The Tail Wags the Dog

For the most part, I plan a meal by carefully putting together all the different parts, making sure no one course is too much like the other, yet they all work together in perfect harmony.

After the menu planning, I start considering the wine to be served. I carefully choose wines for each course, unless someone offers to bring wine.

There are four varietals of wine-bringers.

First, are those who offer to bring wine and ask what we would like them to bring. I like to have a few varietals in mind to make it easier for them so they can choose what best fits the meal, their palate, and budget. When suitable, I offer suggestions in the realm of reds, whites and rosés. (We are equal opportunity imbibers.)

The second type are those who ask what you are serving, because they know their wines and can pick a perfect one for what we are preparing. This is great because we can tell them what's on the menu, with no more than a hint at color and style for each course.

A very special Christmas gift from my friends Laura and Arch.
There is a third type of wine-bringer those who bring a nice bottle and whisper that we must put it aside for ourselves for later.

Finally, some people don't ask what you are serving - they adamantly drink only red wine and will bring that regardless of the menu. For some mysterious reason this curious phenomenon we have not seen among drinkers of whites and rosés.

In that case, it is a bit of the "tail wagging the dog." One knows they are coming, and must plan the menu around their predictable selection.

For today's post, the wine drove the menu, but in a very different way.

We had a glorious bottle of Éternité (2007), a Vacqueyras from Vignerons de Caractère - a gift from our friends Susan and Towny from the Provence WineZine - waiting for just the right meal. In fact, they asked me to write a wine pairing for this wine to publish in the WineZine. Alors, I read up on the wine, and learned it to be full-bodied and fruit forward, with a nice slow finish. Wag. Wag. Wag. 

My very first thought for this wine was to serve lamb. A grilled butterflied leg would be perfect. Or maybe roasted? Simple grilled chops are always nice, but these would be no real fun for me in the kitchen.

Then it occurred to me - I had never braised a lamb shank! This is a culinary negligence, as I love braised lamb shanks. Thus started the research and final recipe creation.

When it comes down to it, braising, is braising, is braising (thank you, Gertrude Stein). There are any number if ways it can be done: with vegetables or without, tomato or wine, with lots of herbs or just a simple bouquet garni. One key ingredient for me was to make sure the acidity was appropriate to help break down the muscle fibers.

I opted to start with a very traditional French mirepoix, plus tomatoes, broth, wine, and a bouquet garni. For zing and a little texture, I added citrus zest and some oil-cured olives toward the end. The earthy, olive-studded, citrus-infused sauce was just the comfort food we needed to go with this wine, and to keep us warm on a chilly, drizzly winter's day.

A reveire! ("See you soon," in Provençal dialect)


Lamb Shanks Provençal

1/2 cup flour
1 tablespoon sweet Hungarian paprika
4 lamb shanks - about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds each
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 large onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 ribs celery, diced
1 cup white wine
2 cups crushed tomatoes, divided
zest of 1 orange
zest of 1 lemon
2 sprigs thyme
1 sprig rosemary
1 sprig with three bay leaves
2 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup oil-cured olives, pitted and halved

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Mix flour and paprika on a large, flat plate. Season lamb shanks generously with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Dredge lamb shanks in flour-paprika and set on a plate.

Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large paella or other frying pan with a tight-fitting ovenproof cover. When the oil is shimmering and easily coats the bottom of the pan, add the shanks and brown on each side until golden - about 3-5 minutes per side. Remove shanks from the pan and set aside on a plate.

Add the mirepoix - onions, carrot, and celery - and sauté for about 5 minutes to soften the vegetables. Add the wine, 1 cup crushed tomatoes, and citrus zests to the pan. Stir, and bring to a simmer; cook about 5 minutes, until somewhat thickened.

Meanwhile, tie together thyme sprigs, rosemary and bay leaves to make a bouquet garni. Add to the pan along with the stock. Stir, and bring to a simmer.

Add lamb shanks, cover the pan, and place in the oven. Braise (covered) for about 3 hours, turning shanks every half hour, until lamb is completely tender. After 2 1/2 hours, add the pitted olives.

After the three hours, remove lamb shanks to a warmed plate and cover with foil. Remove bouquet garni and discard. Bring pan with sauce to a simmer. Skim off as much fat as possible. Add remaining 1 cup crushed tomatoes and reduce heat until sauce thickens.

Serve lamb shanks on polenta or mashes potatoes with a good helping of the sauce on top.

Serve immediately.

Serves 4.

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