Brothers Stratis and Johnny Doukas prepare to leave Portland for Europe and the Pacific in 1944. Brother Phillip (not pictured) also served in World War II. Photo courtesy of Billy Doukas

“Lamb has long played a starring role on Greek dinner tables, especially at holiday time. The flavor is unique, complex, and comparatively rich. Many happy memories go back to the early 1960s when my Greek grandparents, maternal (Panagakos) and paternal (Doukas), would always have lamb at the center of their Easter extravaganzas.

“A close examination of well-worn recipes and photographs show traditions from decades ago that reveal important links in our family history and how Portland has served us well. And vice versa! 1944 to 1946 were busy years for all four grandparents who arrived back in the 1920s as teenagers from the towns of Gythio and Kotronas in Greece and became U.S. citizens. Within the Parkside neighborhood, my mother’s family (Panagakos) operated Bill’s Café on Longfellow Square, where they fed many Liberty class cargo shipbuilders and where braised lamb was a regular item on the menu.

“Easter dinner brought together family and friends on both sides and at times offered hope that those members fighting overseas in World War II would return home safely. And they did! Although our lamb recipes have gone through changes over the decades, our signature dishes still give us reason to gather and celebrate. Here’s one of our family favorites, along with my suggestions to complement your feast.” – BILLY DOUKAS, Portland (Doukas writes that he “began cooking as teen when his just-widowed mother tossed him the apron. Between 1980-90 Doukas and his mother co-owned operated Longfellow Café and The Trojan Horse Restaurant, renowned for authentic Greek and Mediterranean cuisine.”

Lamb is traditional for Greek families at Easter. Pictured here: Braised Lamb Shanks. Photo by Billy Doukas

GREEK BRAISED LAMB SHANKS

Braising is a long, slow, moist cooking that is perfect for lamb shank cuts that will break down the rich, delicate connective tissues and fats, creating a complex flavorful tender meat and sauce. Included are a few techniques to fit today’s palate and health outlook by reducing the fat content, as a little bit will go a long way, enriching the taste. Browning helps seal in the juices, while braising with the cooking liquid enhances the flavor. Where lamb and mint are typical combinations, this Greek recipe promotes a savory tomato and sweet base that works so well with the shank portion.

Lamb shanks usually cost less than a traditional leg cut but require a call ahead to your local butcher. This cut can be ordered locally at Great East Butcher Company and at On The Vine Marketplace.

Serves 4
Total time: 3 ½ hours

FOR THE SHANK AND SPICES:
4 lamb shanks, 1½ to 2 pounds each
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons salt (Kosher, Morton’s or Crystal Diamond)
2 teaspoons black pepper
2 teaspoons Aleppo pepper (red pepper flakes are a good substitute)
1/4 cup oregano
2 teaspoons Hungarian paprika
4 teaspoons ground coriander
4 teaspoons thyme
2 teaspoons ground rosemary

FOR THE SAUCE:
2 large sweet or yellow onions, chopped medium to fine
1/4 cup minced garlic
1/4 cup concentrated tomato paste (or one 4-ounce can)
2 apples, cored and cut into eighths
2 pears, cored and cut into eighths
1 lemon, quartered
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
8 bay leaves, break in half
1½ cups beef broth
1 (28-ounce can) chopped tomatoes
½ cup honey
2 cinnamon sticks

Rinse, pat dry, and trim all visible fat from the lamb and remove “silverskin,” which is the thin membrane between the fat and meat. To do this, make a cut all the way around the bone, halfway up, and slip a sharp knife underneath, angle it slightly up, and move back and forth. Evenly sprinkle salt, black and Aleppo pepper, oregano, paprika, coriander and thyme on all sides of the shanks.

Heat the olive oil in 2 large Dutch ovens, uncovered on the stove top, to medium heat. Place 2 shanks in each and turn every 2-3 minutes to brown on sides. Do not crowd the pieces. Remove the meat and set aside. (If only a single Dutch oven is available, take turns browning 2 shanks at a time, then place all 4 in a deep large pan.)

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees and set the oven rack to a lower middle position.

Combine onions and garlic with the drippings in the Dutch ovens, and stir for 3-4 minutes before reducing heat to low. Mix in tomato paste, fruit, salt, pepper and bay leaves, and cook for 5 minutes.

Add beef broth, tomatoes, honey and cinnamon sticks, mix gently, and heat for 5 minutes, then nestle lamb shanks into the mixture. Sprinkle ground rosemary on shanks and transfer uncovered Dutch oven(s) into pre-heated oven. Braise for a total of 2½ hours, turning the shanks over half way through. Cover for the final 45 minutes. Lamb should be tender, a fork easily slipping in and out of the meatiest portion.

Using tongs and large spoon, gently place tender lamb shanks on platter to rest for 15 minutes while topping with a few spoons of sauce and loosely tenting with aluminum foil.

To finish, transfer rest of sauce to bowl and discard lemon wedges, cinnamon sticks and bay leaves. Pour through a medium mesh strainer and then into a fat separator. Allow to set for 5 minutes and pour the defatted liquid into a blender, while discarding the liquid fat. Add the solids and process for 1 minute. Return lamb shanks to Dutch ovens, pour blended sauce around them, spooning some of the sauce over meat while the mixture simmers on stove top for 10 minutes. Serve each shank blanketed with a cup of sauce.

Suggestions and Pairings

Oven-roasted potatoes, drizzled with lemon; and a traditional Greek salad of fresh romaine, tomato, cucumber and green pepper topped with kalamata olives and feta cheese are two excellent accompaniments to braised lamb. Orzo, flavored with lemon and oil, and sauteed green beans are complementary sides dishes as well. The slightly bitter, flavor of cooked greens such as dandelion, mustard, or collard varieties, are also good choices and are usually available from local farms, adding soul and spirit to the feast.

This dish pairs well with bold and hearty red wines such as Xinomavro, Thymiopoulos from Greece offering dark fruit and black olive flavors, a sturdy and robust red from Bordeaux, or a medium-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon with a slight herbal flavor. For beers, a local Belgian Tripel, or a Pilsner, with a high citrus zest to complement the sauce, are very apropos.


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