This simple stew, made with lamb shank, barley, veggies and a big pile of onions, came about not by planning, but by circumstances.
As often happens when I shop with my 4-year-old daughter, Alicia, we arrived at our Seattle home with a pile of ingredients and no real plan. Recently, that pile contained lamb shanks and a five-pound bag of onions.
Lamb shanks are the best, and a bag of onions always reminds me of soupe à l’oignon, French onion soup, (a favorite of my wife, Adri), so it seemed logical to combine those ideas. And it’s something I learned from my longtime chef Jason Bond. In 2002 he was chef de cuisine at No. 9 Park in Boston, where he had me slowly stir onions over low heat until they were a deep, sticky brown. We deglazed them with red wine and roasted veal stock, then added seared beef ribs and cooked just under a gentle simmer until the meat was tender enough to slice with a spoon and the stock reduced to a rich, glossy sauce.
At home, Alicia and I started by preheating the oven, then seasoning the lamb shanks with salt and pepper and searing them in the bottom of a Dutch Oven. While the shanks were browning, I sliced the onions—and a few leeks from the fridge, too—while Alicia pounded the garlic in her mortar. (Crushing garlic has been her domain since she was strong enough to lift the pestle herself.)
When the lamb was seared, I set the shanks aside and added the onions and leeks (as well as some finely chopped carrots) to the pot while Alicia stirred. Her attention span doesn’t allow for an hour of slow stirring, so I had to deviate a bit from Jason’s technique.
That was okay. Despite what many recipes claim, onions don’t need to be cooked until they’re jam-like and sticky-sweet to make excellent soup. I’ve been making Jacques Pépin’s Lyonnaise-esque version for years, a recipe that requires just 20 minutes of cooking on the stove. Part of the secret is that once the stock is added, the soup is simmered, then transferred to crocks and baked uncovered in the oven, allowing the top layer of onion-rich stock to caramelize more deeply. As you eat it, those dark layers mix with the lighter broth underneath, adding sweetness and complexity to every bite.
We did the same with our stew: After just 20 minutes of sautéing, we added garlic and tomato paste to the onions (this adds body to the finished sauce), deglazed with red wine and stock (store-bought chicken stock, because I’m not crazy enough to make roast veal stock at home). We then nestled the lamb shanks back into the stock with a sprig of rosemary before placing the pan with the cracked lid in the oven.
After a few hours, I stirred in some pearled barley and spinach greens that were languishing in the fridge. (Alicia was gone by then, so she had nothing more to say about it.) Then I let it all continue to cook until the barley was done and the lamb was just tender enough to pull off the bone.
The finished stew, with its savory-sweet aroma and one-pot appeal, was such a hit with family and chefs that a week later we made a similar stew, with short ribs instead of lamb, then with kale instead of the spinach. . (In the name of science, I made this final batch with onions that I caramelize completely for an hour before deglazing. It was wonderfully sweet and aromatic; different, but no better.)
You could do the same, but if I may make a suggestion: when cooking a slow braise in the oven, make sure you leave the house for a 10 minute walk around the block so you can open the door and inhale the fragrance with a fresh nose.
Recipe: French lamb shanks stewed in onions with barley and vegetables