A sumptuous menu on a shoestring budget
If you want a really lively and intimate meal with friends, you have to eat at home. It doesn't have to be intimidating or complicated. Simplicity and organization make a far more inviting match. Like "being yourself" on a first date, this approach will makes guests comfortable and encourage them to linger at the table long after the meal is done.
To entertain is to spend money -- you can pour a paycheck into a dinner if you're not careful -- so I tightened my belt and set a budget of $40. Then I jotted down a shopping list and headed to the market. We would be six, which included my fiancee, Marguerite Dalicandro. But I would do all the cooking myself -- I work in a restaurant kitchen several nights a week, and I find the kitchen at home relaxing in comparison.
I decided on lamb shanks because of their big Flintstonesque bones and all that meat. You can slip this thrifty cut into the oven to braise slowly for two hours. You don't have to worry about burning, and you have plenty of time to work on a fall salad for a first course and roasted pears for dessert.
Shanks are cut from the shin of the lamb. They're inexpensive because they're tough and they need moist cooking, which means that you can't roast them the way you would a leg of lamb. But the shanks are easy to handle, and they become very tender after a long stay in the oven. This technique, known as a braise, demands little attention beyond an occasional peek to make sure there's enough liquid in the pan.
To cook the lamb, I like to brown the meat along with some onions, carrots, and shallots, not on the stovetop -- the shanks are too cumbersome for this -- but in a very hot oven for about an hour. A mixture of tomato paste and soy sauce, rubbed onto the meat, helps the browning and adds a bright flavor that cuts through the lamb's richness. Then I add fresh rosemary sprigs, sherry, and chicken broth to the pan, cover it, and figure out what's next. I'm one of those people who won't leave the oven on while I go for a run. At moments like this, however, I'm tempted.
Like many stews and braises, the shanks benefit from being made a couple of days ahead, and you can discard the fat on the sauce once it's chilled. As for the taste of the meat, its flavors intensify as it sits. The meal begins with a salad of frisee lettuce, which is a tight but full head of thin green leaves that look as if they've been teased for a trip to the mall. The inner leaves twirl into an artful package and make a great salad tossed with the licorice-like tarragon, crumbled blue cheese, slices of Golden Delicious apple, and a simple balsamic vinaigrette.
Dessert shifts back to the oven with pears roasted in maple syrup. The fruit must cook in a pan that's almost too snug for it, so the maple glaze doesn't run off and burn. After roasting, the pears have a handsome brown sheen and they're coated with a sticky, caramel-like coating.
Like the lamb, the pears can be prepared before the meal and then reheated just before serving. Crumbled ginger snap cookies, sprinkled on top, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream, add crunch and richness.
With these ample portions and rich tastes, nothing about the dinner will seem thrifty. And as long as you're cooking, you can braise an extra shank. Tomorrow night, use the leftover sauce and shreds of meat to toss with pasta for another meal. That one will be so low budget it will seem free.
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