My parents have a plum tree and this year’s crop was crazy. Like, plums out the ears. Every time we go out there, Greta picks 4 or 5 and eats them as she runs around the yard, leaving the pits strewn across the patio, swing set, garden etc.. Because the tree had so many, they didn’t get very big, but have been super sweet. It’s turning cold fast here in Idaho, so I knew my chances for cooking with plums in their season were diminishing. This dish came to me as I was standing in the meat isle with plums on my mind. I wanted something that would be both warm and comforting to combat the recent drop in temperature, but also celebrate our last crop of plums. Behold, the beef shank.
Beef shanks are inherently tough, but they also have marbling. This makes the beef shank prime for slow-cooking methods like braising. Braising is essentially what a crockpot tries to mimic, and it was the first cooking technique I learned in my first culinary class. It’s so easy and just that little extra bit of effort goes a long way. First, make sure you have the right cookware. It needs to be stovetop safe, oven safe, and have a lid. I use this one and I loooooooooove it. Can’t say enough how much I love it. Anyway, moving on.
Here’s what you need:
• 2 beef shanks
• 10-15 pearl onions, trimmed and crusty layers removed
• 10-15 small plums (5-6 medium), washed, cut in half and pits removed
• 2 large garlic cloves, smashed
• 1 1/2 cups beef stock
• 1 cup vegetable stock
• 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
• 1 tsp fennel seed
• 1 tsp granulated garlic
• 1 tsp cinnamon
• 2 pinches ground clove
• salt and pepper
• Cooking Olive oil
For braising, remember this sequence: sear, saute, simmer, cover, bake. What does that even mean? Here we go.
First, preheat oven to 300.
Step 1 – Sear. In my opinion, what sets a braise apart is the sear on the meat. Traditionally you dredge the meat in seasoned flour first, then sear it. The flour creates a roux, which slowly and marvelously thickens your cooking juices as they reduce. But you don’t have to dredge first – in fact, I didn’t for this and it turned out awesome. So to sear, put your oven-safe cooking vessel on medium heat on your stove top. Salt and pepper the meat, and once the pan is hot, add a little olive oil (1-2 tablespoons, maybe) and immediately add the meat. To get a good sear, you need the pan to be pretty hot, but because I cook with olive oil, even though it’s light olive oil, it has a lower smoke point than vegetable or canola oil. So you need to have your meat ready as soon as you put the oil in. The meat will cool everything down enough to keep your oil from burning and you’ll get a great sear. So if you’re gonna dredge your shanks in flour, do that step before adding the oil so you’re, say it with me, “ready to add the meat immediately.” Very good. Sear both sides of the meat until nice and brown. You’re not cooking the meat through, just searing the outsides.
Step 2 – Sauté. Once the meat is seared, remove it from the pot and put it aside on a plate. Add your onions and spices (fennel, granulated garlic, cinnamon, glove) and sauté for about 1 minute. Then add your smashed garlic cloves and sauté for another minute. Then add the plums and sauté for another minute.
Step 3 – Simmer. Add the meat back into the pan (just on top of the onions and plums) and pour any juices that may have escaped onto the plate into the pot. Add your stock and vinegar and bring that to a simmer.
Step 4/5 – Cover and Bake. The headline of these steps is pretty self-explanatory. Put your lid on and then slide your pan into the 300 degree oven. Let that go for 3 hours. Voila.
It’s important to understand the difference between tender and mushy. The problem with crockpots is they run all day long. While that definitely breaks the meat apart, it can also lead to a mushy end product. That said, the convenience of the crockpot can’t be denied so use one if you feel it makes more sense for you. But if you can swing it, I really encourage you to try a straight up braise with this dish instead. After 3 hours, you’ll have tender beef that still has texture, is packed with flavor, and warms you from the inside out.
Is fall rapidly approaching for anyone else? We’re gonna be in the 50’s the rest of this week, so plan on more comforting recipes. I’m still trying to keep them healthy for my little experiment, so hopefully we’ll find some awesome Fall meals we don’t have to feel guilty about eating. Cheers, all.