When people visited me in Paris I often found myself going through entire menus in restaurants, translating each dish and description. While my French is far from fluent, luckily my time in the kitchen greatly improved my culinary vocabulary and I found that I could usually competently translate a menu; however, with such an extensive cuisine as French I did come across very specific regional terms, or cuts of meat that I did not know how to translate. In which case I would usually ask the waiter, if it sounded intriguing. While my brother Brett was visiting we encountered this issue when we were at dinner one night. I was painstakingly translating the particularly long menu when I came across a dish called Souris d’Agneau. I had to pause. He asked me what it was and I very hesitantly, with a huge smile on my face, said, “lamb smiles.” I knew agneau was lamb, and I was pretty sure souris meant smile, so I put two and two together. Of course this doesn’t make any sense, I haven’t spent much time around lambs, but from what I do know, they do not have very prominent lips. We started trying to guess what it really could be. I thought perhaps it could be lamb cheeks, in which case if they tasted anything like beef cheeks I knew they would be ridiculously tasty. But he was hungry and I didn’t want to risk it in case it was in fact lamb lips or lamb tongue or some other organ so we stayed away and ordered something else.
Naturally, it turns out I was way off. A few weeks later, one of our recipes in class was Souris d’Agneau. So I got to find out firsthand what this mysterious dish consisted of. First of all, the word for smile is sourire not souris. Souris translates to mouse, which I know doesn’t get us much farther, because what in the world is the mouse of a lamb. No, this dish is not a preparation of a freakish French hybrid animal called a lamb-mouse, it’s merely lamb shanks. The chefs had no idea where the name came from and I did some research on my own and did not come up with anything either. Though, I can tell you what a shank is, it is the top portion of a leg bone, below the knee. Regardless of the ridiculous name, lamb shanks are quite delicious, especially served the way we made in class.
It was by far one of my favorite recipes in all of Superior Cuisine, Mitonnée de Souris d’Agneau aux Epices Douces, Siflets de Salsifis et Gnocchis de Pomme de Terre aux Herbes (Lamb Shank Slowly Cooked with Spices, Roll-Cut Salsify and Potato Gnocchi with Herbs). The lamb shanks are braised in a delicious Morocan-ish spiced sauce and the resulting meat is truly fall-off-the-bone-tender and is served with bright green, pillowey-soft gnocchi. Since I’ve been back in the states, I have recreated this dish a few times with some slight modifications, below is my resulting recipe.
Spiced Lamb Shanks / Short Ribs
serves 43 cups beef or veal stock 4 T vegetable oil
4 lbs lamb shanks or beef short ribs 1 large yellow onion, diced 3 shallots, minced 8 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed 2 T tomato paste 1 tomato diced or half a can of peeled, diced tomatoes 1 T Szechuan pepper corns 3 star anise 1 T cumin seed, preferably whole, for ground only use 1 heaping teaspoon 5 whole cloves 4 cinnamon sticks 1 T whole coriander seeds 4 T honey 4 T balsamic vinegar 1 cup red wine 1 tsp salt, and more to taste
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Warm the stock in a medium saucepan. In a large oven safe dutch oven or cocotte heat the vegetable oil over high heat, then add shanks or short ribs to sear on all sides, depending on the size of your pan, you may need to do this in stages. Once browned, set the meat aside and drain the fat from the pan. Add the onions to the pan and saute, scraping up brown bits on the bottom. When onions are almost translucent, add the garlic and shallots, cook for two more minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook for three minutes to cook out some of the acidity. Reduce the heat to medium and add diced tomato, all the spices, the honey and the balsamic vinegar, cook for three minutes to allow flavors to develop. Then add wine and allow to reduce to cook out alcohol. Put the meat back in the pan, top with warm stock and stir in 1 teaspoon of salt (you will add more after cooking). Cover with a tight fitting lid and put in oven for 2 and a half hours. (a secret from one of the LCB chefs- braising the meat for more than two and a half hours will not make it better, but cooking it the day before or earlier in the day will make a difference in the flavor and tenderness)
Decant the meat from the pan, if planning to serve right away keep them covered with foil, if not making ahead of time (which I strongly recommend) don’t worry about keeping them warm. Strain the sauce through a fine mesh sieve, pressing on the solids to get every last bit of flavor. Bring the sauce to a simmer and reduce until desired thickness, spooning any fat that comes to the surface and adjusting the seasoning. If making ahead of time, remove from heat, add the meat back to the pan, cover and cool to room temperature. Then refrigerate until 45 minutes before serving.
When ready to serve, slowly reheat on the stove until hot. I recommend serving with soft polenta, mashed potatoes or even couscous so you have something to soak up the excess sauce. There is nothing worse than having delicious sauce on your plate and no vehicle to soak it up. I also always like to serve braised meat with a side of fresh watercress or arugula, lightly dressed with lemon juice, olive oil and salt. The fresh greens help balance the richness of the meat and it also adds some nice color.