09 April 2011

Dinner Cancelled? Whatever Shall I Do?

(Photograph copyright 2011, all rights reserved.)

Spring has arrived in the City of Wind! Hooray!

How can we tell? Well, the insane temperature fluctuations have begun - low 40s yesterday, mid 60s today and into the 80s or even 90s tomorrow! Naturally, this will lead to some pretty ghastly thunderstorms and the temperature will then plummet on Monday to the low 50s where apparently it belongs. So there. It's not like there are a lot of leaves out or anything, although the daffodils are trying hard. 

So... those who read this know that The Boy doesn't work in the city we live in. In fact, he travels every week, which means he generally leaves on Sunday night or Monday morning and comes home on Thursdays. It varies a bit, and sometimes he works in the city for a week, but he's pretty much away every work week. 

Yesterday, he was going to be home around the dinner hour. I cheered and declared that I was going to provide one of his favorite winter dishes - nice friendly little braised lamb shanks. He adores this meal. I was planning to serve them with some brussels sprouts and maybe celeriac puree and it was going to be wonderful......

And then he phoned. His flight was cancelled and he was trapped for the night. He's coming home today. Sigh. At least he leaves later in the week this time...

However. I started this lamb shanks in the morning for a nice 8 hour braise. What to do???? Easy, I thought. I'll make:

Yummy Lamb Ragu(ish)

This is not difficult. I use my trusty slow cooker - a Kitchenaid because it has a rubbery silicone gasket thingie around the glass lid that prevents it from rattling while it works (a flaw in Lesser Machines, including a Very Expensive brand) and seals the pot fairly efficiently, so not a lot of liquid gets lost to evaporation. 

You needn't spend a ton of money on a slow cooker. Your mother's Crock Pot is fine, and they're still sold in a bunch of different sizes at places like Target. All the thing needs to do is keep food at a specific low temperature for hours on end. My preference is to avoid complicated digital controls - if they crap out, your machine is dead, given that there's no on/off switch. Hence the Kitchenaid, which has a big black dial that says "high, low, buffet, simmer, auto" and that's all. It's my kind of twit-proof. 

You also don't need to do this with lamb. Or shanks. You can use a nice, tough old shoulder of lamb, or pork, or beef....or whatever. It all works and it will all come out beautifully. 


1. Make a mirepoix. 

This only sounds impressive. Seriously. It's easy. All you have to do is chop up a big onion, a couple of carrots, and a couple of stalks of celery. It doesn't have to be glamorous or even symmetrical, because you will never see it on the plate. 

The ingredients can vary. Some people think celery is too bitter, so they skip it. Others just add more carrot to make it sweeter. The onion is not optional. I add two or three cloves of garlic, too, just because I like garlic. 

So put the mirepoix aside. 

2. Brown the meat. 

Use a tall pot for this to keep the kitchen clean and spatter off your glasses. Also wear an apron and use tongs so you don't have to put your hands anywhere NEAR that hot fat. 

Crank up the heat to high, add some olive oil to the pan and put in the meat, turning it until it's browned on all sides. It's all right if some of it sticks to the bottom - don't scrape it off, you want it.  

Once that's done, either put the meat directly in the slow cooker or, if you're using your pot in the oven, put the meat aside. 

3. Cook the mirepoix. 

This is where you start building flavor. Put the veg you've chopped into the pot the meat was browned in. Add a little more oil if you need to, but not much. Cook at medium heat until the onion starts to go transparent. 

4. Add tomato paste.

The amount is up to you. If you like tomato - use a little can. If you want to go classic, use a couple of tablespoons. 

Whatever amount you use, this is where you add the tomato paste to the veggies, turn up the heat and brown it. 

You want to see the color of the tomato get darker, you WANT it to start sticking to the pot - just be careful not to burn it. This step is meant to cook the sugars in the tomato, marry it to the bits of meat you've left in the pot, and make the veggies absorb and add to the whole thing.  

This is the most important step in the whole process. It's where all of your flavor starts.

5. Deglaze the pan.

I use a bottle of red wine for this, and NOT the expensive stuff. It's a myth that you should only cook with wine you're willing to drink. Cook's Illustrated tested this a year or so ago and concluded that cheap or expensive, it all tastes good when the cooking's done. A cheap and cheerful red will do nicely. Save the good stuff for drinking with dinner. 

Some people use stock for this (I use chicken stock), some use half wine, half stock.... I just toss in a whole bottle of wine. It tastes better and who wants to be stuck with half a bottle of Two Buck Chuck? 

At this point, what's in your pot is not looking exactly beautiful. Don't worry. If it's a brown scruffy messy thing, it's perfect. Deglazing is to add liquid to the pan and use it to pick up all of that lovely brown stuff on the bottom. Just add the liquid, scrape the pot to get all the good stuff into the mix, and you're done.

6. Add the meat.

That's it. Either you put the meat back into the pot or dump the pot into your slow cooker, depending on how you're cooking this. I like the slow cooker because it evenly heats the pot to 185 degrees and will hold it there for 8 hours. It's tough to do that with an oven and some ovens won't let you set the temperature to anything less than 200 degrees, which is too hot.

