After inheriting a slow cooker from a downsizing friend (thanks, Garvey!) I wanted to try a traditional braise, which led me to lamb shanks, which made me think of Irish stew, which is a dish that (out of genetic loyalty) I always want to like more than I actually do. Stew meat has a tendency, in my meager experience anyway, to dry out or go stringy, even while it’s swimming next to the potatoes and carrots. Stew is often a little, well, depressing. (And Lord knows the Irish have had enough of that.)
And let’s address that for a moment. Lousy pub fare (Irish nachos, anyone?) has done much to further the misconception that Irish cooking isn’t a cuisine worthy of attention. Not so. It is honest, hearty, simple food. With 2,000 miles of coastline, the Emerald Isle has some of the world’s most sparkling seafood, and its famously rolling green acres and mild climate nurture both beautiful produce and sustainably farmed livestock. (Irish lamb, in particular, rivals any in the world.) The Irish have been doing farm-to-table, hand-crafted and artisan-baked since those monks transcribed the Book of Kells, and a new generation of chefs are finding innovative ways to interpret Ireland’s traditional foodways. If you don’t believe me, savor a fantastic meal at Dublin’s Chapter One restaurant or thumb through a glossy copy of Colman Andrew’s The Country Cooking of Ireland. This is, not to sound glib about it, a people that nearly starved to death in the 19th century: you think the Irish don’t appreciate a delicious meal?
I patterned this recipe off the stove top stew my mother used to make, and happily the result was lovely. When given a long, low simmer in a slow cooker, the otherwise tough, hardworking lamb shanks melt into something magical: silky, unctuous, with a fall-off-the-bone, meaty tenderness; the carrots, shallots and savory broth echo a familiar Irish stew. Prep the braise in the morning, set the slow-cooker and come home that evening to a feast worthy of Joyce, Yeats, Wilde and Guinness. Sláinte!
- 2 C shallots, sliced (about 4 large)
- 5 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
- 1 1/2 C carrots, peeled and diced
- 2 Tbsp tomato paste
- 1 Tbsp fresh thyme, minced
- 2 Tbsp vegetable or grapeseed oil
- 4 lb lamb shanks (4-6 total)
- 1 C dry red wine
- 1 qt (32 oz) beef stock
- salt and pepper
- finely chopped parsley for garnish, optional
Add the shallots, garlic, carrots, tomato paste and thyme to a 6.5 to 7-quart capacity slow-cooker. Season with salt and pepper and mix to combine.
Pat the lamb shanks dry and season generously with salt and pepper. Dust with the flour and shake off any excess. Over medium-high heat, warm the oil in a large sauté pan until shimmery-hot. Brown the shanks all over (working in batches in necessary); turn off the heat and add the lamb snugly to the slow-cooker. Pour off the excess fat from the sauté pan and discard. Add the cup of red wine to the still-hot pan to deglaze; use a wooden spoon to scrape up any browned bits. Add the wine and the beef stock to the slow-cooker. Set on low for 10 hours.
When done, use a spoon to skim off any fat floating on the surface; discard. If desired, thicken some of the braising liquid to make a sauce: in a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt 2 Tbsp butter. With a wooden spoon, mix in 3 Tbsp all-purpose flour and cook 2-3 minutes. Add a cup of the braising liquid in a steady stream, stirring or whisking, into the flour mixture. Slowly pour off more of the liquid into the saucepan, and heat to a simmer until it’s reduced and thickened. Taste and adjust the salt to your taste. (Return to the slow cooker to keep warm, if needed.) Serve the lamb shanks with the sauce, veggies, and lots of ground pepper over garlicky mashed potatoes, colcannon, or champ.
Note: depending on your slow-cooker, one hour on high should equal 2-2.5 hours on low. If you don’t have a slow-cooker, you can make this recipe in a heavy dutch oven: start on the stove (brown the veg mixture after browning the meat and pouring off most of the fat) and braise, covered, in the oven for about three hours at 325 degrees, keeping the liquid at a gentle simmer.