After the other day’s post on matching red wine and fish, I got to thinking about its opposite, matching white wine and meat. It can be done, although I rarely end up doing it. Not because I’m anti-, but because the foods that are often paired with whites — mild sausages and other Germanic-style pork dishes, chicken in creamy sauces — don’t top my list of favorite meals. I am, however, a big fan of cooking meat with white wine. Its acidity and freshness nicely balances the richness of the meat, particularly in slow-cooked beef and lamb dishes, and opens up new pairing possibilities.
Case in point: these lamb shanks I whipped up over the weekend. Lamb is my favorite red meat, but even I find lamb shanks off-putting if not prepared in a way that offsets their gamey tendencies. I remembered a straightforward lamb recipe I had seen in one of my favorite cookbooks these days, The New Spanish Table, by Anya von Bremzen, that featured white wine — and damned if it didn’t work just perfectly. The white wine really mitigated the richness of what is an undeniably fatty cut of meat, and the dish came out a beautiful tawny color, a nice change of pace from the murky reddish brown that comes from cooking red meat in red wine. It’s also simple, the kind of thing you can put in the oven and check up on every so often while, say, trying to recover from a cold and catching up on your DVR queue.
A few words on matching before I give you the recipe. (Somewhat theoretically: I was sick when I cooked this and don’t drink when I’m feeling under the weather, so ended up matching this with tap water.) The rule of thumb is to drink whatever you’re cooking with. I find this impractical, as I’m usually cooking with odds and ends of 3/4-finished bottles that happen to be hanging out in my fridge. In this case, I used the last of a bottle of Alsatian Pinot Blanc I had sampled earlier in the week. Pinot Blanc is a pretty neutral grape and the wine worked well in the recipe, but as a drinking partner, it would have been totally overwhelmed by the lamb. However, the robust tanginess of this dish makes it a potentially good partner for a fuller-bodied white that could stand up to the meat. An Oregon Pinot Gris (I love Torii Mor) definitely has potential as an unconventional match. In fact, I offered this wine at Thanksgiving a few years ago as an option for non-red drinkers and it worked wonderfully with roast turkey and my mom’s sherry-infused sausage stuffing. If you just can’t wrap your head around red meat with white wine, no problem. I’d keep it local and try a Rioja.
Here’s the recipe as it appears in the book (with my notes in parentheses and italicized) — I easily halved it as I was just cooking for me and Paul.
4 large lamb shanks
1 onion, cut in half, each half cut into 4-5 wedges
2 small carrots, cut into chunks
5 small heads of garlic, 4 heads with outer layer of skin removed, 1 head separated into cloves, each clove peeled and lightly smashed (this is a lot of garlic — take her advice on “small.” I used tiny heads of garlic from the Greenmarket, if you’re working with regular supermarket garlic, opt for 2-3 heads instead.)
1 large rosemary sprig (eagle eye readers will be able to spot that I used some thyme, too — I already had some in the fridge, why not?)
3/4 cup dry white wine (whatever you have in the fridge is fine, as long as you enjoyed drinking it)
About 1 1/2 c. chicken stock or broth
1. Preheat the oven to 475 F.
2. Rub the lamb with salt and pepper. Choose a heavy, deep, flameproof baking dish that can hold the lamb and vegetables in one snug layer. Scatter the onions, carrots, and smashed garlic cloves on the bottom of the dish, season them with salt and pepper, and toss with some olive oil. Brush the lamb shanks all over with olive oil and place them on top of the vegetables. tuck the heads of garlic and the rosemary sprig (and thyme) between the shanks and brush with olive oil. (Not sure why this last brushing is necessary, but I did it anyway.)
3. Bake the shanks, uncovered, turning once, until the meat and vegetables are nicely browned, about 45 min. Check after 25 min, and if the vegetables in the bottom of the dish are beginning to burn (mine weren’t), add a little water and reduce the temp to 425 F.
4. After 45 min, add the wine to the baking dish and enough chicken stock to come about halfway up the meat. Cover the baking dish tightly with its lid or a double layer of aluminum foil if it doesn’t have one and reduce the oven temp to 325 F. Bake until the shanks are very tender and the meat begins to pull away from the bone, about 2 hours. Turn the shanks once or twice as they bake and add more stock, if necessary, to maintain the level of liquid.
5. Transfer the lamb, vegetables and garlic heads to a serving platter. Skim the fat off the pan juices, then transfer the juices to a sauceboat or a small pitcher. If you’d like the sauce to be thicker, place the baking dish over medium-high heat and cook until the sauce is reduced to the desired consistency. (I like a thinner sauce so skipped this step.)