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A “Frugalista’s” Recipe: Lamb Shanks Braised in Yoghurt with Cardamom, Cinnamon and Fennel

Lamb shanks braised in yoghurt with Indian spices are a "frugalista's" reward: after two hours of slow-cooking, these relatively inexpensive cuts become delectably tender. The bonus: a rich, savory sauce perfumed with cardamom and other fragrant spices.

Lamb shanks braised in yoghurt with Indian spices are a “frugalista’s” reward:
after two hours of slow-cooking, these relatively inexpensive cuts become
delectably tender. The bonus: a rich, savory sauce perfumed with cardamom
and other fragrant spices.

The chile ristra is hanging on the front door, peppery pods twined with red ribbon. All 500 white lights, minus a few derelict ones, are twinkling brightly on the Fraser fir, the prettiest we’ve had in years. The carved Oaxaca cherub is hovering nearby, casting a beneficent gaze on all who gather at the hearth.

I’m ready.

Oh, actually not. There’s a pile of oddly shaped boxes in the attic that need wrapping. Nothing too splashy this holiday, but everyone is getting their heart’s desire, even if they don’t know it yet….

“Frugalista” is the season’s buzzword, at least according to The New York Times. It refers to a person who is both frugal and fashionable. Naturally the newspaper of record was promoting a “splendidly naughty” $3,295 Jimmy Choo evening bag as a last minute stocking stuffer.

My mother, a life long frugalista, once wrapped our Christmas gifts in Chinese newspaper and scarlet ribbons. Very chic, especially for the 1950’s. Earlier today, casting around for a gift box, I must have had a flash back: my favorite Fabindia shopping bag, made from the pages of the Mumbai Economic Times, is now stuffed with quirky kitchen utensils for a foodie friend.

This is a roundabout way of getting to a fabulous frugalista recipe for the Sunday before Christmas. The main ingredients are lamb shanks ($5.99/pound at Whole Foods), but, slowly braised with yoghurt and Indian spices, these “cheap” cuts become food for the gods: succulent meat bathed in a tangy sauce warmed with Kashmiri chilies, barely scented with cardamom and cinnamon. While the shanks simmer on the back burner, your kitchen will fill up with the most irresistible aromas—and you will have time to wrap all those awkwardly shaped presents in…newspaper!

This recipe was inspired by the delectable spiced shanks I once devoured at Mantra, a now-defunct restaurant in Boston. The chef ‘s elegant rendition of rogan josh, a classic Kashmiri dish that seems to have vanished from the menu, sent me trolling through my cookbooks: Along the way I consulted Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking, Camilla Panjabi’s 50 Great Curries of India, and a version from Daniel Boulud that first appeared in Elle Décor. Then I went in a slightly different direction.

Rogan means “meat fat” and josh “heat,” a reference to the fact that the lamb was originally cooked in its own fat for intensity of flavor. However, the dish has evolved into quite another thing. Julie Sahni calls it “truly the finest example of the superb flavoring of Moghul cooking.” In this cuisine, lamb and other meats are braised—a technique known as korma—in liquid thickened with yoghurt, cream, fruit purees or nut butters. Sahni writes: “Indian braised dishes, as a result, often taste as if they had been pot roasted, and yield thick velvety sauces that heavily coat the meat pieces.”

I loved the idea of a yoghurt flavored sauce perfumed with spices, but I didn’t want to take the time to marinate the lamb shanks as most recipes for rogan josh require. And the shanks I bought locally from Bob Pope, who grazes his flock of white Dorper lambs on a farm that’s been in his family since 1806, were so delicate that I couldn’t bear the idea of adulterating their flavor. Instead, I decided to brown the lamb in olive oil, then sauté onions and garlic with the spices, including green and smoky black cardamom pods, ground fennel, cumin and Kashmiri chilies, and simmer it all in chicken broth whisked with yoghurt.

Although lots of spices are used, what you taste in the end is the lamb—succulent, falling-off-the-bone tender, in a tangy, meaty sauce perfumed with mysterious hints of spice that meld together into pure deliciousness.

Truly, a frugalista’s reward.

Lamb Shanks Braised in Yoghurt with Cardamom, Cinnamon and Fennel

To serve four, as a main course

Ingredients:

4 lamb shanks (about 2-1/2 pounds total)
4 tablespoons olive oil
2-1/2 cups onion, chopped
1 tablespoon garlic, finely chopped
8 green cardamom pods, crushed
4 black cardamom pods, crushed
A 4-inch stick cinnamon
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon powdered ginger
¼ teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon Kashmiri chili powder, or ½ teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon ground fennel
1-1/2 cups yoghurt
2-1/2 cups warm chicken broth or water

Method:

1. In a large enameled cast iron pot, heat 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat. When the oil is hot, brown the lamb shanks all over, in two batches if necessary. Remove to a bowl and set aside.
2. Add a little more oil to the pot and sauté the onions and garlic until they are wilted, 3 to 4 minutes. Do not let the garlic brown.
3. Add the crushed cardamom pods (along with any seeds that have escaped), the cinnamon stick and bay leaf and sauté until the fragrance of the spices has been released, 1 or 2 minutes.
4. Add the ground spices and sauté for 1 minute more.
5. Turn off the heat. Mix the yoghurt with the spice and onion mixture, than whisk in the warm chicken broth, making sure that the yoghurt is well blended. Return the shanks to the pot.
6. Turn the heat back to medium and bring the braising liquid to a gentle simmer. Cover and reduce the heat to low. Simmer for 2 hours, or until the meat is so tender that it almost falls off the bone. Remove the shanks to a serving dish and keep warm.
7. Reduce the braising liquid by simmering it gently for 10 to 15 minutes, until it thickens slightly. (Prepared this way, the sauce will not be thick and velvety, but it should have a little body.) Remove the cinnamon stick and bay leaf, although you can leave in the cardamom pods if desired.
8. Pour the sauce over the shanks, sprinkle with a little chopped cilantro and serve at once with steamed basmati rice.

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