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

zesty lentil soup

zesty lentil soup

For the last few weeks, I've been putting the finishing touches on some fresh takes on classic Middle Eastern salads, and I'm very excited to start sharing all the recipes and photos. A couple weeks ago, I raved about beet salad with fresh chive blossoms. I recently posted this recipe for ruby fennel tabbouleh, and I've got two others (1, 2) in the works, so be sure to keep an eye out later in the summer for more tabbouleh variations. And on Wednesday, I'm posting a take on classic fattoush.

So, yes: everyone loves a crisp, refreshing seasonal salad with a bright, sunny dressing, and lots of fresh summer produce. But after about a month of nothing but salads with every meal, all those cool cucumbers and juicy tomatoes start to become a little monotonous. And that's when you remember that the right kind of soup can make a wonderful summer meal too.

mint

That's all just to say that this red lentil soup is not one of those hearty, stick-to-your-bones, warm your heart and soul, flannel-blanket-in-a-bowl kinds of soups with russet potatoes, roasted beef bones, cheddar cheese, roux, barley, mushroom, and gobs of roasted garlic. Instead of warming it, this soup will lift your soul, clear your head, and bring your senses back to life after an early summer salad burnout.

How does this soup do it? Lots and lots of cilantro, sumac, lemon, and—most importantly—mint. But you know how sometimes you accidentally add way too much mint to something and it ends up tasting like toothpaste? Dried mint is the key to this soup's subtlety. You can buy dried mint in some specialty stores, but if you can't find it, you can easily dry fresh mint at home, which is absolutely in season right now. If you have a friend who grows it, they're probably already trying to find people to take all the extra mint off their hands. And while it might sound strange to dry out an ingredient before adding it to something wet, it actually makes all the difference.

zesty lentil soup
zesty lentil soup

But I totally understand if you're skeptical—whenever a recipe tells me to add water and then boil to reduce, I roll my eyes and totally ignore both instructions altogether (because who wants to simultaneously waste time and make their house more humid?), but this is different, and absolutely not an oversight.

Just think about how different dried basil and fresh basil taste. Close your eyes and imagine a caprese salad with dried basil; then imagine a sandwich with fresh basil meatballs. I mean, both sound totally delicious, but completely different than what you're probably used to. No matter the herb, drying changes everything! The dried mint makes this soup herby without being too minty, and the red lentils make it filling without feeling heavy. And best of all, this soup is delicious at room temperature or chilled.

But if you're not totally on board with chilled soups, you can absolutely enjoy this one hot on a summer day. My great grandfather Paulos would always drink chai in sweltering weather, because he claimed that drinking a hot liquid actually cools you down. While I've never been quite sure if this is true, he was a wise man, and so on hot days when I'm craving a bowl of hot soup, I just go with it. Or you can just revel in the chill of your air conditioned kitchen while you eat hot soup under a blanket (no judgement!).

zesty lentil soup

zesty lentil soup

yield: 6 servings
active time: 20 minutes
total time: 30 minutes
download a
PDF to print

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil

  • 1 small or 1/2 of a large onion, minced (about 1 1/2 cups)

  • 3 carrots, diced small (about 1 1/2 cups)

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced

  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seeds

  • 2 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste

  • 2 quarts (8 cups) vegetable broth or stock

  • 1 pound (16 ounce) bag red lentils (slightly over 2 cups), sorted and rinsed

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons crumbled dried mint

  • 2 teaspoons paprika

  • 2 teaspoons sumac

  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or to taste)

  • Salt to taste

  • 1/4 cup lemon juice (about 1 to 1 1/2 lemons)

  • For serving: chopped cilantro, sumac, crushed red pepper, lemon wedges, pita bread or rice

  1. Place a stockpot over medium heat and add the olive oil. Stir in the onion, carrots, and garlic, and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring every minute or two, until they soften.

  2. Once the veggies soften, stir in the cumin and coriander seeds, and cook, stirring constantly, for another 2 minutes.

  3. Stir in the tomato paste and continue to cook, stirring constantly, for another minute.

  4. Add the vegetable broth, lentils, dried mint, paprika, sumac, and cayenne pepper. Stir together, cover, and increase heat to high. Once it comes to a boil, reduce the heat to low and continue to cook, covered, for about 10 minutes, until the lentils are starting to fall apart. *

  5. Taste the soup and add more salt if necessary. If the soup looks a little dry add 1/2 cup of water at a time. Partially purée the soup, if desired. Once you're happy with the seasoning and amount of liquid, stir in the lemon juice.

  6. Serve either hot, chilled, or at room temperature. Garnish with cilantro, sumac, and crushed red pepper. Serve alongside lemon wedges and bread or rice.

* Most red lentils sold in US grocery stores are split red lentils. If you have whole red lentils, you should increase the cooking time to about 15 to 20 minutes. The lentils should be falling apart and not al dente.

zesty lentil soup