Comfortable Comfort Food

Everyone thinks that California is warm, virtually always sunny, and that you barely need a sweater, much less a coat. Ever since I moved here in 1992, I’ve been cold. It is simply impossible to dress for the weather. At least in Chicago or New York, you know exactly what to wear in the winter – heavy clothes, big coat, boots, hat, gloves. Easy. Here, you can be frozen one moment and sweltering the next. The sun simply needs to go behind the clouds and goose pimples start to appear.

So when we get a bit of nasty weather here, it is time to start making comfort food. It always warms me up to make it and to eat it. I love walking into the house from outside and smelling the hearty, savory aroma of meat simmering gently on the stove or in the oven.

A few years ago we had lamb shanks for New Year’s Eve dinner and I did some research on just what recipe to use. I finally decided to combine several recipes into my own preparation. Ingredients and process had wide variations in the recipes that I consulted, some of which I thought would work well for me, others I did not.

A couple of Fridays ago, I served braised lamb shanks with polenta that had a hint of butter and parmesan in it, as well as a steamy, fragrant bowl of sauteed spinach with garlic and pine nuts. I had made 5 lamb shanks, for 5 of us and we only ate half. But, we were all saving room for the incredible chocolate cake that RC made.

I brought the leftover lamb shanks to Grandma and WG. As for the extra cake, we polished it off ourselves!!

Braised Lamb Shanks
serves 6, generously

6 meaty lamb shanks (you can ask the butcher to cut through the bone and split the shanks so the portions are smaller, depending on the size of the lamb shanks)
salt and pepper
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/10 oz. (about 1/2 cup – not packed) dried mushrooms (porcini and chanterelle work perfectly)
1 large onion, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
1 large carrot, diced
1 large shallot, diced
1 red pepper, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced (about 1 heaping Tbsp.)
1/2 tsp. dried thyme or a few sprigs of fresh thyme
1 tsp. dried rosemary
1 bay leaf
3/4 cup dry, full-bodied red wine
1 15 oz. can chopped tomatoes with their juice

Italian flat leaf parsley, chopped, for garnish

Season lamb shanks with salt and pepper. Heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil in a dutch oven until very hot, but not smoking. Add lamb shanks to pot and brown on all sides. Meanwhile, soak the dried mushrooms in very hot water until they are very soft, drain. Coarsely chop the mushrooms.

When the shanks have all browned, remove them to a platter and discard all but 2 Tbsp of fat from the pot. (If the shanks were lean, you may need to add olive oil to get to the 2 Tbsp.) Cook onions, celery, carrots, shallot, peppers and garlic over medium heat until softened and turning golden, about 10 minutes. Add the herbs and cook for a minute longer. Add the wine, chopped mushrooms and tomatoes. Stir to combine. Return the lamb shanks to the pot and nestle into the vegetable mixture, turning them to coat with the liquid.

Cover the pot and turn the heat down to low. Cook for 30 minutes. Then, turn the meat and cook for another hour, turning the meat occasionally, until very tender and the meat is falling off the bone.

Serve over warm polenta and garnish with chopped fresh parsley.

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