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.

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.

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

lebanese salsa | banadurah harrah

banadurah harrah

I've lived in four different states throughout the midwestern US and east coast, and everywhere I've gone, people have proudly shared a tremendous pride in their state's tomatoes. But if you ask me, there's very little difference between those grown in New Jersey and Illinois; that is, as long as you're not eating an Illinois tomato in Jersey, or vice versa, because with something this fragile and ephemeral, local is the way to go.

I try to eat relatively seasonally and locally, but I'm not such a stickler, and so I eat tomatoes pretty much year-round (sometimes from the farmers' market, sometimes from the supermarket). But I do enjoy a lot more of them in late July and August. And banadurah harrah is one of my favorite Middle Eastern dishes to eat this time of year because it really puts tomatoes front and center.

diced tomatoes

Banadurah harrah means "spicy tomatoes" in Lebanese Arabic, and it's usually described as "Lebanese salsa." And this totally makes sense because a lot of its ingredients overlap with Mexican salsas. You've got tomatoes, onions, garlic, herbs, spicy peppers, and citrus. As Maureen Abood says in her banadurah harrah post, what makes this taste a little more Lebanese is the particular choice of herbs—in this case, mint. Banadurah harrah goes great with tortilla chips, but it's more traditionally eaten as a condiment or with bread, and it makes a wonderful addition to a meze tray. Most bannadurah harrah recipes (and indeed, one of the recipes in this post) have you simmer the tomatoes with lots of deliciously subtle dried mint. The cooked version is the one I'm most used to, and it's particularly perfect if you've stumbled upon this sunny post in the middle of winter, because it works great with canned tomatoes and dried herbs. I've got a quick recipe for making dried mint at home if you can't find it in the supermarket. And in the middle of January, canned tomatoes are so much better than those pale, gritty ones you find in the produce section.

But, since we're smack dab in the middle of July and August, my current favorite way to enjoy banadurah harrah is fresh. My recipe for fresh banadurah harrah uses all the same ingredients as my recipe for the simmered version, but it just prepares them a little differently. Instead of stewing everything together with dried herbs (because "stewing" is a verb you might not want to hear in July), you simply finely dice and mince everything together with fresh herbs.

banadurah harrah
banadurah harrah
banadurah harrah
banadurah harrah

simmered banadurah harrah

yield: about 3 cups
total time: 17 minutes
active time: 7 minutes
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  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

  • 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons small-diced onion

  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed through a press or finely minced

  • 2 13.5-ounce cans of diced tomatoes

  • 2 teaspoons finely crumbled dried mint

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

  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste

  • 1/4 cup lemon juice

  1. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a frying pan for 1 minute. Add the onions and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

  2. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the diced tomatoes with their juices. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring every minute or so, until the tomatoes dissolve into a thick sauce and the juices evaporate. If you're not using a wide frying pan (e.g., if you're using a tall saucepan), this may take longer.

  3. Reduce heat to medium, add the dried mint, cayenne pepper, oregano, and salt, and cook for another 2 minutes to infuse everything with flavor.

  4. Remove from heat, stir in the lemon juice, refrigerate, and serve either cold or at room temperature.

Notes: The simmered version freezes wonderfully. You can store it all together in freezer-proof container, or freeze little portions in an ice cube tray, and then store the cubes in a plastic bag. If you're looking for ways to serve simmered banadurah harrah, try it on toast with labneh, or coat some winter squash and roast it. Also check out my recipe for slow roast banadurah harrah.

banadurah harrah
banadurah harrah

fresh banadurah harrah

yield: about 2 1/2 cups
total time: 25 minutes
active time: 15 minutes
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PDF to print

  • 2 cups diced fresh tomatoes

  • 1/4 cup small-diced red onion

  • 1 clove garlic, crushed

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh mint

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

  • 1 1/2 teaspoon fresh oregano

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste

  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice

  1. Strain the diced tomatoes for about 10 minutes to let the juices run into the sink (don't worry, there will be enough tomato juice once you add the salt).

  2. Combine the strained tomatoes, red onion, garlic, olive oil, mint, cayenne pepper, oregano, salt, and lemon juice. Stir to combine and serve cold or at room temperature.

banadurah harrah