pomegranate fig lamb shanks

Pomegranate Fig Lamb Shanks

I'm not a very outdoorsy person. I spend most days writing my dissertation and putting together blog posts. Occasionally I take my laptop over to the beach, but the glare makes it hard to be productive and I usually end up going home after about an hour to get some work done. But for someone who doesn't spend a lot of time outdoors, I do spend a lot of time looking at other people's beautiful, outdoorsy lives on Instagram. And this week, I noticed a wonderful thing: it's just about fig season again! Friends in warmer climates have been posting beautiful photos of everything from bright green kadotas—the sort of plantain of the fig family—to black mission figs, which are so sweet you don't need to do anything to them to enjoy.

Figs
Pomegranate Fig Lamb Shanks

My all-time favorite way to enjoy figs is cut in half and served with a cheese tray. But if you have to cook with them (maybe you have your own fig tree and you're tired of eating them raw—lucky you!), this lamb shank braise is the way to go. My grandmother has a fig tree in her backyard in Arizona, which is where I got this beautiful homegrown haul. The figs on her tree (which I've never been able to identify, not for lack of trying but for lack of understanding nature) are most similar to kadota figs. They have a wonderfully subtle flavor and not too much sugar, so they're at their prime when braised with something syrupy. You can use sweeter table figs in this recipe, but if you do, you might want to hold back one or two tablespoons of the pomegranate molasses if you're worried about making this dish too sweet.

Figs
Pomegranate Fig Lamb Shanks

Since figs are one of those foods that taste like they would be fussy, but absolutely aren't, you simply nest them between and on top of the lamb shanks, and let them become syrupy, delicate, and soft as the lamb shanks tenderize and mellow. The pomegranate molasses sweetens everything, and after carefully skimming away most of the fat, proceeds to enrobe everything in a tangy Middle Eastern barbecue sauce. This recipe was strongly influenced by Deb Perelman's sweet and sour brisket from the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. She includes a lot more red wine vinegar than I've ever seen in a braise, and it turns out to be just the thing. After all those hours of cooking and mellowing, a little brightness goes a very long way to transforming a drab braise into a pièce de résistance. Since pomegranate molasses is already quite tangy, I don't use quite as much red wine vinegar in my recipe (and if you have a particularly acidic pomegranate molasses, you can cut back even further).

Pomegranate Fig Lamb Shanks
Pomegranate Fig Lamb Shanks

Pomegranate Fig Lamb Shanks

yield: 6 servings
active time: 30 minutes
total time: 3 hours
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  • 4 1/2 to 5 pounds lamb shanks (about 3 to 4 shanks), preferably split at the shank end, as pictured *

  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt for browning the lamb

  • 3/4 cup diced onion

  • 1/4 cup tomato paste

  • 1 1/4 cup stock (either beef, vegetable, or chicken)

  • 1/4 cup pomegranate molasses (or more to taste) **

  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon table-salt for the braising liquid (or to taste—first check how much salt is in your stock)

  • 6 fresh figs, halved ***

  • optional: 1 teaspoon minced parsley for garnish

  1. Preheat the oven to 350° F.

  2. Sprinkle the first 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt on both sides of the lamb shanks.

  3. Heat a large stockpot or dutch oven over high heat for a couple minutes. Once the pan is hot, add the lamb shanks with the fat-side facing the pan. Let the shanks sit undisturbed for 3 to 5 minutes, until they develop a nice brown color on one side. Flip them and let the other side brown for another 3 to 5 minutes. Work in batches if you need to, and avoid crowding the pan.

  4. Once all of the lamb pieces are fully seared, reduce heat to low. Remove the shanks to a plate, pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the rendered fat, and immediately add the onions. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly. They will brown immediately, and then soften as they continue to cook.

  5. After 5 minutes, add 1/4 cup tomato paste to the onions and cook for no longer than 1 minute, stirring constantly.

  6. Deglaze the pan with the 1 1/4 cups stock, scraping up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan.

  7. Turn the heat up to medium and add the pomegranate molasses, crushed red pepper, red wine vinegar, and second amount of salt.

  8. Add the seared lamb shanks to the braising liquid and try to get everything to fit as snugly as possible.

  9. Nest the fig halves in the gaps between and on top of the lamb shanks, wherever you can fit them.

  10. Cover and move to the oven for about 2 1/2 hours, until the meat is very tender and pulls apart easily with a fork. It will get tough before getting tender.

  11. Once it's done, remove the lamb shanks and figs to a serving platter (keep it warm in the oven, if necessary) and skim the fat from the sauce with a fat separator or a spoon. **** Alternatively, you could refrigerate the whole thing overnight and then just scrape up the solidified fat. It will not diminish in flavor or quality (if anything it will be even tastier the next day).

  12. Reheat the sauce in the microwave if necessary, and spoon the sauce over the lamb shanks and figs. Garnish with parsley and serve.

