In Like a Lion: A Late Winter Dinner Party
The calendar just flipped to March– still technically winter, but Spring is about to burst. Let’s do a weekend dinner for 6 to 8 people.
* * * * * * *
We’re on the cusp of Winter and Spring, and hints of the latter abound… daffodil shoots optimistically pierce the matted dead grass after a few warm days in a row, only to be cruelly chastened by a dusting of snow; football season is (finally!) over and baseball’s spring training has begun, as has PGA golf and NASCAR. And we’ve taken note of the ever-earlier sunrises, which of course will change come March 12th when we turn our clocks ahead. Easter comes a full month after that and seems like a long way off. What better time to round up a few friends and celebrate nothing in particular, if only to raise everyone’s spirits? Here’s our suggestion for a 2023 “In Like a Lion” Menu–
Peppers & Asparagus Salad
Braised Lamb Shanks
The Carrot-Ginger Soup comes from our earlier “Trio of Winter Soups” essay and makes a perfect starter course for a dinner party like this– something to warm everyone up without filling them up. Take care to pre-heat the soup cups, and hold the soup at a nice hot serving temperature in a double boiler before serving.
The Peppers & Asparagus Salad covers nicely for the dearth of veggies in the main course. Roasting a three-pack of peppers (red, yellow, and orange) will provide a topping that gives the plate a nice burst of color commensurate with their bright flavor, and the asparagus hints nicely of Spring. Oil the peppers and roast them at 400ºF in a Pyrex dish until they scorch a little and start to wilt. Allow to cool, then peel and de-seed, reserving as much as possible the wonderful juices. Cut the pieces into pencil-thin strips for the salad and put them in a container with extra-virgin olive oil, a dash of good vinegar (sherry or balsamic), and the juice I had you save.
Asparagus needs to be blanched for this salad. First, cut off about a third of their length from the bottom and compost. For particularly thick asparagus I like to also peel a pair of stripes down their sides. To blanch, dunk the spears into furiously boiling salted water for 10-20 seconds (depending on thickness) and then quickly drain and plunge into cold water to arrest further cooking and keep them nice and crunchy. With so much done ahead of time, assembling the salad is easy– just drop a small tong-ful of cleaned and dried mixed greens on each salad plate, add a few spears of asparagus, and then top with the pepper strips, allowing their luscious liquid to drizzle over and thereby dress the greens and asparagus.
Nothing says “Springtime” like lamb, right?
Like the aforementioned soup and salad, Braised Lamb Shanks can be mostly made ahead of time. Numerous recipes are easily available online, starting HERE for one trusted site with ten of them; this one is pretty close to what I do, including the temperature– 325º, not 350º. Some recipes are almost identical to (northern Italian) Osso Buco, others show considerable French influence, and quite a few include flavors and seasonings from North Africa and the Middle East. What they all have in common is a nice and dark exterior browning followed by a 3+ hour braise (a gentle simmer with liquid and flavorings) in an enclosed braising pot or Dutch oven. Some versions are served over polenta (see photo) or mashed potatoes, while others incorporate beans as their starch. Rice works just fine as well.
My personal favorite take on lamb shanks, particularly at this point in the calendar, marries flavors we associate with sultry sunniness– black olives, ruby tomatoes, fresh herbs, and lemon zest– to the cooking method (braising) that I most fondly associate with winter, a process that not only warms a chilly house but also fills it with intoxicating aromas. This version comes pretty close to that AND provides a creative suggestion for utilizing the leftovers.
Whichever recipe one uses, Lamb Shanks work well for a group because they can be cooked well ahead of time and hover at or near the point of perfection until you are ready to plate them. And because of the moist cooking process, they re-heat nicely if necessary and also hold their heat at the table while you pour wine and your assembled guests take turns warbling odes of astonishment and admiration for your culinary brilliance.
* * * * * * *
I like to use a generous amount of red wine in my braises because it adds so much flavor during a long, slow simmer. And, through trial and error, I’ve gotten picky about the wines I use. I recommend avoiding super-cheap wines that you wouldn’t actually drink, as well as wines that are excessively fruity, tannic, or woody. In other words, it’s hard to go wrong with a ten-dollar French or Italian red.
And speaking of wine– any lamb dish naturally calls out for a red, but there is a big difference between a red that’s perfect with your manly-man grilled ribeye and something that pairs nicely with the gentle and subtle flavors that slowly materialize in your braising pot. American reds– even from relatively cool Washington State– seem to get more powerfully flavored and accordingly more steak-specific with every vintage, and thus correspondingly less compatible with the rest of one’s culinary repertoire. And so for this Braised Lamb Shank dish I recommend turning to Northern Italy (in particular the Veneto region, the source of Valpolicella Ripasso) or Southern France’s Languedoc region, the home of Minervois. Neighboring Côtes-du-Rhônes and most any other Rhône reds will also work perfectly well.
Whether or not your recipe of choice calls for it, I recommend including at least a smidgen of demi-glace in your braising liquid and/or the final sauce you craft from it in order to achieve over-the-top delicious richness. Regular veal demi-glace works just fine; HERE is a link for purchasing lamb-specific demi-glace.
Braising in general and this dish in particular are definitely worth mastering, for a number of reasons. Most importantly, this is perhaps the best way for a home cook to impress six or more guests with a darn near foolproof entree that is better than any version a restaurant would ever serve. If you need a confidence-builder, I recommend practicing a few times on the “Red Wine Pot Roast” recipe I included in an earlier recipe titled FIVE EASY PIECES.
I didn’t propose a dessert for this menu because hardly anyone eats dessert anymore, except maybe at Thanksgiving. Braised dishes like this lamb shank tend to be filling, and even people who actually do eat sweets often eschew anything containing flour. AND… it’s also Lent. An elegant workaround to all of the above is dessert wine– a post-dinner toast with little glasses of a sweet sipper such as (French) Sauternes or Canadian Ice Wine, perhaps paired with a wee dab of Roquefort. Another intriguing choice would be Moscato d’Asti, a sweet, low-alcohol (5.5%) and slightly fizzy gem from Piemonte, the same Italian region that produces Barolo and Barbaresco. My personal choice– especially if I want to come off as a cosmopolitan sophisticate rather than a truck driver, would be Tuscan Vin Santo, served, as per tradition, with assorted (and outsourced) biscotti. All of this, of course, before my usual chocolate truffles and dark roast coffee. And maybe a splash of Cognac.
And finally, in case the expression “In Like a Lion” is lost on the youthful among us… it used to be said (way before climate change awareness) that the month of March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, referring to the potentially harsh winter-like weather on one end and the Springtime warmth on the other. Pro-Tip: Where I come from, we still don't put our snow shovels and winter boots into long-term storage until we can smell the lilacs.