Lamb Shanks alla Calabrese
Cooked In Your Slow Cooker
This recipe uses the flavors of a recipe by the great Marcella Hazan that matches hearty lamb with the robust combo of tomatoes, peppers and green olives. But instead of using expensive rib lamb chops as in signora Hazan's original recipe (which I also love and is faster to cook; see our link), I've substituted lamb shanks and taken it from the stovetop to a slow cooker.
If you're a fan of slow cookers, this recipe is a perfect choice as it cooks in about 6 hours on high heat. Every slow cooker is different, and the size of lamb shanks can vary significantly, so it may take up to 8 hours for the lamb to cook completely. What you're going for is to have the lamb be falling-off-the-bone tender.
Please use good tomatoes. They are as much the main ingredient as is the lamb and deserve just as much attention. If you're making this at summer's end and you can find good local plum tomatoes, peel and chop them, saving any juices that escape. Otherwise try to find DOP San Marzano tomatoes, imported from Italy -- the only place San Marzano's are grown. [Those California-grown ones with San Marzano seeds that are sold in cans with cute labels are a pale and tasteless version of the real ones grown in Italian volcanic soil, which is what really makes the difference in their flavor and texture.]
Don't skip the step of peeling the peppers. They will cook better, become more tender, and be more flavorful.
For the olives, I buy brined green ones (as opposed to cured in oil) that have been already pitted. If they have been stuffed, as with pimentos, I leave the stuffing in place and slice the olives, but if you prefer, you can discard any stuffing before chopping or slicing the olives.
Don't over-salt the dish because the olives are already salty.
This dish is wonderful with pasta or with a green vegetable such as green beans or spinach, but choose something that helps sop up every bit of the very flavorful sauce.
Serves 4 to 6 depending on the size of the shanks.
1 large red bell pepper or 2 small ones, about 1 1/4 cup when cut into squares
3 to 4 lamb shanks
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2-cup finely chopped onion
1 clove garlic, peeled and either finely minced or finely grated with a Microplane rasper
2 cups peeled, ripe, fresh plum tomatoes, cut up into 1/2-inch pieces with their juice, or canned imported Italian San Marzano tomatoes, also cut up or crushed with your hands, with their juices
1/4-cup green olives in brine, pitted and sliced
- Cut each pepper lengthwise. Remove and discard the stem, seeds, and core. Peel with a vegetable peeler. Cut into approximately 1-inch squares.
- Sprinkle the shanks on both sides with a little salt and a few grinds of black pepper.
- Put the olive oil into a 12-inch skillet over high heat. When simmering but not smoking, add the shanks. Brown them on all sides, taking the time necessary to do this thoroughly as this step adds important flavor. About 6 minutes. Depending on the size of the shanks and your skillet, you may need to do this in two batches, adding a little more olive oil for the second batch. Remove them from the pan to your slow cooker.
- Put the chopped onion into the same skillet and cook over medium high heat, stirring frequently, until it softens and becomes golden brown.
- Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, which will be less than a minute.
- Add the cut-up peppers, olives, a pinch of salt, and several grinds of black pepper. Turn the heat down to medium and cook for about 5 minutes.
- Add the tomatoes with their juice, stirring to combine. Turn off the heat and pour the sauce over the lamb shanks in the slow cooker.
- Cover and cook on high for 6 to 8 hours. After about an hour, check the shanks to be sure they are not sticking to the bottom and that the sauce is well dispersed around the meat. Do this a few more times before the shanks finish cooking. Cook until the meat is completely tender and coming away from the bone.
If you don't have a slow cooker, you can follow the recipe and cook in a large Dutch oven on top of your stove. Instead of starting with a skillet, you can use the Dutch oven to brown the shanks, removing them to a dish while you prepare the sauce in the same pot; then just return the shanks to the sauce. But bring the sauce to a gentle boil before lowering it to a simmer, covering the pot and cook for about 3 hours until done.