- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A few weeks ago at a French bistro, my husband and I and a couple of friends all eyed a delicious beef stew listed on the menu. It was by far the heartiest and least sophisticated offering, but it sounded perfect for a cold, damp evening. Much to our chagrin, the kitchen had run out of this tempting dish.

One of our friends could not hide his disappointment, blurting out: “But why didn’t you plan better? This is winter, when we need food that sticks to our bones.”

When the thermometer plunges, nothing is more comforting than a robust dish, especially a stew that has been braised or slowly simmered. After our bistro experience, I pored over cookbooks in search of a rich, satisfying dish to make for a weekend dinner. I found inspiration in one of my favorite Silver Palate recipes for chicken Marbella and from Paula Wolfert’s “Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco” (Harper Collins).

In the chicken Marbella recipe, there is a fine balance of tart and sweet provided by wine and dried fruits. In Moroccan cooking, as explained in Miss Wolfert’s book, stew-type dishes of meat or poultry are often cooked with dried fruits, such as raisins, and countered with the sharp flavor of preserved lemons.

Inspired by these ideas, I created lamb shanks with dates and olives. I browned the meat, then sprinkled it with cumin, coarse salt and pepper. Bay leaves, dried thyme, capers and olives provided robust seasoning, while brown sugar and plump dates offered sweet notes, and wine and vinegar a bit of tartness.

After two hours of almost completely unattended oven cooking, the lamb was fork-tender. I also served couscous scented with saffron, and I tossed together a simple green salad. Dessert included tarts.

Lamb shanks with dates and olives

The lamb can be prepared 2 days ahead. Cool, cover it with foil and lid, and refrigerate. Reheat, covered with foil and lid, in 375-degree oven until hot, about 25 minutes.

2 tablespoons olive oil

3½ to 4 pounds lamb shanks (see note)

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper

2 teaspoons dried thyme

3 bay leaves, broken in half

2 sprigs plus 3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

½ cup green Mediterranean olives, pitted or unpitted

1/3 cup capers with a little of the juice

1 cup dry red wine

1/3 cup red wine vinegar

1/3 cup light brown sugar

12 large Medjool dates, unpitted

1/4 teaspoon harissa or two pinches hot red pepper flakes (see note)

Water

Heat oil in a large nonreactive, deep-sided pot with a lid, set over medium-high heat. When hot, add lamb shanks and brown on all sides, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove pot from heat.

In a small bowl, mix together cumin, salt, pepper and thyme, then sprinkle this mixture over browned lamb. Add bay leaves, 2 parsley sprigs, olives and capers to pot.

Pour wine and vinegar over lamb, then sprinkle brown sugar over the mixture. Cover pan tightly with a double thickness of aluminum foil, then with the lid.

Bake on center rack of preheated 375-degree oven for 45 minutes, then remove pot from oven and turn meat. Add dates; cover pan again with foil and lid, and continue to cook until meat is fork-tender, about 50 to 60 minutes more. Remove pan from oven and uncover it. Stir in harissa or red pepper flakes and ½ cup water.

To serve, arrange lamb shanks over couscous mounded in a serving bowl or on a platter. Ladle sauce with dates and olives over lamb, then sprinkle with chopped parsley.

With a sharp knife, slice lamb shanks before serving. You can also serve lamb individually by cutting lamb from shanks first.

Mound some couscous in four shallow bowls and arrange meat on top, then ladle sauce over and sprinkle with parsley. Be sure to let everyone know there are pits in the dates and in the olives, if you used unpitted ones. Makes 4 servings.

Note: I have bought large lamb shanks (a pound or more each) and also smaller shanks (12 to 14 ounces each). Either way is fine as long as you have 3½ to 4 pounds of meat. The cooking time is the same for both.

Harissa, a paste of hot pureed peppers and spices used in Moroccan and North African cooking, is sold in tubes in specialty food stores. If you can’t find it, substitute hot red pepper flakes.

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