North African slow-cooked lamb shanks

Food & drink
North African slow-cooked lamb shanks

I’ve had some success in the past with tagines of lamb or mutton, flavoured with the mysterious North African spice blend, ras-el-hanout.  The tagine is suited well to this time of year, when long, slow cooking suddenly seems appropriate again.

Ras-el-hanout is the garam masala of the North African and Middle Eastern world, a combination of up to a dozen different spices in quantities and combinations jealously guarded by each producer. It normally includes coriander and cumin, cinnamon, cloves, mace and nutmeg, black pepper and hot, smoked paprika, each spice toasted and ground to a powder.  It has a real affinity with lamb and is said to be an aphrodisiac, although I haven’t noticed any discernable evidence of this.

This recipe uses lamb shanks, the ultimate cut for a slow cooked lamb dish, their substantial bones flavouring the sauce and keeping the meat moist.  It’s a simple casserole, quick to prepare and packed with flavour.

Season two chunky lamb shanks with salt and pepper, then dust them with a tablespoon or more of ras-el-hanout, before browning in olive oil in a medium pan, one at a time.  The pan should be big enough to fit the two shanks snugly side by side.

Set the browned shanks to one side and add two sliced onions and two finely chopped cloves of garlic to the pan. Let the onions wilt and soften, but don’t let them brown.

Scrape the bottom of the pan to lift any residue from the lamb into the onions. This is the heart and soul of the sauce.

When the onions have softened a little, slip the lamb back into the pan and nudge it down into the onions. Add a couple of handfuls of dates, each chopped in half, and top the pan up with water until the lamb is just covered. Add a star anise.

Cover and cook in a slow oven (180c) for at least two hours, topping up with water if it seems a little dry.  This would be perfect in a slow cooker, left to bubble away all day.

The dish is aromatic. The lamb will fall easily from the bone, into a sweet sauce, thickened with caramelised, melting onions. It tastes complex, fiery and very autumnal.

This recipe is adapted from Girl Interrupted Eating, a superb blog that’s well worth reading and cooking from.  Becky’s photography, in particular, is excellent.

Want to read something else?