A Kind of Cassoulet: Lamb Shanks with Cannellini

Luscious leftovers in a lamb shanks and bean dish.

Luscious leftovers in a lamb shanks and bean dish.

Lamb is a luxury food around here. We served braised lamb shanks for a company dinner and actually ended up with leftovers–little bits of stray meat mostly, and some of the braising liquid. Shanks, which consist of a hunk of bone with some meat stuck on it, ought to be considered spare parts. Since they cook into tender, unctuous, and terribly flavorful, rich nuggets, they taste like more than the sum of their parts.

I cooked the shanks according to directions in Julia Child’s The Way to Cook, and the first thing I noticed is that I had to treat the lamb like it was white meat: chicken stock and white wine for the liquid. There were lots of onions, some garlic, rosemary, all the usual suspects. I used a roasting pan with a lid and cooked it three hours, or until the lamb was so tender that the bones slid right out, and the rich marrow in them slipped free.

I ended up serving it on a bed of polenta. Lots of shank recipes make it clear that one can add lentils or beans to the pot of shanks for a cassoulet sort of dish. So that is what I did with the leftovers.

The cannellini beans I grow for drying are called Silver Cloud, and the crop last summer was plentiful. Beans are easy to use, especially when you remember to soak them overnight or have recourse to a pressure cooker (which, I know, scares some people). They soak up rich juices in a dish like this, and make the lamb go a lot farther in the servings department while maintaining nutrition, in case you care about that.

Silver Cloud beans, soaked and ready for cooking,  living up to their name.

Silver Cloud beans, soaked and ready for cooking, living up to their name.

Because the flavors develop over time, this dish is ideal for cooking ahead and reheating later. That means you can get it ready when you have time for the long cooking it needs, but reheat it for a fast meal. Plan on one shank per person, and definitely degrease the juices. I was making several shanks, and rather than brown them in my Dutch oven, I put them in a roasting pan and roasted them at 425 degrees for about fifteen minutes. If you do just three or four, don’t bother with the oven step.

Lamb Shanks with Cannellini

4 lamb shanks

Olive oil

2 medium onions, sliced

2 cloves garlic, mashed



2 to 3 cups chicken broth

1 cup dry vermouth

2 cups canned tomatoes

2 cups white or cannellini beans, cooked

1 bay leaf

Salt and pepper

Brown the shanks in a heavy pot with a little olive oil in the bottom, turning to brown them on all sides. Add the onions, garlic, rosemary, thyme, and the chicken broth. Cover the pot, and maintain the heat at simmer for an hour-and-a-half, or until the lamb feels tender when poked with a fork and the bone is loosened. At this point you can refrigerate the lamb for another day. Pour off the liquid and allow the grease to rise, then spoon it off or use a degreasing pitcher. Add the degreased juices back to the lamb.

When you are ready to finish the dish, add the vermouth, tomatoes, bay leaf, and beans, salt and pepper to taste. Cover and simmer another hour. Taste, adjust seasonings.

Makes four to six servings.

Sandy Oliver

About Sandy Oliver

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working Waterfront. Besides freelance food writing, she is a pioneering food historian beginning her work in 1971 at Mystic Seaport Museum, where she developed a fireplace cooking program in an 1830s house. After moving to Maine in 1988, Sandy wrote, Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Foods at Sea and Ashore in the 19th Century published in 1995. She is the author of The Food of Colonial and Federal America published in fall of 2005, and Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie which she co-authored with Kathleen Curtin. She often speaks to historical organizations and food professional groups around the country, organizes historical dinners, and conducts classes and workshops in food history and in sustainable gardening and cooking. Sandy lives on Islesboro, an island in Penobscot where she gardens, preserves, cooks and teaches sustainable lifeways.