Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Braised Beef Shanks

You may have read once before when I wrote about the steep rise in the price of what were once called “cheap cuts,” those less desirable pieces of beef whose magic is revealed only after a long, slow, flavorful braise. Let’s face it, everything has gone up in price. And I know my profession is somewhat to blame since the demand for these cuts has been driven by a new generation of chefs looking for menu offerings beyond the all-too-familiar steak.
But there is a slightly not-so-expensive alternative, the beef shank.
This cut is becoming more familiar in the meat section. They often get suggested as being used for soup, but you’d be missing something. They might be labeled as either "shanks" or "shins (shin could refer to the fore shank). Whichever way it may be labeled won’t make a difference in the end product
The most well known preparation of beef shanks is osso buco, the Italian classic that uses veal, not beef, shanks. After the long braise, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference and I doubt you’d care.
I used two beef shanks for the two of us, two big pieces cut crosswise like something out of a Flintstones fantasy. Each shank weighed about a pound which is enough for four servings, or for us, two meals.
I like to use a combination of red wine and port for braising. I like the sweet flavor that port imparts. If you use port, make sure it’s the inexpensive variety, not the one you might pull out to drink after dinner.  You could use just red wine or even a white wine, the traditional choice for osso buco.
I served this with a gorgonzola risotto. (“So why no recipe?” More on that later.*) Risotto is often the traditional accompaniment to osso buco in Northern Italy. I got the gorgonzola idea inspired by the rich and delicious gorgonzola gnocchi I once had with the osso buco cooked by my friend chef John Bruno at his place Ristorante Toscano.
You can serve it with whatever you desire.
I served the shanks with the meat taken off the bone since the two shanks had enough meat for four servings. You don’t have to. It all depends on the size of the shanks you get, how "restauranty" you want to be in your presentation or just how much of a Flinstones mood you’re in at the time.

Braised Beef Shanks
Like any braised dish, this can be made a few days ahead and kept in the refrigerator until needed where it will get even better.
Tying the shanks with a piece of kitchen twine around the outside will help the shanks maintain their shape while cooking.

2 beef shanks
1 cup diced onion
2 carrots, sliced into ½” pieces
1 rib celery, sliced in half lengthwise, then cut crosswise into ½” pieces
1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
1 Tablespoon all purpose flour
½ cup red wine
½ cup port
6 to 8 sprigs fresh thyme, tied in a bundle
1 cup beef or chicken stock
Salt and ground black pepper
Olive oil, for cooking
1. Heat oven to 300 degrees. Pat the beef shanks dry with paper towels. Tie a piece of kitchen twine around the outside edge of each shank. Season both sides of the shanks with salt and pepper. Place a 6 quart Dutch oven onto the stove over high heat. When the pot is hot, swirl 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil into the pot. Place the shanks into the pot; depending on the size of the shanks, you might have to brown them one at a time. Cook the shanks for 3 to 4 minutes until nicely browned. Turn and brown the shanks on the other side. Remove the shanks from the pot to a plate and let the pan cool down slightly.
2. Place the pot back over medium-high heat. Swirl about 2 tablespoons olive oil into the pot and add the onions/carrots/celery mixture. Stir to loosen the brown bits on the bottom of the pot. Season the vegetables with some salt and pepper. Cook for about 3 to 4 minutes to soften the onions. Push the vegetables to the side of the pot and add the garlic; cook the garlic until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir the garlic into the vegetables and push them aside again. Add the tomato paste to the pan and stir, cooking to toast the tomato paste, about 30 seconds. Add the flour and stir it into the vegetables allowing it to cook for another 30 seconds. Pour the wine (and port) into the pot, stir and cook for a minute or so, then add the bundle of thyme and the stock to the pot and stir together. Return the shanks to the pot and nestle them in among the vegetables and liquid. Cover the pot and bring it to a boil. Place the pot into the oven and cook for 2 ½  to 3 hours. The meat should be fork- tender and falling off the bones. Remove from the oven. (If you are putting the shanks away to use on another day, let cool and store the shanks along with the vegetables and cooking liquid in the refrigerator. When you reheat the shanks you might want to brighten the flavor of the sauce with a splash of wine). When cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bone if you so desire. Taste for seasoning and serve with the sauce and vegetables.

*About the gorgonzola risotto- It's’s a risotto finished with pieces of gorgonzola cheese stirred in at the end. Nothing difficult there. But I am saving a new, easier technique for risotto for a future post. I figured that including it now would only drag this out longer than necessary and it really isn’t essential to enjoying the shanks. So get braising and we’ll catch up later.

**And yes, you can make this in a crock pot. It helps if you have one that allows you to brown the meat. If not, you could do the initial cooking steps in a pot then transfer it to your crock pot.

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