Sunday, October 13, 2013

braised beef shank over creamy polenta

When did fall get here? Not that I'm complaining, but it was unbearable one day, and dark-at-5-bundle-up-closed-toed-shoes weather the next. Mother Nature left me the equivalent of being caught with an awkward 2am fire drill when you're asleep and not wearing pants, in terms of my pantry. Lots of fresh summer veggies, and salad. Salad is not a winter food. 

Luckily, I work well under pressure. 

One thawed hunk of meat and a quick trip to the store later, and we're in business!

Now re: the meat. Mind if I wax poetic for a minute? Awesome, thanks. 

We've been doing a CSA-type pickup this season from a farm in VA that does different meats (no produce). Our friends introduced us to Polyface Farms last year, when we joined them for a tour of the farm lead by farmer Joel Salatin. He's a big proponent of raising animals in as close to natural conditions as possible, which means lots of space and optimal diet (which you know, might just be grass). I know I'm not doing him and his operations justice with a few sentences, but feel free to consult Mr. Google for more info.  The farm puts a list of inventory up on their website, and they setup 8 deliveries to several locations each season (March-November). We typically don't order much (perks of living in an apartment), but everything we've tried so far has been outstanding. I may go through withdrawal when the deliveries end and I have to go to the store for eggs for 4 months. Seriously. 

Anyway! When I was putting together the order for the pickup a few weeks ago, I came across beef shanks. I had never cooked them before, but at $2.50/lb they were hard to refuse. I bought four, figuring they'd fit just fine in my freezer. I had apparently been afflicted with temporary short-term amnesia, as I had just convinced my parents to split a chicken larder with me. In case you're wondering, that's 15 chickens. I'm so thankful they have a full-sized freezer in the basement. You're the best, mom and dad!

Thats a 7.5qt slow cooker, in case you were wondering. 

Fast-forward to this weekend. We were having our friends over for dinner (the same ones who showed us the farm), so I thought it would be nice to make a perfect fall dish showcasing something we picked up from the farm. It's kind of like a roundabout way to say "thank you", or "this meat made me think of you". Isn't that sweet?

This dish was amazing. And not just because it made like 10 servings, but because it was easy, quick to prep, and absolutely delicious. As it's been raining in DC for the past week straight (it's probably God crying about the government shutdown), we were definitely in need of a comforting, stick-to-your-bones kind of meal. 

If you live in the DC/MD/VA area, I would recommend checking out the meat deliveries for next year! Not because Polyface is paying me to say this (I'm sure they don't know who I am), but because if you care about the quality and sustainability of your food and its upbringing, this is a great resource. I'd do a schmany embedded link to the site, but apparently posting from my iPad won't allow me to do so. So the order info can be found at 

Let's get to the recipe now, shall we?

Note about the meat: as you can see from the picture above, I used a whole, 5lb-ish beef shank. I'm pretty sure if you go to the store you'll typically see it cut down (think Osso Bucco), but you could either  a) reduce the cook time and check the meat for doneness, or 2) ask someone at the meat counter if honey have any pieces that haven't been cut yet. I guess it depends on what kind of presentation you're going for, mostly. 

Braised Beef Shank over Creamy Polenta (serves a million. Or like, 6-8)

1 5-lb beef shank, or pieces to make up the same amount, bone-in
2 15-oz cans of diced tomatoes (I use the fire-roasted ones, no salt added)
2 cups beef broth
Half a bottle of red wine
2 onions, chopped
1-2 cups mushrooms, chopped (baby bella or cremini)
2 bay leaves
1-2 tablespoons oil (I used safflower since it has a high smoke point and low flavor)
Salt and pepper, to taste

For the polenta

2 cups dry polenta
3-4 tablespoons butter (optional)
~.5 cup milk/cream (the higher the fat content, the less butter you'd probably need. I had 2% milk on hand) (optional)
8 cups water

Heat a saucepan with the oil (or the insert of your slow-cooker if you have an awesome one like me) over medium-high heat until hot. Lay the meat down in the pan and sear for 5ish minutes on each side, until you have a nice golden crust. Remove from the pan. Add onions and bay leave to the pan and salt generously to help the onions sweat. Cook until translucent and slightly browned, about 10-15 minutes. Add canned tomatoes, wine, beef broth and mushrooms, and let simmer for about 10 minutes to let the favors develop. Transfer to the slow cooker if you need to, and add the beef shank. Cover and cook on low for 6-8 hours. If you have smaller pieces of meat you'll be on the lower end of that. Mine cooked for about 7 hours. The meat will be done when it's falling off the bone. 

When the meat is cooked, pull It out of the slow-cooker and shred it with two forks. If you want, scrape the marrow out of the bone and add that to the sauce for extra richness. Return the meat to the cooker to let it soak in more flavor. If your insert is safe on the stove, simmer everything over medium heat to reduce the liquid a bit. You could also add some corn starch, which would have the same effect. For this method, add water to about 1/3 cup of corn starch until it's dissolved, add to the broth and stir. Set the slow-cooker on high and let it go for maybe 20 more minutes. 

When the meat goes back into the slow-cooker, get a pot of salted water boiling for the polenta. Once the water is boiling, reduce the heat and add your polenta, stirring constantly with a fork or whisk. Caution! Polenta thickens super fast, and then when bubbles pop (like they would in boiling water), the now boiling hot polenta splatters. I always turn down the heat before adding the polenta, and make sure to stir as I'm adding it to the water to lessen the likelihood of bubbles. Cook for about 10 minutes (unless you buy instant, and in that case just follow the directions on the package), and then stir in the butter and cream if you're using them. Don't start the polenta too early, otherwise it'll start to solidify in the pot. As tasty as this is sliced up and fried, it's not what we're going for!

Once the polenta is done, spoon into a bowl and top with the meat. Enjoy!

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