The other day, out on a walk, Alex remarked that it felt like spring. It was late afternoon, and the temperature was still in the high fifties, and when he said it, for a moment my whole perspective changed. I was caught up suddenly in that excitement that comes when the weather turns, when a long sleeve shirt and a hat but no mittens feels like freedom and you can see summer on the way. I held onto it for a minute and then it left as soon as it had arrived. Something stayed on, though—an awareness and an appreciation of the way we are now—folding in, quieting down, savoring home.
Home is a nice place to be right now. The Christmas tree is up and covered with ornaments and cranberries and lights down to about three feet, just above Nora's reach. At fifteen months, she is difficult to take anywhere property or quiet are held sacred, which once I am out I realize is just about anywhere indoors. But in the sanctity of our living room and Sally's company, every day brings a parade of new words and joint ballet performances and babydoll tending that requires less and less parental tending. And on the days when they are both in "school", I am actually getting things done at a desk, albeit slowly.
In the meantime, we have been eating some fairly terrific things. We made the eggnog, and last Monday when we were feeling down and out for no good reason two friends came over and we drained a fairly serious amount from the pot and passed it around until good cheer was restored. We had beef stew at a friend's house with lots of other friends, and several arugula-pomegranate-avocado salads with greens from our garden that have had just enough cold and warm to keep them going. We've been feeding our vinegar mother red wine fairly regularly for a few months, and I've been pleased to discover that it makes a killer salad dressing. We subsisted on leftover turkey for no small amount of time, a situation I am already slightly nostalgic for as it made every meal both delicious and easy. And last but not least, Saturday night we made not just lobster but also braised lamb shanks.
The lobster is nothing that needs describing (steamed, cracked, devoured with butter), but the lamb shanks are worth a recipe. I'd made a similar dish once before—something from Darina Allen, I think—but I'd forgotten how magic the meat is, stewed down with tomatoes and broth until it melts on your plate. This time I used the version from the Joy of Cooking, laced with middle eastern and Mediterranean spices and bursting with flavor. Casey was here, our sitter from the summer, and she'd never had lamb and was slightly skeptical. But this won her over, and Nora, and even Sally, who refused to eat it for a solid ten minutes ("Bread and jam, Mama"—some days I think I'm raising Francis) before finally digging in and declaring it "good." So here you are: a stew for staying in, for early evenings at home, for both health and merriment.
BRAISED LAMB SHANKS
Every year or two, we buy a lamb from Border Bay Junction Farm in Barnstable. The meat is excellent, and the shanks almost always go first—they are simple, flavorful, and incredibly satisfying.
2 large lamb shanks
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger, divided
1 and 1/2 teaspoons sweet paprika, divided
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, halved and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons minced garlic (about 3 cloves)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
pinch of cinnamon
2 cups lamb or chicken stock or water
1 cup dry white wine
1/3 cup tomato puree
2 cups diced carrots
2 cups diced, peeled butternut squash
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Season the lamb generously with salt and pepper and rub with 1/2 teaspoon of the ground ginger and 1/2 teaspoon of the paprika. Heat up the olive oil in a large heavy bottomed pot over high heat. Add the shanks and cook until browned, about five minutes, turning halfway through. Remove the lamb shanks from the pan and set aside.
Turn the heat down to medium and add the onions and garlic. Cook, stirring often, until the onions are tender. Add the spices: the mint, 1 teaspoon paprika, and the coriander, cumin, and cinnamon. Stir well to coat and add the stock or water, the white wine, and the tomato puree. Increase the heat and bring to a boil. Return the lamb shanks to the pan, cover, and bake until the meat is almost falling off the bone. This should take 1 to 1 and 1/2 hours. Now stir in the carrots and squash, cover again, and bake until the veggies are tender, roughly another 20-30 minutes. Pull the lamb from the bones (if the shanks are ready, this should be very easy to accomplish with just a fork), cut it up, and return it to the stew. Serve hot.