Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Lamb shank ragu and the umami problem

In my move toward kashrut, one of the things that I miss more than anything else is the umami hit that you get when a good Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano meets a strong meat flavor.  For those of you not familiar with umami, it is the savoriness  associated with the amino acid glutamate, and with ingredients like mushrooms, meat broth, anchovies, and fermented foods like cheeses, cured meats, soy sauce and fish sauce.  I particularly miss putting cheese on a lamb shank ragu that I make, and I have been trying for several years to come up with a substitute.  I fancy that it is lamb ragu in the style of the Abruzzi region of Italy, but this is fancy and not fact.  It is just good, especially with plenty of grated cheese on top. (If you are used to eating ground meat sauces, the flavor and texture of a sauce made from meat shredded after having been cooked will be a revelation.)  But try as I might to develop an acceptable substitute,the closest I got was to use a duxelles-like crumble of fresh and dried mushrooms sauteed with shallots, anchovies and bread crumbs. However while tasty, it didn't add that much to the experience.

So, I wrote an email to the Splendid Table to see if I could pose my question to Lynne Rossetto Kasper.  If you aren't familiar with this radio show, you should be.  It beats much of the food shows on TV by far, and has a wonderful website as well. (One of their recipes for macaroni and cheese is my favorite.)   Much of second half of the show is devoted to readers questions, so I emailed mine in, figuring that Kasper, whose core expertise in is Italian food, would be the person to ask.  Somewhat to my surprise, I got a response from the show a few weeks later to see if I would talk to Lynne during the show.  They aired my question and her answer towards the end of the January 15 episode.  My question comes in the section "More calls" right after a trivia question about telling the future from cheese (not to be missed).

Lynne's opinion was that I was on the right track with the flavors that I was using in my mushroom-based topping, but that it is basically pointless to try to imitate the effects of grated cheese.  So she suggested incorporating umami flavors in the dish, particularly in the form of dried mushrooms (I also added a bit of anchovy), and topping it with toasted bread crumbs, which are actually a traditional pasta topping in Italy for those who cannot afford the cheese.  I tried it and she was right -- it is very different than cheese, but the flavors are intense, almost breathtaking,  and wonderful.  So, here is, with several variations:

Lamb Shank:  Ragu and two other ways

Basic recipe:

  • 2 lamb shanks
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • handful of dried porcini mushrooms (about 1/2 ounce, pieces are ok)
  • 2-4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 chili pepper (I use the medium hot long kind:  make sure it is whole and it will add flavor but not much heat to the sauce)
  • 1 or 2 3-inch long sprigs of fresh rosemary, or 1 teaspoon dried
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 medium onion, chopped very finely
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped finely
  • salt and black pepper
  • 1-4 anchovy fillets (1 will add depth to the sauce, at 4 you will taste the anchovy;  my own inclination would be to use 2-3 but Amy can be anchovy averse, so I only used 1. See below for a discussion of the kashruth of fish and meat)
  • 1/2 to one cup full-bodied wine  (not having anything Italian in the house, we cooked with and drank a spicy Catalonian wine, Claraval, which was an excellent pairing)
  • 14 ounce can diced tomatoes (sorry to sound like a shil, but Muir Glen fire-roasted are great here)

If serving as ragu with pasta,
  • 1/2 pound to one pound good quality tubular macaroni pasta or pasta with cavities (see below), depending on your carb limits
  • toasted bread crumbs:  2 tablespoons olive oil, 2 cloves smashed and peeled garlic, and 1/2 cup bread crumbs, ideally homemade but any unseasoned variety is fine (see below)

  1. Heat oil on high in a large skillet with a cover or a casserole, dry shanks, add to the skillet, and brown well, turning to brown on all surfaces.  It will take between 15 and 20 minutes.  Turn the heat down if it starts to smoke.
  2. Meanwhile, reconstitute the mushrooms.  Cover them with about 1 cup of water in a microwave safe container, cover, and microwave on 30% power for 3 minutes. Check the mushrooms to see if they are soft, and if not, microwave for another minute.  You can also pour boiling water over the dried mushrooms and leave them to soak for about an hour.
  3. Rinse the mushrooms well in a sieve to remove all grit and chop finely.
  4. Pour the mushroom liquid through a sieve lined with a coffee filter and set aside.  You may need to stir to help it go through.
  5. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
  6. Pour the fat out of the skillet, add the olive oil, and heat on medium.  Add the chili, fresh rosemary and bay leaf, and when they start to color, add the onion and salt lightly.
  7. Cook until the onion is soft and golden, and add the chopped mushrooms.  Cook on high until the onions and mushrooms brown.  They should be well-caramelized but not burnt. 
  8. Add the garlic and cook on medium until the raw smell goes away.  Add the dried rosemary now if you are using it.
  9. Turn heat down to low and add the anchovy fillets. Mash them into the onions garlic and mushrooms until they dissolve.  Keep the heat gentle or they will get bitter and fishy.
  10. Add wine to the skillet and boil until reduced by at least half, scrapping up the glaze from the skillet if there is any.
  11. Add mushroom liquid and boil down until reduced by about half.  
  12. Add the tomatoes and bring to the boil.  Cook for a few minutes, then return the shanks to the skillet.
  13. Spoon sauce over the shanks.  If the sauce does not come up to the bones, add some boiling water.  Add a few grindings of pepper and a little salt, cover, and place in the oven.
  14. Bake for two and a half hours, turning halfway through.  If not extremely tender, return to the oven to cook for another 30 minutes to an hour.  You can also cook it on top of the stove on low heat. Make sure that the sauce barely simmers but does not boil.
  15. Remove shanks and boil the sauce down until thick to taste. Taste and correct for salt and pepper, and spoon off some of the fat if you must.  See below for serving options.
Option #1: Plain braised lamb shanks.  Just serve the damn things, with a baguette to mop up the juices.  It only serves two this way, since  there is not good way to share a lamb shank.  You might want to sprinkle some chopped flat-leaf parsley on top.

