An Off-baste Dinner Party

I FOUND A USE FOR MY BUTTERNUT! And I threw my first dinner party! Wild success all around for me this week.

This, and most good things, all started when I went out with friends and had a little (there’s no standardized measurement for a little, let me have this) wine. Instead of paying attention to the conversation like a normal person, my brain was deep into dreams about lamb shanks. Suddenly, a beautiful idea was born. I had all these lamb shanks, I had a house to myself, and I had five people in front of me. “HEY DOYOUGUYSWANTTOCOMETODINNERATMYHOUSE!!?” I interjected into a completely unrelated conversation. As every other young, broke-as-shit adult can assume, the invitation was eagerly accepted and I had five people to pawn my leftover purée onto. Shh don’t tell them though, they think they’re special. 

When I regained consciousness the next morning around 11:30 looking more like the Creature from the Black Lagoon than a human woman, I cursed the Pinot-fueled confidence I had possessed the night before. There were now five people showing up to my house expecting food and I’ll be damned if they were gonna go home unsatisfied. Never fear, braising is here! Perfect for being lazy, looking fancy, and mentally bitch-slapping yourself for not hydrating better last night.

An important note on this recipe: When I cooked this, I cooked it in the InstantPot (pictured below). Everyone in the entire world should own one of these things. Dump your shitty crock pot in the trash can, its days are over. The InstantPot can do everything a crock pot can do and more, and since it’s a pressure cooker it can do it FAST. I’m talking lighting fast. I really don’t know how I ever lived without it. Its a small investment, but it will rock your world. InstantPot, I love you.

Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 8.11.58 PMJust look how beautiful she is. 

If you don’t have one of these glorious marvels of modern technology, not to worry. This recipe can also be done with a stovetop/oven combo. Details in the directions.

Ingredients:

For the lamb:

  • 6 lamb shanks
  • 3/4 bottle of cabernet (see note)
  • 1 12 oz an tomato paste
  • 2 medium yellow onions
  • 2 large carrots
  • 3 ribs celery
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 carton chicken broth
  • 2 tablespoons Better than Bouillon beef paste
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 4 sprigs rosemary

Note: You can use cheaper wine, but don’t go so low that you wouldn’t drink it. Sure that 3$ jug “a step above prison wine” is an economical choice, but if it tastes like shit, it will make your food taste like shit. 

For the gremolata:

  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 lemon, zested
  • 1/4 cup parsley
  • 1/4 cup mint
  • Pinch of sugar

For the chard:

  • 1 bunch swiss chard
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

Also:

  • Butternut squash and sweet potato puree left over from that time that I got WAY overzealous about ravioli- see “Zen and the Art of Gluten-Free Ravioli”- baked for 20 minutes in the oven at 350.

The Breakdown:

   For the lamb:

