Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Braised Lamb Shanks

My Dad is the last person I'd expect to keep up with my blog. He doesn't cook. He doesn't read cookbooks. He doesn't watch food TV. But to my great surprise and delight, he turned out to be one of my most dedicated readers. He even reads people's comments! Does he comment himself? All the time, but usually on the phone. He is too shy to post his comments directly here.

Eventually, you get to know your readers, and you know what dishes are likely to get comments from whom. Some people react most strongly to a good picture, some to an unusual ingredient, some to food politics, some to ickiness, some to cuteness, and my Dad to any main ingredient that at some point walked the earth baaaah-ing, moo-ing, oink-ing, or quack-ing, particularly if it's on the bone. He was really upset that my post about a porterhouse didn't get any comments for a while. "Just look at that bone!" he said. "You can see that someone really enjoyed that steak!"

Whenever I post a meat dish, my Dad always asks, "When are you going to cook that for us?" "Next time you come to visit," I always say. But the problem is that my parents only visit a few times a year since they live in Baltimore and we live in Boston. By the time we see each other, I always have more new dishes to make for my Dad than time permits, and I have to balance his carnivorous cravings with my Mom's healthy intentions and requests for fish.

But this time, I am finally writing about a dish that my Dad will get to try very soon. These braised lamb shanks, that I made with my "Tender at the Bone" (a.k.a. "The Meat class"), are currently sitting in my freezer waiting to travel to the Berkshires where we are spending a week with my parents and Sammy. What did my poor class get to eat if the lamb is going to the Berkshires? Don't worry, they didn't go home hungry. I made a batch a day in advance just for them. It was like in a cooking show when you put your pot into a time machine and voila -- 3-4 hours of cooking happen in the matter of 30 seconds. It's one of the perks of teaching the Meat class -- a whole batch of some wonderful braise to save for the right occasion.

Daddy, I know you'll be reading this post and I want to thank you for all your support and inspiration in creating the Meat class.

Braised Lamb Shanks

Serves 4

4 lamb shanks (about 1 Lb each)
2 oz dry porcini mushrooms (if possible wild)
1 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp butter
1 large yellow onion, finely diced
1 large carrot, finely diced
1 celery ribs, finely diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 Tbsp minced fresh rosemary and/or thyme
14.5 oz can diced tomatoes with juice
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1 1/2 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cup beef stock
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper

1-4 days before serving:
Set the oven to broil. In a medium bowl, combine the dry mushrooms and 4 cups boiling water. Cover and let sit for 20 minutes while preparing the shanks.

Trim excess fat off the shanks (no need to trim the silver skin). About 1 inch from the skinny end of the shanks, make an incision that goes all the way around the bone (this will free the bone from the meat during cooking and will give you that “frenched” look). Season shanks with salt and pepper and rub with olive oil.

Set the shanks in one layer in a large skillet and place under the broiler until nicely browned, about 7 minutes (if your skillet isn’t large enough, do this in batches). Turn the shanks and brown the other side, about 7 minutes. Keep turning and broiling the shanks until brown all the way around. Remove the shanks from the skillet and set aside. Pour out and discard any fat that accumulated in the skillet. Reduce the oven temperature to 275F.

Set the skillet that you used to broil the shanks over medium-low heat. Add the butter, onion, carrots, and celery. Season with salt and cook stirring occasionally until tender and golden brown, 15-20 minutes. Add garlic and herbs and cook until aromatic, 2-3 minutes. Add tomatoes and cook until most of the liquid evaporates and the mixture thickens, 10-15 minutes. Add tomato paste and cook stirring, until it’s evenly distributed over vegetables.

Strain the porcini liquid through a sieve lined with 2 layers of paper towels to catch the grit. Discard the porcini unless you are patient enough to wash every little piece carefully enough to get rid of all the grit. In that case, chop them and add to the skillet with veggies. But don’t worry if you don’t have the time to do this. It’s all about their aroma that’s been released into the liquid anyway.

Add the porcini liquid, the wine, and the stock to the skillet. Bring to a simmer and season with a little salt (go easy on the salt since you’ll be reducing this liquid later). Add the shanks and the bay leaf to the skillet. Wait for the liquid to return to a simmer. Cover and put in the oven for 3-4 hours or until fork tender. Cool for 1 hour. Refrigerate the shanks and the sauce separately uncovered until completely cold, then cover.

