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
download a PDF to print

  • 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

muhammara

Muhammara

Last week, I posted my recipe for "tabbouleh verde," which is the greenest salad you'll ever eat, since it calls for tomatillos instead of red tomatoes. So today I thought it would be fun to continue to celebrate monochromatic foods, this time taking a look at green's complementary color, red.

Muhammara is a Syrian spread, which literally means "reddened" in Arabic, and it's not hard to see how it got its name. In a little while, bell peppers will be in season in temperate climates, and using high quality peppers makes muhammara turn a deep, dark shade of red. While it looks nice and shiny with a drizzle of olive oil (pictured right), it looks even more dramatic with little puddles of maroon pomegranate molasses (pictured left).

red peppers
roasting red peppers
roasting red peppers

Muhammara's striking look is certainly the first thing worth noting, but flavor development was the most important part of writing this recipe. When I go to a restaurant and really enjoy the food, it's usually because there was a really subtle and understated flavor that got under my skin. But vivid flavors, when used carefully, are just as crucial to good food as subtle flavors are. I think this is especially relevant when it comes to dips and spreads. A dip or spread that isn't flavored boldly can be such a let down, and muhammara is no exception.

Muhammara

The key to my muhammara recipe is an intensely roasted flavor. You begin most muhammara recipes (including this one) by roasting red peppers over a flame, which chars the skins and softens the interiors. Once the skins have sufficiently charred, and the peppers have spent some time steaming, the burnt skins will easily slough off, and the pepper flesh will maintain the roasted flavor with just the tiniest bit of char clinging to it. To add even more toasty flavor, my own personal technique is to pan-roast the walnuts and breadcrumbs before adding them to the dip. The cumin, likewise, gets toasted for just a few seconds to tone down its raw flavor and highlight its nuttiness. If you think you don't like cumin, I encourage you to try toasting it this way before cooking with it. It really makes a difference.

Muhammara
Muhammara

Pomegranate molasses is usually added to muhammara, because it's the perfect counterpoint to all that roasted flavor, and it's especially important in this one, since there's more roasted flavor than usual. It brings a lot of acidity and brightness, which also highlights the flavor of the peppers. And the crushed red pepper is just the thing that always sends muhammara over the top. There's so much going on with this dip: acid, heat, char, and toast. It's just right for spreading on pita bread, or serving with a dish that needs an extra something. Try it on some vegan pizza (manakish muhammara) or serve it with flatbread.

Muhammara
Muhammara

Muhammara

yield: about 2 cups
active time: 30 minutes
total time: 1 hour
download a
PDF to print
for more muhammara-inspired recipes, try
this flatbread and these lamb shanks

  • 2 large or 3 small red bell peppers

  • 1/2 cup whole walnuts

  • 1/4 cup breadcrumbs (either homemade or store-bought)

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses

  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper (or to taste)

  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice

  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder (or substitute 1 small clove crushed garlic)

  • 1/4 teaspoon oregano

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

  • For garnish: extra virgin olive oil, pomegranate molasses, 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

  • For serving: pita bread (either homemade or store-bought) or anything savory that needs more flavor

  1. Turn one or two gas stove burners to medium heat and place the red peppers directly over the grates. *

  2. Cook the peppers, frequently rotating each as soon as one side becomes very charred. Cook until the peppers are somewhat soft and very charred (about 5 to 10 minutes total).

  3. Immediately place the peppers in a glass container or bowl. Cover with a lid or plastic wrap and microwave for 30 seconds on high heat. Then use the residual heat to let the peppers slowly steam for 30 minutes to an hour.

  4. While the peppers are steaming, pulse the walnuts in a food processor, until they're very finely chopped (be careful not to over-process).

  5. Toast the walnuts and breadcrumbs together in a skillet over medium heat, stirring constantly, until they turn golden-brown, about 4 to 7 minutes. Stir in the cumin during the last 30 - 60 seconds of cooking. Remove from heat and set aside.

  6. Once the peppers have steamed long enough (they should be soft and cool enough to handle), use a paper towel to rub away most of the charred skins. Tear the peppers open and discard the seeds, pith, stems, and any excess liquid that has collected.

  7. Place the skinless, seeded red peppers in a food processor and only pulse 1 or 2 times to very coarsely chop the peppers. **

  8. Add the walnut-breadcrumb mixture, pomegranate molasses, 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper, lemon juice, garlic powder, oregano, and salt, and pulse 2 to 3 more times just until everything forms a chunky paste. Do not purée.

  9. Place the muhammara in a bowl and drizzle with olive oil or pomegranate molasses and sprinkle with more crushed red pepper.

* If you don't have a gas stove, you can use your oven's broiler or a grill, using the same method and checking frequently.
** If you don't have a food processor, you can easily do this by hand. Very coarsely chop the red peppers on a cutting board, add them to a bowl, and use a potato masher to combine the peppers with the rest of the ingredients. You could also use a mortar and pestle, as Yotam Ottolenghi suggests. It's harder to over-process by hand, but be careful to stop as soon as it turns into a chunky paste.

Muhammara