Nothing like rainy days — days and days of rain — to bring out the braised meat urge in me. Storms slow us all down, and there must be some sort of aromatherapy going on when you fill your home with the smell of slowly cooking goodness.
Nothing braises quite like a shank, whether it be lamb, beef, veal or, in this case, venison. For the hunters out there, we all know that we really shouldn’t waste the shanks of the deer, elk or antelope we shoot. But shanks have so much sinew and connective tissue there really isn’t much to do with them. So most of us grind it for burger meat.
This is a shame, as my shank-eating friends will attest. Shanks, frankly, suck if not cooked slowly and for a long, long time. The only other thing you can do with a shank besides braise it is to put them in a stock or stew. But well browned and then bathed in aromatic juices and served falling off the bone? Oooh, this is seriously good stuff.
Why? Shanks are essentially an animal’s calf. In fact, these venison shanks bore a disturbing resemblance to my left calf, with its torn Achilles tendon. Sigh. I will heal. This deer, which Holly shot in Placer County this year, will not. But I digress. Calves, as we all know, do a lot of work. And muscles that do a lot of work get a) tough as hell, and b) really, really flavorful.
The trick is to break down all that connective tissue into a silky coating that moistens and sweetens the meat. Add to this a powerful sauce — shanks always need a good sauce, in my opinion — and you have a surpassing meal from a lowly piece of the animal.
But which sauce? You pretty much need something big for a shank, and as I began paging through cookbooks, I thought about a one I’d recently bought by David Leite called The New Portuguese Table. It is pretty much the only cookbook that treats Portuguese cooking in a modern sense; the only other Portuguese books I’ve seen are focused on old, traditional recipes. At any rate, Leite has a braised beef shank recipe that includes a lot of warm spices — cloves, cinnamon, allspice — as well as molasses. I love molasses.
Naturally I can’t leave well enough alone, so I modified Leite’s recipe by adding chiles and juniper berries, doubling the red wine called for and by finely pureeing the sauce at the end.
Why puree? Because you can use the leftover sauce to dress homemade pasta such as tagliatelle…
Typical sides for a braised thing are a mashed thing and a green thing. Why mess with the formula? So I decided to mash celery root with two tablespoons of mascarpone cheese and one tablespoon of butter — if you’ve never done the mascarpone and mashed veggie thing, try it! Heaven.
And for the greens, I just happened to have some nettles on hand, thanks to my friend Josh, who was nice enough to gather them for me. I am about to embark on an exploration of All Things Nettle (more on that later), and I wanted to start by eating them au naturale — blanched, then sauteed with olive oil and salt.
I gotta say, nettles are bland without help. Slightly less flavorful than spinach. But everything else was dy-no-mite! The sauce was sweet-savory-spicy-hot-rich (did I mention there is six ounces of pureed, simmered homemade bacon in it?). The venison shank we ate with just a fork — no knife needed. And it was tender, silky-smooth and super flavorful.
Could you do this recipe with a lamb shank? You bet, although it will not be as flavorful because the animal was young. Better to use a slice of beef shank, or the shank from a hog. Hunters, don’t hesitate to use this recipe on wild boar or elk shanks, too — I need to go elk hunting this fall so I can get me more of them!
BRAISED VENISON SHANKS, PORTUGUESE STYLE
Every deer has four shanks, and as a conscientious hunter you know you ought to do something with them, so most people have the butcher turn them into ground meat. A shame, as a properly braised whole venison shank is every bit as tender as a lamb shank.
These venison shanks are so tender you could eat them with a fork, and the sauce is so rich you’ll want to save the leftovers for pasta sauce. We served these shanks with sauteed nettles and celery root puree with a little mascarpone cheese mixed in. You could do that, but mashed potatoes and spinach would be just as good.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 4 hours
- 4 venison shanks or lamb shanks
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon allspice berries
- 1 teaspoon juniper berries
- 8 cloves
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 hot dried chile
- 2 bay leaves
- 6 ounces of slab bacon cut into chunks (use thick-cut slices if you can’t get slab bacon)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 yellow onions, grated on a coarse grater
- 1 head of garlic, cloves peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 bottle red wine
- 2 cups beef stock or venison stock
- 2 tablespoons molasses
- Salt shanks and set aside.
- In a shallow pot with a lid (a Dutch oven will do), put spices and herbs in with the wine and molasses. If your bacon had the rind on it, put that in, too. Turn the heat to medium-low.
- Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
- Pour olive oil into a second pan set over medium heat. Fry the bacon slowly, turning all sides to get crispy. As each piece crispifies, toss it into the pot with the wine. Do not let the wine pot go past a gentle simmer.
- When the bacon is done, brown the shanks on all sides except the one with the bone; this helps the shank stay together after long cooking. Take your time on this one, and do this over medium heat. It could take 20 minutes.
- Move the shanks to the wine pot, bone side sticking up.
- Put the onions in the other pan and turn the heat up to high. Toss to combine. You will notice the onions will deglaze the pan. After about 5 minutes like this, add the garlic and toss to combine. Continue cooking until you hear the sound change: That’s onions losing enough moisture to begin browning. Cook another minute or two.
- Pour in the stock and mix it well with the onions. Bring to a furious boil and make sure you’scraped everything off the bottom of the pan.
- Add to the wine pot, mixing in with all the other ingredients. Make sure the shanks are still bone side up.
- Cover and cook in the oven for 3-4 hours. Venison, being wild, is difficult to gauge doneness — you might have shot an old deer, or a yearling. Each will require different cooking times.
- When the meat is almost falling off the bone, remove it gently and tent it with foil.
- Fish out the bay leaves, cinnamon stick and as many cloves, peppercorns, allspice and juniper berries as you can in a few minutes. It’s OK if you don’t get them all.
- Puree the sauce in a blender or pass it through a food mill set on a medium setting. It should be thick. Pour over the shanks and serve at once with mashed root veggies and something green.