The day of serving:
Spoon the fat off the sauce and discard. Put the sauce in a skillet, bring to a boil and cook over medium heat until reduced in half, 15-20 minutes. Taste and correct seasoning. Add the shanks, cover, and cook on medium-low heat turning occasionally until heated through, about 30 minutes.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Cannellini and rosemary soup

It's cold. It's snowing. I have a sick kiddo and a husband coming down with something. You probably already know that soup is my solution to life's persistent problems. But what if there is no time to go shopping for fresh ingredients or to cook? Emergency soup to the rescue! The recipe goes something like this: put whatever you have in the pantry into a pot, bring to a simmer, and serve. This time it was a few jars of white beans and a carton of chicken stock. I am not normally big on cooking from a can, but this soup is so satisfying, you'll forget its humble origins.

1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp butter (or more olive oil)
1 yellow onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, sliced as thin as possible
1 Tbsp chopped rosemary (use fresh, not dried)
2 15 oz jars white beans such as cannellini, navy, or great northern
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup heavy cream (or less if you are counting calories)
Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Set a soup pot over medium-low heat. Add olive oil, butter, onions, and a generous pinch of salt. Cook until translucent and completely tender stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes.
  2. Add the garlic and rosemary and continue to cook stirring occasionally until garlic is tender, about 5 minutes.
  3. Drain the beans and rinse in a colander. Add the beans and the wine to the pot. Turn up the heat to high and bring to a simmer. Add the stock, cover, and bring to a simmer. Turn down the heat to medium-low, uncover and simmer 30 minutes. Stir in the cream. Season to taste. Puree with a blender. Pour into bowls and drizzle with a good quality olive oil (optional). Serve.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Braised monkfish tail with fennel, tomatoes, and oranges

Whole fish is like sex. It's one of the greatest pleasures in life, but is extremely messy and makes most people uncomfortable unless practiced in the confines of a committed monogamous relationship. Next time you get tempted by the idea of presenting a whole beast to oohing and aahing guests, just say no. Save it for an intimate dinner for two. Most people (even the fish eating kind) are turned off by fish eyes, don't know how to get around the little pin bones, and wonder how something as perverse as eating fish cheeks could be legal in this country. But who can blame us cooks for longing to find a fish dish that says "a holiday feast" the way a whole turkey or prime rib does? After years of searching I finally found one -- a whole braised monkfish tail. That's what I served to my guests this Christmas. I found it refreshing to have a main course that didn't put everyone into a post-dinner coma. What's even better is that this dish requires no last minute prep leaving you free to entertain your guests.

If you are thinking of the famous picture of Julia Child holding a huge monster of a monk, have no fear. The scary head is taken off by your fishmonger. All you'll be cooking is a tail (the only edible part of monk). The thick bone that runs down the middle is a breeze to remove at serving time. It keeps the meat wonderfully moist and makes for an impressing "whole fish" presentaion, so I recommend you keep it in if you are lucky enough to find monkfish sold on the bone. The only thing your guests will see on their plates is white fillet that is as nonthreatening as a chicken breast, only a lot tastier.

Here are some tips on working with monkfish.

Find a good fish market that can get you a whole monk tail. If you are in the Boston area, New Deal, Wulf's, and Captain Marden's will happily get you a fabulous monkfish tail. Most supermarkets (even Whole Foods) only carry boneless fillets. Nothing wrong with using them, but the results won't be quite as juicy as monk cooked on the bone. When choosing monk tails, go for the smaller ones (under 2 Lb) as they are more tender and delicious than the big ones.

Besides the skin (that your fishmonger will remove for you), the monk tail is covered with a connective membrane that has to be completely trimmed off just like the silver skin on a pork or beef tenderloin. Don't skip this step or you'll end up with a chewy fish. Use a sharp boning or paring knife to trim it all off exposing the white flesh underneath. Here are illustrated instructions from Fine Cooking on how to do it. They show you a pork tenderloin, but it works the same way for monkfish.

Braised monkfish tail with fennel, tomatoes, and oranges

Fish substitutions:
this sauce tastes great with pretty much any seafood, particularly white fleshed fish, swordfish, squid, shrimp, and scallops. But the cooking method of the fish itself will vary. Swordfish is best grilled or broiled, scallops are best seared, and shrimp is best grilled or seared. Squid and white fish can be braised in the sauce at low temperature just like the monkfish.

