The Green City Market is one of the best places in Chicago to get all manner of fresh fruits and vegetables and try independently made prepared foods, such as jam, cheeses, and breads. The best thing about the Green City Market is that it moves indoors in the winter and opens a couple Saturdays a month. Last month Mindy and I went and I posed a challenge to myself: I would make a dinner using whatever I could find at the market. I thought of it sort of like Chopped or Iron Chef but, you know, much less stressful.
I’d seen a recipe for braised lamb shanks that I’d wanted to try, so I had that in mind when I went to peruse the veggies at the market. After sampling a number of delicious cheeses, we stopped at a table for Bron’s Bee Company. I’ve long disliked honey, but I’d recently started to suspect that it may just be conventional honey – or “bear honey,” as I like to call it – that tastes so much like plastic and had begun to wonder if “artisan” honey was any different. The vendor was really nice when I explained to him my situation and he opened a jar of their lavender honey for us to try. I must tell you, my views on honey have completely changed. There was nary a hint of plastic, just deep sweetness complemented by the floral, herbaceous flavor of the lavender (which you know I love). I practically wanted to do a little dance, it was so good. The vendor’s good will paid off because I then bought “A Flight of Honey,” a pack containing three small jars of mint honey, rosemary honey, and the lavender honey. Before then, I never knew honey could be so good.
Having tasted the honey, I remembered a recipe for honey glazed carrots in my phone. We’d seen bags of rainbow carrots at a table by the front door, so after making the rounds upstairs and purchasing some mixed mushrooms for later use, we went back downstairs, only to find that in that short time all of the carrots had sold. It was a saddening discovery. I still had some carrots in my refrigerator from the Roasted Vegetable Cobblers, so I decided to pick up some parsnips from the vendor and add them to the honey glaze.
A final stop downstairs brought us to a box of sunchokes. Neither Mindy nor I had ever eaten sunchokes, but we shared the same reason for wanting to try them: there always seem to be sunchokes in one of the baskets on Chopped. We’d heard the vendor telling another customer that they taste similar to potatoes and can be treated the same way, so I picked up some of those along with some Yukon gold potatoes for a mixed mash to round out the dinner. According to Joy of Cooking, sunchokes, or Jerusalem artichokes, aren’t chokes or thistles at all. They’re tubers; more specifically, they’re the root of the sunflower, so it made sense to treat them like any other root vegetable.
With my market finds in hand, I had only to pick up the remaining ingredients. Lamb shanks are the shin bone of the lamb and they really look like it. They’re a tougher cut of meat, so they benefit from a slow cooking application, like a braise. The recipe I originally found came from Everyday Food, but it was very simple and I wanted to punch things up a bit. I turned to Joy of Cooking, but seeing spices like cinnamon and coriander in the ingredients list turned me off. That is way too close to the road to Indian-town, a cuisine that I absolutely detest. So, not happy with either recipe, I decided to take what I liked about each one and marry them to create something specific to my tastes.
[I just have to take a moment here to say to anyone who’s afraid of executing a recipe on the fly that I used to be, too. When people asked if I could cook, I would say that I can’t just throw things together, but I can follow a recipe. After years of cooking, I’ve gotten comfortable enough with techniques and flavors that I have a good sense of what will work and how I can change things to be more to my liking, even when baking. For some people this comes naturally. For me, it came with practice. It can come to you with practice, too.]
The Everyday Food recipe called for sautéing onions and garlic, adding tomatoes and the lamb shanks, and cooking everything in the oven for three hours. I took a few extra steps that I found in Joy of Cooking – I first browned the shanks (because brown is GOOD!), added some dried rosemary to the onions and garlic, and put in some chicken broth and white wine with the tomatoes (I liked the idea of a less tomato-y sauce). After three hours I pulled the mixture out of the oven and was fairly delighted with what I saw. The sauce was a bit more liquid than I would have liked, so I moved that to stove and let it cook down for about ten minutes until it had the right amount of body before spooning that lovely tomato mixture over the lamb and digging in. Glossy, luscious pieces of meat came falling off the bone into the hearty chunks of tomatoes that had become so infused with the lamb’s flavor that I wished only that I had a piece of bread to sop it up with at the end. (As it was, I just spooned some onto my plate and ate it just like that.) It was heavenly. I don’t think I’ve ever made meat that tastes as good as this, and it was so easy, too! Sure, it’s a three-hour endeavor, but for the vast majority of it you’re doing absolutely nothing. This would be a great dish to have in your arsenal when you need to pull out the stops and impress a special guest.