  1. Salt and pepper the lamb shanks liberally. Set aside.
  2. Dice the onion, celery, and carrot and place in a large bowl. This is the holy trinity, or if you’re a fancy frenchman mirepoix, and it is the beginning of damn near every delicious stew or braise. It’s some kind of magic.
  3. Heat a large skillet on high. Let it get screaming hot so you can sear the bajeezus out of that lamb. Remember, browned is FLAVOR. Always sear before you braise. Seal in those juices and caramelize. Are you catching the trend here?
  4. Set the InstantPot on sauté (or place a large dutch oven over high heat). Once heated, add a the olive oil, celery, onion, and carrot. Sauté until softened and beginning to brown, 8-10 minutes.
  5. This requires only occasional stirring, so during this time I seared off the lamb shanks on all sides. I did it in batches so as not to crowd the pan. Once seared, set aside.
  6. See all that fond in the bottom of the pan? Are we going to lose that? HECK NO we aren’t. We are going to pour the wine in there while the pan is still hot and deglaze, scraping all that delicious browned stuff off the bottom. Remove the pan from the heat.
  7. Add the garlic to the vegetables and sauté until fragrant, another 1-2 minutes.
  8. Add in the can of tomato paste and stir well. I could write a book about the merits and wonders of tomato paste. I could just eat it by the spoonful it’s so good. Cook it for 1-2 minutes, but watch it carefully and keep it moving. Burning this beauty would be a tragedy.
  9.  Stir in the carton of chicken broth, being sure to scrape any brown delicious bits off the bottom.
  10. Add in the wine from the searing pan, the bay leaves, the bouillon paste, and the rosemary. Stir.
  11. Arrange the shanks in the instant pot or dutch oven, bones up. Try and get as much of the meaty part under the liquid as possible. If using a dutch oven, cover and bake at 375 ºF for two-two and a half hours or until falling-off the bone, mouthwateringly delicious. In the instant-pot, I closed the lid and cooked at high pressure for 50 minutes. FIFTY MINUTES, Y’ALL! The instant pot is absolute sorcery.
  12. Once finished cooking, ladle 3 cups of the cooking liquid into a bowl or measuring cup. Allow to cool so that the fat separates and you can skim it off the top. Once the fat is removed, season the liquid with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste. Mine was very flavorful, but if you find that yours seems watery, you can also reduce the sauce to concentrate the flavor. In that case, be careful salting it before you begin reducing. It can get way salty, way fast.

For the gremolata:

  1. Finely chop the garlic, parsley and mint.
  2. Add in the lemon zest and the juice of half the lemon. Mix well.
  3. Add a pinch of sugar, if needed, to balance the acid.

For the chard:

  1. Chop the chard into 1-inch wide strips. I usually stop when I run out of leaves and leave out the rest of the stems. I don’t cut the ribs out of the leaves, the red is beautiful and I am lazy.
  2. To a pan over medium heat, add the olive oil and allow it to warm. Once it begins to shimmer (1-2 minutes), add in the minced shallot and caramelize.
  3. When the shallot has begun to brown (3-4 minutes), add in the chard and stir. The chard will initially fill up the pan, but it reduces quickly.
  4. Sautee for 8-10 minutes or until the ribs have softened and the leaves are wilted.
  5. Salt and pepper, to taste.

   Assembly:

  1. Add the puree to the bottom of a bowl and top with the swiss chard.
  2. Gently place one lamb shank in the center.
  3. Top with a few tablespoons of the seasoned cooking liquid you made (heat in the microwave if needed) and a sprinkle of the herby gremolata.
  4. Serve immediately (with a lot more wine).
  5. Watch with joy as your guests all go silent except for a chorus of “mmms” and “yums.”

Lamb and squash purée may be my new favorite combination. The sweetness was so well balanced by the depth of flavor in the wine braise and the chard added a slightly bitter, lemony bite. The gremolata was just a hint of brightness and acid to cut through the heavy fattiness of lamb and it just… worked. Made me feel so chefy.

It was a heck of a dinner party. There was even a damn cheese plate. I pulled out all the stops (and obviously, because I’m me, way overdid it). We all felt very grown up, let me tell you. At what age do you stop feeling like you’re playing dress up? I haven’t gotten there yet. Everyone kept saying “Wow look at us. At a DINNER PARTY.” Like we had finally made it into the real adults club, even though there were at least 7 dick jokes peppered into the conversation. Really though, I got to spend a few hours talking, laughing, and eating with some of my favorite people in the world. Old friends and new, cooking a meal for them got me all warm and fuzzy, particularly when they didn’t immediately spit it back out and yell “EW!” Score 1 for Rachel.

Braising fits so well into my theme of “look like you worked a lot harder than you did.” It seems so fancy and complex but really its not that much work. The ingredients are simple, the method isn’t particularly labor-intensive, and the payoff is huge. There’s nothing better than a warm, stewy kinda vibe in the fall. Judging by the fact that plates were clean and all of my friends seem to still be speaking to me, I’d call this a success.

 

 

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