Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Beef Shanks with Garlic and Fresh Thyme

I've always thought that the ritual of preparing, cooking and eating food is similar to the rituals I was taught as a young girl in the Episcopal church. I learned how to kneel, what words to whisper, how to let the unleavened cracker melt on my tongue, hands crossed just so, before sipping the wine. This was communion. And I performed it under the watchful eye of my Grandmother. Afterwards, we would go to the parish hall, joyful and renewed. My sister and I would eat cake and drink sugary juice while the grown-ups drank black coffee drained from the spigots of grand, silver urns. All the while knowing the lunch was back at home in the oven, waiting.

When I cook something like beef stew or braised shanks, I think of those Sunday afternoons and ritual.

Today I performed it in my kitchen. I put on my apron, gathered the few, delicious and perfect ingredients--garlic, fresh thyme picked on our walks through the Garrigue and organic beef stock--and let the meat rest outside the refrigerator to allow it to come to room temperature before salting and peppering each thick, meaty side. Clementine stayed close by, watching and waiting, hoping for a bit of goodness to come her way. 'Not now, sweet girl.' I said. 'Later, after the kids have spooned the rich marrow from the bone, you can have the rest.'

I browned the beautiful meaty rounds, marbled with slivers of white fat, on the stove in olive oil, two minutes on each side and then I removed them, crusted and darkened from the pan to wait while I sauteed wafers of garlic and tiny petals of thyme. Then I added the beef stock and scraped up all the goodness that was stuck on the bottom of the pan from the browning of the meat. P-Daddy came upstairs about then, drawn by the smell  of beef, garlic and thyme from his home office and joined Clementine. 'That smells so good! What is it? What are you doing now?!'

I shooed him away, along with the gurley and put the browned meat back into the pot with the rest. Three simple things; garlic, thyme and stock.
Then I laid some parchment paper right on top of the meat and covered the pot with foil before putting the lid on and putting the whole thing in a warm oven to cook.

After a few hours, the garlic will have gone all soft and sweet, the meat will fall apart with spoons and the bone marrow inside will be sticky and rich. We will fight over those later.

Now the house smells divine and I can enjoy the glorious smell while I sit in my little chair and type, forever trying to make the story better.

To me, the best meals evoke reverence. Eyes closed, appreciative murmurs, ritual played out again and again over dining tables of all shapes and sizes, indoors and out, season after season folding one into the next. People carry out this ritual in France every day. It’s not a stretch to say that to some, food is a religion.

I am enjoying my tiny piece of cake and cup of tea with joyful anticipation. I'm patient, knowing that a delicious dinner is in the oven, waiting.
Beef Shanks with Garlic and Fresh Thyme

2 or 3 beef shanks with bones
one head of garlic
a few sprigs of fresh thyme 
olive oil

Pre-heat your oven to 350F/180C.

Pat dry, salt and pepper your room temperature beef shanks.

Heat a small amount of olive oil in an oven-proof pan until quite hot.

Peel and slice half of the head of garlic.
Crush and peel the rest, leaving whole.
Remove two sprigs' worth of leaves from the thyme and leave the rest intact.

Brown the meat one piece at a time, 2-3 minutes per side in the warmed olive oil.

Remove to a plate and turn down the temperature before adding the sliced garlic and thyme leaves to the pan. You may need a tiny bit more olive oil here, you will be able to tell.

Scrape up any bits of meat stuck to the bottom and be careful not to let the garlic brown. 

Pour in the beef stock, preferably warmed, over the garlic and thyme and continue to scrape the bottom of the pan. Don't let any of the good meaty bits left there go to waste.

Return the browned meat to the pan. Add the peeled and smashed remaining cloves of garlic and sprigs of thyme. 
Cover all of it over, down low in the pot, with parchment or baking paper. Then add a layer of  foil at the top of the pan before putting on the lid if you have one. 

Put it in the oven and leave to cook for at least two hours. After that time, lower the temperature a bit more and leave it for even longer if you like.The longer it stays there, the more tender it will become.

Serve with mashed potatoes or potato gratin and green beans.


  1. I love this story. It is so familiar to me - I was just reminiscing the other day about that same Sunday morning ritual with my grandmother. I wish I had a roast in the oven now although I can almost smell yours here in Paris! Will definitely try your recipe. It sounds delicious.

  2. I miss her so much. I remember the hearty smell that filled hers and Aunt F's house so well too. And the communion always left my legs tingly!

  3. I can smell it from here. Sounds so yum. Do you think this dish could be somewhat prepared the night before?

  4. Absolutely Karen. You could get it to the point of oven ready and wait or even cook it overnight, real, real low. Or in a crock pot. I just don't have one with a French plug.It's great for a dinner party because of the make ahead.
    And you just might be able to smell it from there...the garlic is working its magic!
    How are the pox?
    Aidan xo

  5. All is back to normal here :) Now on to potty training. (All tips from you veteran mama's welcome!)
    After having a crock pot in Canada, I decided it wasn't worth having again. Slow and low in the oven sounds great. Thanks Aidan xo

    1. My only advice is (look away now people!) this: if she doesn't want to poop on the potty, turn her around facing the opposite direction and see if that works. it's something about needing to see it and say a proper poop goodbye.
      gross, i know. i told you to turn away!
      A xo

    2. Nice, thanks for the tip and super sorry for requesting for any potty training tips on your glorious beef recipe post! I am oblivious to boundaries.

  6. Well done...both food and story!

  7. With your description of the food and aromas that arise from the pot, I started salivating at the thought of the delicious meal that awaits you. I am not sure I have ever seen beef shanks at the butcher here in the US, do see veal shanks and lamb shanks all the time. I can only imagine how meating and tasty they are. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Michel,
      We were wondering about the availability of beef shanks in the States as we ate them last night. I'm sure the veal is expensive but maybe you could ask a good butcher for the beef ones?

  8. mmmm miam! Makes me hungry. Beautifully written, full of feeling. Perfect winter comfort food.

    1. Thanks Phoebe. It was just as good today in sandwich form...


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