I’ve done a lot of research as the executive chef of Lucia’s. The restaurant, once known as the Chez Panisse of the Midwest lost it’s way somewhere along the line, the chef got bored, let the restaurant slide into disarray, then left. What was once a bastion of locally sourced food slowly evolved into what I would say many restaurants are today: a place that claims they love local ingredients, but source their products elsewhere.
The network of local purveyors, the lifeblood of the restaurant, was slowly chipped away at, the personal connections and special ingredients that went along with them forgotten.
I found traces of the old ways of doing business though, telephone lists back from the days of rotary phones, an email list here and there, and some I was able to find out about from old employees (my prep cook Jose has been at the restaurant for 18 years). From there, I slowly built connections to try and bring back the arsenal of ingredients the restaurant used to showcase.
One of my favorite connections I unearthed was Shepard’s Song Farm in Wisconsin, growers and tenders of hands-down, the best grass fed lamb, or any lamb for that matter I’ve ever tasted.
Probably my favorite cut they have are their shanks. Most of the time, lamb shanks are sold whole, which can make for a very large meal. Because of the weight of the bone too, it means the price can soar on a menu. Shepard’s song sent me a few samples to start out with though, and their shanks they sold whole as well as cross cut, which would allow me to serve delicious braised shanks at a reasonable price–under twenty dollars.
One of the first things I made at home to try them out was this very simple braise, featuring one of my favorite late season ingredients: cardoons.
The cardoons need a long time to cook, just like the shanks, so I cook braise them together, then reduce the sauce to a syrupy goodness, glaze the shanks with them, toss in some other hearty vegetables and, viola: a taste of the Mediterranean in the Winter. Allow one shank per person.
Lamb Shanks Braised with Cardoons and Tomato
- 2 whole lamb shanks I like shanks cut in half like the one pictured for easier portioning and lower pricing
- 1 large cardoon stalk just one stalk, not the whole cardoon
- 1 tablespoon high quality tomato paste or two fresh ripe tomatoes, pureed and passed through a strainer
- Chicken stock preferably homemade, to cover, about 2 quarts depending on the type of pot you use
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- Kosher salt and pepper to taste
- 4 oz Various vegetables for serving, this can be a blend of whatever you want, carrots, onions, and potatoes are great since the won't battle the flavor of the cardoons. For the above recipe I used a carrot and a couple fingerling potatoes.
- Put the shanks in a deep stock pot or saucepan. Add the chicken stock until just covered, and the tomato paste or tomato puree.
- Clean the cardoon stalk by peeling off the outer fibers with a vegetable peeler, making sure to avoid the spines and glochids, then cut into 1 inch squares and put in the pot with the lamb. Cover the pot and bake at 325 until the meat is tender and moves easily, about 2 hours.
- Strain off the liquid and transfer to a wide pan to reduce it, then reduce the braising liquid, skimming occasionally to remove fat, until reduced to about 1/2 cup. Taste the liquid and season it to taste with salt and pepper.
- Add the lamb shanks back to the pan along with the other vegetables and add the tablespoon of butter.
- Continue reducing the sauce a bit, occasionally basting the lamb shanks with the juice until they become glazed and seasoned with the braising liquid.
- When the shanks are glazed and the sauce is thickened to your liking transfer a shank to each of two preheated dinner plates, arrange some vegetables and cardoons around each shank, spoon the remaining sauce over the shank and serve immediately.