* If the shanks are not split, and/or if you don't have a wide dutch oven, it'll be harder to fit them together in one even layer—you want to make sure that each piece of meat is submerged almost halfway in the sauce. If you can't get the lamb shanks to fit in one layer, the skinny ends can stick pretty far out of the braising liquid.
** Different brands of pomegranate molasses vary in sweetness and acidity. If yours is particularly tangy and sweet, use 1/4 cup. If it is on the mellower side, try as much as 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons.
*** If it's not fig season, feel free to omit them, adding an extra 2 tablespoons of stock to the liquid.
**** To use the spoon method, move the sauce to a bowl so that it's easier to work with. Place the spoon so that it is almost parallel to the sauce's surface, like a little raft at sea. Keeping it parallel to the surface, slowly let the spoon sink slightly into the liquid, allowing the fat to rush into the spoon's bowl. Be careful not to dip to low or on too much of an angle, or else you'll remove a lot of the sauce with the fat. Remove and repeat until you've skimmed most of the fat (it takes about 5 minutes). 

Pomegranate Fig Lamb Shanks

pomegranate sumac shish kebab

shish kebab

It's a long weekend and everyone with a grill will be grilling. Burgers and hotdogs are all well and good, but if you're looking for something a little punchier, with a lot more color, you're going to want to try this recipe. Chunks of lamb are marinated in pomegranate molasses, and then glazed with more pomegranate molasses as they cook. The tangy caramelized sugars make this lamb completely irresistible. As if that wasn't enough, the veggie skewers are marinated in za'atar and sumac, and they blister, char, and soften to perfection on the grill. This shish kebab is fabulous for entertaining because the whole thing can be prepared ahead, left to marinate in the refrigerator, and once they go on the grill, they're done in a flash.

leg of lamb
red onion, tomato, bell pepper
red onion, tomato, bell pepper shish kebab
leg of lamb shish kebab

There's no magical reason why this recipe calls for tomato, onion, and bell pepper. It's the veggie mix my family always makes, it's always easy to find, and it goes great with grilled meats. The sumac flavor adds just the right zest to the mellow flavor of the charred and blistered veggies. But feel free to experiment with skewering other produce for grilling. Mushrooms, zucchini, eggplant, radicchio, asparagus, or even stone fruit like peaches, all work great here. It doesn't matter what color cherry tomatoes, onions, or bell peppers you find—a more colorful variety will give this dish a brighter presentation, but red tomatoes with red bell pepper and red onions look chic in their own monochromatic way.

And speaking of good looks: while it would be even prettier to put the veggies on the same skewers as the lamb pieces, this is one time when you've got to sacrifice some style for substance. The vegetable skewers will be done cooking a couple minutes before the lamb, and it's important that you take them off the grill as soon as they're ready. You know the veggie skewers are done when the tomatoes are blistered, slightly softened, and just starting to shrivel. You don't want to cook them beyond this point or you will make a delicious tomato sauce, which will slough off the skewers and sink right through the grill grates.

shish kebab
shish kebab

pomegranate sumac shish kebab

yield: 4 servings
active time: 35 minutes
total time: 2 hours and 30 minutes *
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PDF to print

  • 2 pounds semi-boneless leg of lamb (if you are buying bone-in, buy 2 1/2 to 3 pounds)

  • About 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoons salt (to taste)

  • 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses (for marinade)

  • 1 small red onion

  • 1 green bell pepper (can substitute another color bell pepper)

  • 1 pound cherry tomatoes

  • 1/2 teaspoon sumac

  • 1/2 teaspoon za'atar (optional, add 1/4 teaspoon more sumac instead)

  • About 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoons salt (to taste) *

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

  • 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses (for grilling)

  1. Trim any large pieces of fat from the leg of lamb, and cut the lamb into chunks, discarding any bone or gristle.

  2. Place the lamb it in a ziplock bag (or another sealable container), add the salt and pomegranate molasses, mix it around by squeezing the bag, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or up to 1 day. **

  3. Chop the onion and bell pepper into large chunks. Mix together in a ziplock bag with the cherry tomatoes, sumac, za'atar, salt, and olive oil. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or up to 1 day.

  4. Once they're ready, skewer the veggies and the lamb separately. ***

  5. Pre-heat the grill to medium-hot and brush one side of the lamb with 1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses.

  6. Once the grill is hot, add the lamb, molasses-side-down, and brush the other side of the lamb with the other tablespoon of pomegranate molasses. Then add the veggie skewers.

  7. Regularly check to make sure nothing is burning, and turn everything once or twice to cook evenly.

  8. Remove the veggies once they are charred and slightly wilted. For medium-rare, the lamb should be internally 135° F, although they're also very tasty when cooked beyond medium rare.

* Use a little less salt if your za'atar is seasoned.
** If you're in a hurry, you can get away with marinating it for 30 minutes, but the flavor intensifies if you leave it a bit longer. If you marinade for a shorter period, glaze the lamb with a little extra molasses during the grilling.
*** If you're making everything ahead of time: Simply mix the veggies with the seasoning, skewer them immediately, and refrigerate for up to a day. Start the lamb off by marinating it in a ziplock bag for an hour, then skewer and refrigerate for up to a day.

shish kebab