Serves 6

3 whole monkfish tails, bone-in (1.5 - 2 Lb each)
2 fennel bulbs with fronds (green tops that look like dill)
3 oranges
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
28 oz can of diced tomatoes, drained
1/3 cup golden raisins
Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Trim monkfish as described above. Refrigerate while preparing the sauce.
  2. Core fennel bulbs and slice thinly. Mince the fronds and reserve for garnish.
  3. Zest and section the oranges (keeping the zest and sections in separate bowls). Squeeze the juice from the leftover membranes into the bowl with sections.
  4. Set a 12" oven-proof skillet or a large dutch oven over medium heat. Add pine nuts and toast them stirring often until golden, about 5 minutes. Remove into a bowl and set aside.
  5. Return the skillet to high heat, add olive oil, fennel and a generous pinch of salt. Cook stirring occasionally until fennel is golden brown, 10-15 minutes, regulating the heat so that the fennel is browning, but not burning.
  6. Add the garlic, orange zest, orange juice accumulated in the bowl with sections (reserve sections for later), and tomatoes. Bring to a simmer, reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for 15 minutes. Stir in the raisins. You can make the sauce up to this point a day in advance, cool, cover, and refrigerate overnight. Then bring it back to a simmer on the stove top before continuing the recipe.
  7. Preheat the oven to 275F. This is not a typo. The key to juicy and tender monkfish is cooking it very slowly.
  8. Generously season monkfish tails with salt and pepper and place them in one layer in the skillet with the sauce. Spoon the sauce over them. If your skillet or dutch oven is not big enough to fit the monkfish comfortably, lay the tails out in some 2-4 inch deep oven-proof dish that's large enough and pour the sauce over them. Cover the skillet (or use foil to cover the baking dish) and place in the middle of the oven.
  9. Cook until the fish reaches 130F in the thickest part of the tail near the bone (just make sure the thermometer is not touching the bone when you insert it). This will take anywhere from 40 to 60 minutes depending on the size and shape of your monkfish tails. Start checking the temperature after 40 minutes. If you don't have a thermometer, 130F is when you can almost separate the fish from the bone in the thickest part, but still encounter some resistance and see some translucency in the center.
  10. Stir in the orange sections and return to the oven for 5 more minutes. Remove from heat. Sprinkle with pine nuts and fennel fronds. Serve.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Happy 2008!

Hello? Is anyone still here? Sorry I've been such a bad little blogger lately. Thank you so much to everyone who e-mailed me to see if I am still alive and to wish us a Happy New Year! Happy New Year to all of you too, my dear readers. I wish you health, happiness, and more than anything -- joy from the little things in life. Whether it's a smile from your child, a good book, a dish that came out better than you expected, or an exciting trip. Enjoy every minute of it! And please no overambitious resolutions. Mine was to blog more often, but I got over that in about 5 minutes. I just realized that sometimes in life you have to go with the flow and slow down to enjoy what's happening instead of adding more to a never-ending to-do list.

What's been happening here? First of all, my little bundle of joy is getting bigger. This Monday, January 7th, she turned 6 months old. She is smiling, laughing, rolling, and listening to songs and books with great interest. She is also making crawling attempts, which make Mommy and Daddy very nervous and terribly busy with attempting to Sammy-proof the house. We started solid foods and have a great time getting it into our hair, eyes, and under our chin. On occasion a little gets into our mouth too. Sweet potatoes are our favorite. Yum!

The second big thing is that I survived the insanity of Christmas gift certificates. No more staying up till 11pm processing urgent cooking class requests. No more endless phone ringing. No more answering questions of concerned husbands who think their wives are too good for regular classes and absolutely must have 1-on-1 instructions. No more panicking because I ran out of envelops, stamps, or address labels yet again. I can finally get back to my normal life of cooking and teaching.

As you can imagine, with all this stuff, and a trip to Maryland to visit family over the holidays, blogging was put on the back burner. But I am hoping that in the new year I'll get back into the rhythm of blogging again. Too many dishes to share with you guys. My new obsession has been braised whole monkfish tail. This might be a good first post for 2008.