Lamb Shanks Braised with Moroccan Spices on Parsnip Couscous with Harissa

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In January 1995 two friends, Piers Thompson and Tanya Backhouse, got married. For the wedding dinner they requested that I cook this dish, as it was over this particular meal that Piers proposed to Tanya at a Mayfair club where I was then chef. So, in a tent in the grounds of Winchester College, in the middle of winter, I and three chef friends prepared the following recipe for 330 people. Stored in the fridge, the roast spices are useful for all sorts of things – from flavouring bread doughs or adding to roast chicken pieces to mixing into pasta with spinach and feta or adding to soups. The harissa is merely one of hundreds of variations, the simplest being puréed chillies, salt and vinegar. It too is versatile and can be stored in the fridge for up to two weeks.

Ingredients

  • 6 lamb shanks
  • 4 tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 4 tablespoons cumin seeds
  • 4 tablespoons fennel seeds
  • 6 whole star anise
  • 4 cinnamon sticks
  • 3 carrots, peeled and cut into 1cm (⅓in) dice
  • 2 parsnips, peeled and cut into 1cm (⅓in) dices
  • 6 small red onions, peeled and quartered
  • 3 hot red chillies, sliced
  • 150ml (5 fl oz) cooking oil
  • 3 juicy lemons, cut into 5mm (⅕ in) dice
  • 1 litre ( pints) chopped peeled plum tomatoes (tinned can be used)
  • 3 teaspoons dried mint
  • 1 cup unpitted olives – both green and black are fine
  • ½ cup tamarind paste
  • 100ml ( fl oz) Asian fish sauce
  • 50ml ( fl oz) tamari

Couscous

  • 500g (18 oz) couscous
  • 3 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into 1cm (⅓in) dice
  • Salt
  • 1 cup fresh coriander leaves
  • 2 lemons — grate the zest, then juice
  • 100ml ( fl oz) extra virgin olive oil

Harissa

  • Roast spices (see recipe)
  • 4 red peppers
  • 3 tablespoons dried mint
  • 6 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 3 red chillies, stems removed and cut in halves
  • 3 limes – grate the zest and then juice
  • 200ml (7fl oz) extra virgin olive oil
  • teaspoons sea salt

Method

You can either cook the shanks in a heavy saucepan on top of the stove or braise them in the oven. If the latter, you’ll need a braising dish that is deeper than the shanks to ensure they are covered with liquid as they cook. With the first method you’ll need to roast them first anyway, so start by preheating the oven to 220°C/425°F/Gas 7. Put the shanks in a braising dish and roast for 40 minutes, turning over halfway through. (Save time by roasting the peppers for the harissa now – see the recipe in the next paragraph.) While they are browning, put the seeds, star anise and cinnamon on a baking tray and roast in the oven to a deep brown, taking care not to burn them. Remove from the oven and cool, then grind finely in a spice grinder, reserving half for the harissa.

Make the harissa while the lamb shanks are browning (or prepare it in advance). Add the peppers to the lamb pan and cook for 40 minutes, turning over halfway through. Remove from the oven and place in a plastic bag to cool. When cool, peel and remove the seeds. Put the flesh in a food processer and add the remaining ingredients, purée to a paste and it’s ready.

Sauté the vegetables and chilli in the cooking oil until they soften and go slightly golden, then add the lemon dice and sauté for a further minute. Now add the tomato, roast spices, dried mint, olives, tamarind, fish sauce and tamari and bring to a gentle boil. Turn off and wait until the lamb shanks are ready.

When the lamb is ready drain off any fat in the roasting dish, then pour the tomato mixture on top and add enough warm water to come three-quarters of the way up the shanks. Seal the dish with foil and return to the oven for 2 hours, turning it down to 190°C/375°F/ Gas 5. After 1½ hours check that the liquid hasn’t reduced too much; if it has, top it up with hot water. While the meat is cooking make the couscous.

Make the parsnip couscous 1 hour before eating. I use the couscous that most supermarkets and delis stock – it’s precooked and just needs soaking. Soak in cold water and place the covered bowl in a warm place as this gives a much lighter and fluffier result than adding hot water from the start. Put the parsnips in a pot and cover with cold water. Add a teaspoon of salt and boil until cooked, then leave to cool for 5 minutes. Mix the coriander and lemon juice and zest with the oil. Put the couscous into a heatproof bowl, pour on the parsnips and their liquid and mix well. Add the oil and lemon mixture and mix again, then add enough cold water to cover it all by 5mm (⅕in). Mix well again, cover with clingfilm and stand in a warm place for at least 45 minutes.

Serve the shanks on top of a mound of couscous with lots of the tomato stew and have the harissa in a separate bowl so people can add as much as they want.