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

pickled mango | amba

Amba

People who are used to eating a lot of Middle Eastern food are generally not afraid of sourness. There should be some element in a Middle Eastern dinner that, if eaten on its own, would make your eyes squint shut, your nose fill with vinegar, and your mouth pucker to a point.

Not all of us eat these things on their own or have an obsession with sour foods, but eating entire lemons whole is not unheard of. We sometimes dust on so much sumac that you can't see the food underneath. After doling out pomegranate molasses, we lick the spoon, and make the face. It's almost unbearable—it brings tears to our eyes. And if you're always trying to find something that's another level of sour, amba, or pickled mango, is a really good one.

Mangoes
Mango

According to Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, amba (also known as torshi anbeh) is originally from India, but it has become a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine. The key to amba's distinct flavor is fenugreek seeds, which taste a little like celery, but with a nice umami flavor and fragrance. Many good yellow curry powders include fenugreek seeds, so if you can't find them, substituting more yellow curry powder in its place will approximate the flavor. I've included instructions in the recipe for anyone who needs to make this substitution. Middle Eastern amba doesn't always include mango, but fenugreek seems to be the uniting factor in just about all recipes. For instance, cabbage amba is another popular amba pickle. Sham of Vegan Iraqi Food has a wonderful recipe for cabbage amba, with plenty of fenugreek flavor. But in any event, amba is incredibly tart and delicious.

Spices
Amba / Pickled Mangoes
Amba / Pickled Mangoes

One of the things that makes mango amba so tangy is the fact that you're starting out with an ingredient that's already sour before it even hits the vinegar brine. Instead of standing in the produce aisle gently pressing on every mango to try to find the one that yields to slight pressure, you'll weed through a million ripe, perfect mangoes to find the tough green ones that everyone else rejects. These mangoes are crunchy, tart, and ideal for pickling, since they will soften slightly instead of entirely melting into the vinegar.

While ripe mangoes are a cinch to slice into pieces, unripe mangoes are just a little different, since you have to use a lot more pressure to slice through it, and the peel won't release from the meat very easily. Feel free to use the gifs above as a guide.

Prepping the mangoes is the most time-consuming part of this recipe, but it only takes about ten minutes. Everything else is as simple as boiling the water, vinegar, and seasoning, pouring it over the mango slices, and letting it sit in the fridge for at least a day or two. Like any pickle, amba will keep for a long time. Discard it after a while if it seems off (but, as they say, it probably won't last that long).

Amba / Pickled Mangoes

Pickled mango | amba

yields: 2 pints
active time: 15 minutes
total time: at least 3 hours 15 minutes
for a salad variation, check out my
amba slaw
download a
PDF to print

  • 3 green, unripened mangoes *

  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice

  • 3/4 cups water

  • 3/4 cups apple cider vinegar

  • 2 1/4 teaspoons curry powder

  • 3/4 teaspoons ground turmeric

  • 2 1/4 teaspoons ground fenugreek seeds **

  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

  • 1 3/4 teaspoons fine sea salt

  1. Pit and peel the mangoes and then slice them into thin strips. Coat them in lemon juice. ***

  2. Pack the mangoes into two pint-sized canning jars.

  3. In a small saucepan, combine water, cider vinegar, curry powder, turmeric, fenugreek, red pepper flakes, and sea salt. Bring to a boil and then immediately remove from heat. Pour over the mangoes.

  4. This recipe is designed for 2 pints, but if you need to, feel free to top them off with a tablespoon or two of lemon juice. If the tops are poking out, give them a shake every day for the first few days.

  5. Store the amba in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours before serving. It is pretty good as a quickle after 3 hours, but it's even better after a few days.

Serving suggestions: This is a very flavorful pickle and should be served with food that doesn't have a lot of flavor and piquancy of its own; use this anywhere you want to add acidity and brightness, like you would with a chutney, relish, or salsa. Serve alongside grilled meats and veggies, burgers, hot dogs, riza sh'ariyeh, and/or a simple salad with a very light dressing. Leave the amount of amba up to your guests instead of plating it for them. Everyone has a different preference for tartness, and while some guests will polish off a whole pint, others will only have one or two pieces (but rest assured, just about everyone will love it).

* The mangoes should be very firm and should not yield to pressure. It's ok if they are a little red, but they should be mostly green (judge by squeezing more than color).
** You can easily find ground fenugreek seeds online or in almost any Indian market. Although they're from the same plant, they taste very different from fenugreek leaves (just like cilantro doesn't taste like coriander seeds). You can sometimes find fenugreek seeds in Middle Eastern markets and health foods stores, but I find that Indian markets are the only really reliable source. If you can't find ground fenugreek seeds, feel free to leave it out and use a total of 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon curry powder for the recipe.
*** See above gifs for instructions on pitting and peeling unripe mangoes. It's a little different than pitting and peeling a ripe mango, since you can't easily separate the flesh from the peel and you have to use a bit more pressure to slice through, and must therefore stabilize it.

Amba / Pickled Mangoes