Option #2:  Lamb ragu: When you remove the shanks from the sauce, and reduce the sauce. If you wanted to be authentically Italian, you would probably serve the sauce with pasta as a first course and then the shanks as a second course.  I am not so into authenticity, especially with this recipe, so I take the meat of the bones.  If it doesn't come right off, they shanks aren't tender enough and should cook some more. With two forks, shred lengthwise with the grain.  Return the meat to the sauce. Scoop the marrow out of the larger bones if you can and add to the sauce.  Boil pasta until just barely al dente.  Toss with a bit of pareve margarine (or butter if you don't separate milk and meat) and serve sprinkled lightly with toasted breadcrumbs (see below) or, depending on your practice, freshly grated cheese.  Since the whole purpose of this exercise was to find a way to get the umami satisfaction without the cheese, do me a favor and try it once with the breadcrumbs and without the butter.  By the peculiar math of boning meat, this will serve 4.   The ragu can also be made with lamb neck, which is a lot cheaper but not quite as good and much more difficult to handle in the browning and boning. 

Option #3: Lamb with beans:  When then lamb has cooked for about 2 hours, add about 2 cups slightly undercooked (1 cup raw)  cannelini, navy or great northern beans to the pot.  Cook until beans and lamb are tender.  You might want to increase the rosemary for this.   Serve this to two extremely hungry people.  If you want to be really fancy, top with some untoasted bread crumbs mixed with a bit of olive oil  and place the skillet or pot under the broiler for a few minutes to develop a light crust.  Be very careful not to burn. 

Fish and meat and kashrut:  As if there aren't already enough rules in Judaism, the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch maintain that there are health issues with eating fish and meat together.  This makes life even more difficult than it needs to be.  It can even cause problems with using Worcestershire sauce, because it is anchovy-based.  However, I discussed this matter with Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, a true talmid chacham and a mensch who could make much better use of social media.  He said that the halachic source is originally a prohibition of eating fish and meat on the same plate, lest a fish bone get mixed in with the meat which could be a choking risk. Because this combination of fish and meat was potentially hazardous and was declared unhealthy, the belief that eating fish and meat together is unhealthy spread as well.  Some of the people who care about these things have a way of producing additional stringencies on top of the original prohibitions.  At this particular stage of my spiritual development, I am not concerned about this, and doubt that I ever will be so machmir (stringent) as to care.  However, if you are, you could always use a teaspoon or less of fish-less Worcestershire sauce or Bragg's aminos, though these would add tamarind and soy notes that would be alien to the spirit of this dish. 

The bread crumbs:  These are simplicity itself, and nice not only on this ragu, but also on other pastas (for example, broccoli or cauliflower boiled or roasted and then sauteed with garlic and anchovy and served with orecchiette or penne).  If kashrut matters to you it is a very nice way of fitting a pasta into a multi-course meat meal.  If it doesn't it is just good and very traditional in the south.  Heat a few spoons of olive oil on medium in a small skillet.  Add 2 cloves of garlic, smashed and peeled, and saute until aromatic and just beginning to color.  Remove the garlic and add 1/2 cup bread crumbs, ideally coarse homemade ones, but unflavored store bought are fine (that is what I used).  Panko would even work here and would add a nice texture.   Toast the crumbs, stirring frequently, until a medium brown and remove from the heat. It should take around 5 minutes, depending on heat and the type of skillet you use.  Be very careful not to burn them. They will smell wonderful when you remove them from the heat.  Resist the temptation to taste them until they are cool.  They smelled so good that I put a spoon in and as I brought it to my mouth, I thought to myself, "This is really dumb."  I popped them in and heard my mouth sizzle.  I put an ice cube in my mouth as soon as I realized what was happening, but the whole inside of my mouth turned into a large blister.  But boy, were they good.  Use these sparingly though.  You want them to add texture and flavor, but you want to taste the sauce not the breadcrumbs.

The pasta:  This is the place to use hard wheat macaroni pasta, not soft egg pasta.  You should never apologize for using good dried pasta.  Good shapes would be those with crevices to trap bits of the sauce:  rigatoni, orecchiette, penne, cavatelli.  I actually used Trader Joe's organic penne, which are quite good.  Don't use spaghetti here.  Of course, pasta can represent a problem for a Friday dinner, if you are committed to both al dente pasta and to not cooking after sundown. Once again, I am not there yet (but one day might be, unless my wife has something to say about it) but I couldn't resist the temptation to try.  So, I undercooked the pasta (about 4 minutes after it came to the boil when the package called for 9) tossed it with the sauce and the margarine, put it in a serving dish and left it in a 200 degree oven covered with foil for a few hours.  When we ate, the pasta was cooked through, but still firm.

Making it in advance:  Of course you can, with any variation.  It also makes it easier to degrease.  If you are doing ragu, just mix with the pasta the day you are serving, right before serving if gastronomic considerations are paramount.

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