Aarón Sánchez may have a number of distinctive tattoos and may occasionally indulge in a new-found love of motorcycles, but the Mexican American chef is anything but shy when it comes to putting his heart on display through food. And in no dish is his love – for food, family and good company – more evident than in this recipe for roasted lamb shanks.
“Flavor is how you make the most lasting impression,” writes Sánchez of his lamb shank recipe in his 2012 cookbook, “Simple Food, Big Flavor.” As for the appeal of serving lamb at the Valentine’s Day table, Sánchez assures home cooks that “your guests will never forget these.”
Lamb is a traditional staple in Latin America, thanks in part to British colonialists who brought sheep and the tradition of wool production with them. And in Mexico, where Sánchez ‘s famous mother, Zarela Martinez, is from, lamb is a type of crowd-pleasing protein that immediately signals it’s time to party, just like goat or roast leg of pork.
In this recipe however, Sánchez flips tradition in a way that’s modern and forward-thinking just like the chef himself. The lamb is oven-roasted slowly over aromatic avocado leaves and then basted with a piquant purée of tamarind and tomatillos, yielding tender meat infused with layers of savory flavor that’s absolutely ideal to serve to a table of guests this Valentine’s Day. And here’s a side note: we bet leftover lamb (if there’s any!) would be great served up in sandwiches the next day, giving the chef the well-earned gift of some time off from the kitchen.
Tamarind-tomatillo lamb shanks
From “Simple Food, Big Flavor” (Atria Books)
3 or 4 dried avocado leaves
4 lamb shanks (approximately 1 pound each)
2½ pounds fresh tomatillos
1 cup Tamarind-Pasilla Paste
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 bunches fresh cilantro, stems discarded and leaves chopped
3 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
12 corn tortillas, warmed, for serving
Julienned radish and finely chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 325°F.
Put the avocado leaves in a dry cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat and toast, turning them over frequently, until they’re fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Put the leaves in a Dutch oven.
Lay the lamb shanks over the avocado leaves. Sprinkle the shanks generously with salt (about 2 teaspoons) and cover the pot. Put it in the oven. Roast the lamb until it’s very tender and falling off the bone, 2½ to 3 hours.
While the lamb is roasting, husk and rinse the tomatillos and put them in a medium saucepan. Just cover them with cold water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until they’re tender, 10 to 12 minutes.
Drain the tomatillos and transfer them to a food processor or blender. Add the Tamarind-Pasilla Paste, olive oil, cilantro, garlic, and 1 teaspoon salt. Puree until the mixture is smooth.
When the lamb is fully cooked, transfer the shanks to a platter. Drain off and discard the fat left in the bottom of the Dutch oven and discard the avocado leaves.
Pour the tamarind-tomatillo puree into the Dutch oven and put it over medium-high heat on the stove top. Cook, stirring frequently and scraping the bottom with a wooden spoon to dislodge the tasty browned bits from the bottom, until the sauce starts to thicken, 10 to 15 minutes.
Remove the meat from the bone or leave the shanks intact. Put the meat back in the pot and cook it for another 5 minutes of so, basting to bring the flavors together.
Serve the meat and sauce with the tortillas. Garnish with the radish and cilantro.
Note: If you can’t find dried avocado leaves, you can get a vague approximation of their herbal, fennel-like flavor by roasting the lamb shanks with a few bay leaves and a sprinkle of slightly crushed anise or fennel seeds.
Aarón Sánchez for Simple Food, Big Flavor
Makes 3 cups
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 pasilla chiles, stemmed, seeded, and deveined
1 large white onion, quartered
10 whole garlic cloves, peeled
4 plum tomatoes, cored and halved lengthwise
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
1½ cups strained tamarind pulp
1. Bring 1 cup water to a boil in a small saucepan. Line a plate with paper towels.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat until it begins to dance. Add the pasillas and fry on both sides until they’re puffed up, about 15 seconds total. Transfer the chiles to the paper towels to drain. Put them in a small bowl, pour in the boiling water, and let them soak until they’re soft, about 15 minutes. Drain the chiles and reserve them and the soaking liquid separately
3. Discard the oil and wipe the skillet clean. Set it back over medium-high heat. In a large bowl, toss the onion, garlic, and tomatoes with the remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Season with salt and pepper, toss gently, and put them in the hot skillet. Cook about 7 minutes on each side, until they’re charred, with visible black spots. Transfer the vegetables to a clean bowl and let them cool to room temperature
4. Put the tamarind pulp, chiles, ½ cup of the soaking liquid, and the roasted vegetables in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth.
5. Store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week or in the freezer for up to a month.