Look at the amount of liquid. For ragu purposes, the liquid should cover 3/4 of the meat in the pot. The bottle of wine should do it, but if you're short, add a little stock to make up the difference. 

7. Seasonings.

How you season your food is as personal as your choice of underwear. It's so much a matter of personal preference that what I say probably won't matter to you. 

I use a couple of bay leaves, more garlic and salt and pepper in everything I braise. For lamb, I add a couple of sprigs of rosemary, some thyme and a marjoram if there's some in the window box. Some recipes call for pepper flakes. 

As a general rule, don't salt your food until the cooking is almost done. If you lose some of the liquid during cooking (and you will), what makes sense at the start will end up being too salty. Herbs tend to vanish in long cooking, too. Add your thyme and marjoram in the last half hour to an hour before serving. 

(NOTE: If you're serving your shanks the same night you cook them, add the salt at the end. If you're making ragu for the next day - don't add the salt until you're just a few minutes away from serving.)

8. Now cook it.

That's it. The hard part is over. It took up a lot of space to describe it, but it only takes half an hour to actually DO it. I set up the pot with the wine and tomato paste beside it at the beginning and after that, it's just a matter of putting things in the pot and taking them out. 

 All you have to do now is set the temperature and LEAVE THE HOUSE. I'm serious. I know it's tempting to pop that lid and have a look. I know you're going to be dying to taste it. It won't do you any good. Open it in the last hour or so to adjust the seasoning or open it early if you need to add more liquid, but otherwise just let the whole mess burble quietly away.

I do this for eight hours. You don't have to. You can cook it for six, or even four hours if you want. It will still taste just fine. For ragu purposes though, you want that meat falling apart and as tender as you can possibly manage. Generally speaking, the tougher the cut of meat you use, the longer you want to cook it.

9. Ragu....

When you do a braise like this and you're serving it immediately, all you have to do is remove the meat, strain the liquid (reduce it on the stove if you need to) and serve it with whatever vegetables strike your fancy and use the liquid as a sauce. It's delicious. I particularly like the roasted cauliflower I posted before or brussels sprouts as side dishes, but it's up to you. 

HOWEVER..... if you get a phone call like I did yesterday and you can't serve it immediately.... 

10. The final step.

Turn off the heat and let things cool for a few minutes. Take the meat out of the pot and pull out the bones, as well as any fat that didn't dissolve and whatever skin or connective tissue is left. This is easy - I just pick up the bits with a fork and pull out anything I don't want. 

Put the meat in the fridge. 

Now strain the liquid into a bowl and use a spatula to push through as much of the solids as will go easily through the strainer. Toss the solids, refrigerate the liquid. 

To serve this the next day, skim the fat off the top of the liquid, add the meat and and heat it, reducing the liquid until there's virtually none left. This is why you didn't add salt during the cooking phase. Once you've concentrated the liquid, you'd be tasting nothing but salt. Add it just before serving. 

11. Dinner!

Yay! You finally get to eat! 

I looked at a lot of recipes for this wonderful stuff. Many call for serving it with a nice potato and celeriac puree. Many more ask you to serve it over pasta - something like rigatoni or orchiette works best. It doesn't matter what the recipes say, because you have your favorite way of doing things and whatever you choose is going to be wonderful.

Note: This cooking method is easy and VERY good for cheap cuts of meat. You can use the truly tough stuff, the cuts that others sneer at and that you'll never see in restaurants, because when you cook it at low heat for a long time, it's going to be tender and perfect. 

This is poor people's food, really. You can feed a family at least one meal based on this, and if you have a big enough pot, you'll get leftovers, too. Onions, carrots, celery.... all are super cheap. Pasta? Potatoes? Not expensive. 

I LOVE things like this. 


  1. And Disney Studios made a fortune with a movie named for this style of cooking "Ratatouille". French Peasant or regional country cuisine comfort food is cheap, easy, and amazing. My new favorite restaurant here in town has specials with homemade Shepards Pie or Chicken Pot Pie that are so good you have to get there early before they sell out.
    Makes you wonder why more places don't catch on. The crock pot, magic devise for old single men like me to pretend we know what we are doing when it is really the machine doing all the work. Now you made me hungary, fortunately it is lunch time, hoorah.

  2. This really is poor people's food - elevating cheap/nasty ingredients to a higher level.

    You realize that if you do this to a lamb shoulder, you can end up with Shepard's Pie, right? If you have leftover garlic mashed potatoes, a few leeks and some old carrots, you're laughing. You can eve mix in some sweet potatoes and smoked paprika.....

  3. Pot roast, chicken and rice, fake lasagne (with no fussy layering)... I've even used it for shrimp and grits (throwing the shrimp in just to cook through in the hot grits). Oh, corned beef and cabbage is a revelation in the crock-pot. I always use it to finish off pulled pork that's been smoked on the grill. You can do anything with a crock-pot. When I was single, I had an itty-bitty crockpot I loved.

  4. Don't forget that poverty classic (and one of my favorite things), smoked pork hocks with beans!

    Dry beans are cheap. Any butcher will sell you smoked hocks for super-cheap, as in under a buck a pound in some places....