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Recipe: Luscious Lamb Shanks

An unexpected lentil side dish brightens lamb at one of Idaho's most popular restaurants. Here's how to re-create this recipe at home.

Lamb shanks with a bowl of lentil ragoût from Boise's Cottonwood Grille, image
Photo caption
A bowl of lentil ragoût brightens gravy-rich lamb shanks at Cottonwood Grille in Boise, Idaho.

Lamb Shanks with Lentil Ragoût
From the Cottonwood Grille, Boise, Idaho

Set beside the Boise River Greenbelt, the convivial Cottonwood Grille (913 W. River St., 208-333-9800, ages its prime beef on-site and prominently features on its menu local lamb, elk, and buffalo.

This is meat and potatoes country, after all, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that one dish—slow-cooked lamb shank with mashed potatoes—never leaves the menu. The restaurant opened 11 years ago, coddling diners with clubby leather booths, striking alder paneling, and a massive quarried-sandstone fireplace. Its perennial entrée, which showcases fork-tender lamb raised mostly on small farms in Idaho, remains quite popular, says executive chef Jesús Alcelay.

The Idaho mashed potatoes served with the red-wine-and-rosemary-laced lamb are a relatively recent addition, however—a replacement for a rich lentil ragoût initially offered. But state pride being what it is, more diners ordered their lamb shank atop buttery potatoes, and the menu changed. Still, Alcelay believes more people would request the ragoût—he keeps it available—if they knew how good it is. He simmers the legumes with bacon, garlic, thyme, and bay leaf until they’re tender, adding a chopped Idaho potato for body.

The whole dish is an ideal make-at-home meal because once the shanks, vegetables, and aromatics go into a big pot in the oven, it cooks on its own—no need to hover. And the accompanying lentil ragoût is a hearty, stress-free cinch.

Lamb Shanks with Lentil Ragoût
Serves 4

Adapted with permission from Jesús Alcelay, the Cottonwood Grille

4 lamb shanks (¾ to 1 pound each)
4 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ cup plus 4 tablespoons flour, divided
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 celery rib, chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
2 sprigs fresh thyme or ½ teaspoon dried thyme
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary or 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
3 tablespoons tomato paste
3 cups dry red wine such as cabernet sauvignon
3 cups chicken stock

¼ cup chopped uncooked bacon
4 cloves garlic, chopped
½ large yellow onion, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 celery rib, chopped
2 cups lentils, picked over, then soaked in water for 15 minutes and drained
4 cups chicken stock or water
2 bay leaves
1 sprig fresh thyme or ½ teaspoon dried thyme
1 Idaho russet potato, peeled and diced
Salt and pepper, about ½ teaspoon each

1. Preheat oven to 350°F.

2. To cook the lamb shanks: Season the lamb shanks with salt and pepper, then dust them lightly with flour, shaking off the excess.

3. In a large Dutch oven on the stovetop, on medium-high heat, add 2 tablespoons of the vegetable oil, then half of the lamb shanks, browning on all sides until well seared, about 10 minutes. Remove the seared shanks to a large plate; add the remaining 2 tablespoons vegetable oil and the remaining shanks, browning on all sides. Set these seared shanks aside with the others.

4. Discard all but 2 tablespoons of oil from the pan, then add the diced onion, carrot, celery, garlic cloves, thyme, and rosemary, cooking on medium heat until the vegetables soften and caramelize, about 10 minutes.

5. Stir in the tomato paste and 4 tablespoons flour, then pour in the wine and chicken stock. Return the lamb shanks to the pot and bring to a boil. Adjust the seasonings. Turn off the burner, cover the pot, and transfer it to the preheated oven. Cook for about 2 ½ hours, or until the lamb is tender when tested with a fork.

6. To make the lentil ragoût: In a medium-size pot on medium heat, sauté the chopped bacon until it is crisp. To the hot bacon and fat in the pot, add the garlic, onion, carrot, and celery. Cook until the vegetables soften, about 10 minutes. Add the lentils and chicken stock or water. Cover the pot, turn down the heat, and simmer for about 45 minutes. Add the diced potato, then cook the ragoût about 30 minutes more. Season with salt and pepper to taste, about ½ teaspoon each. To serve, divide the ragoût among four plates and place a lamb shank on each portion. Pour the lamb sauce through a strainer into a bowl. Spoon some of the sauce over each shank.

Photograph by Joshua Roper

This article was first published in April 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.