The Honey Glazed Carrots and Parsnips turned out somewhat predictably. I mean, there’s very little that can go wrong with adding honey to carrots and parsnips. The only slightly disappointing thing about that dish was that I couldn’t taste any of the rosemary in the honey I’d chosen to use. It all melded into a sticky sweetness, which was still perfectly delicious. The sunchokes were another story. I was not a huge fan. They tasted waxy and didn’t mash very well. Maybe I didn’t cook them long enough, although they did feel soft when I pierced them with a fork. I don’t know what the problem was, but I wouldn’t make them again, at least not like this.
Sunchokes aside, I was very happy with my market inspired dinner. I am definitely making this lamb again soon.
The wine we chose for this was a Rancho Zabaco California Zinfandel. I can’t tell you what flavors I picked out of this wine, but I can say that it was not the best choice for this dish because it was rendered nearly moot by the lamb and the tomatoes. However, I took a bite of the sweet carrots and parsnips and then took a sip of the wine and suddenly it had a nice, spicy kick to it. Interesting how food can completely change the taste of wine, isn’t it?
Below are the recipes for the lamb and honey glazed carrots and parsnips as I made them. If you don’t like lamb, ask the person at the meat counter for a similar cut of beef. Change up the herbs as you see fit – I’m sure some mint, some fines herbes, or some herbes de provence would be delicious as well. Likewise, try glazing whatever root vegetables you like best for a meal that is truly yours.
Braised Lamb Shanks
2-3 lamb shanks*
salt and black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, halved and thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic chopped
1 tablespoon dried rosemary, fines herbes, or herbs de Provence
1 can (15 ounces) whole peeled tomatoes, chopped**
1 cup chicken broth or water
½ cup dry white wine
Preheat oven to 300°.
In a large Dutch oven or heavy pot***, heat oil over medium high. Season the lamb shanks with salt and pepper and brown on all sides, about 5 minutes. Remove the shanks and add the onions and the garlic. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the onions are soft, stirring often. Add the rosemary and stir well to coat the onions.
Add the chicken broth, wine, and tomatoes and bring to a boil. Return the lamb shanks to the pan, cover, and bake until the meat is very tender and falling off the bone. Go clean your apartment or watch a movie or call a friend. Check back in 3 hours.
Skim the fat from the cooking liquid. If the sauce is very thin, remove the lamb shanks and bring the sauce to a boil on the stove. Reduce until the sauce has reached the consistency of your liking. If you accidentally over-reduce, add a little more wine, broth, or water to the pan. Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed.
Serve lamb shanks with sauce spooned over it.
Makes 2 servings.
*This depends on how meaty they are. I got two shanks, weighing together about 1 ½ pounds, and we could have definitely eaten more.
**To easily chop canned tomatoes, open the can, stick a pair of kitchen shears inside, and go crazy cutting like you’re a two-fingered Edward Scissorhands.
***I don’t have a Dutch oven. I long for the day when my kitchen will be filled with gorgeous, colorful Le Creuset cookware, but that day has yet to come. Instead, I used my cast iron pan and covered with the lid of another oven-safe pan. Aside from the pan being filled completely the brim and spilling on the oven door a little when I tried to move it, this worked just fine. If I didn’t have this or planned to make more servings, I would brown the shanks and cook the onions and tomatoes in a sauté pan, then transfer the mixture to a 13×9-inch pan, cover it with foil, and let it cook for the duration. To reduce the sauce, I’d transfer it back to a sauté pan and cook it until the sauce were sufficiently thick.
Honey Glazed Carrots and Parsnips
1 pound mix of carrots and parsnips, cut in 1”-2” pieces
½ tablespoon vegetable oil
½ cup water
¼ cup honey
2 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
salt and black pepper
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add carrots and parsnips. Cook, stirring once, until beginning to brown, about 2 minutes
Add water, honey, and vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce the flame to a simmer, cover, and cook until vegetables can be pierced easily with a knife, about 10 minutes. Uncover and cook over medium-high heat until the carrots are tender and the liquid is syrupy, 7-9 minutes more.
Turn off the heat and add the butter to the pan. Swirl to coat and add more salt and pepper, if needed.
Makes 2 servings.