thought it was really tasty.

Braised Lamb Shanks with Tarragon

  • 3 lamb shanks, about 2 ½ lbs including bones
  • ½ yellow onion, diced
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 2 ribs celery, diced
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 cups red wine,
  • 2 cups chicken stock,
  • 3-5 stems fresh tarragon
  • 1 28 oz. can whole tomatoes
  • 2 anchovy filets, chopped
  • red pepper flakes to taste
  • kosher salt
  • olive oil

Add a few glugs of olive oil to a Dutch oven or similar over medium high heat. Liberally salt the shanks and brown on all sides in the oil.

Remove the browned shanks to a plate and reduce the heat to medium. Add the onions and carrots and saute for 2 minutes, then the celery for another 2, then the garlic for 30 seconds.

Pour in the wine, turn up the heat to medium high, bring to a boil and hold the boil for 2 or 3 minutes to soften the alcohol taste, and then add the chicken stock, tarragon, red pepper flakes, and anchovy filets.

Put the tomatoes with their juices in a bowl and tear them by hand. Pour the contents of the bowl into the pan.

Bring the sauce to a boil and then reduce heat to a low simmer. Put the shanks back in the pan, submerged as best as possible, and simmer uncovered, for 1 hour. There’s no stirring necessary, so wander off and do whatever. I mowed my front lawn and let me say, it looks lovely.

After an hour, roll the shanks over and let simmer for another hour. Still no stirring. I mowed the backyard too.

When the second hour is up, cut off the heat and pull the shanks from the liquid.

Let the sauce and shanks cool for 30 minutes or so.

If you have an immersion blender, great. Just be warned that this will likely happen:

If you don’t have an immersion blender a food processor or blender will work. Whatever you use, puree the braising liquid and then simmer over low to medium-low heat to reduce to a thickness you are happy with. There’s no right or wrong.

Pull the meat from the cooled shanks and tear into bite sized pieces.

Put the meat in the oven for a few minutes but just enough to warm it up. Salt the sauce to taste and serve. We paired it with gnocchi sauteed in butter and a zucchini, kalamata, red onion, cherry tomato, and feta salad.

Happy Easter everybody. Hope you enjoy yourselves.

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