Lamb dish is ideal for casual dinners

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A few weeks ago at a French bistro, my husband and I and a couple of friends all eyed a delicious beef stew listed on the menu. Much to our chagrin, the kitchen had run out of this tempting dish.

After our bistro experience, I pored over cookbooks in search of a rich, satisfying dish to make for a weekend dinner. I found inspiration in one of my favorite Silver Palate recipes -- Chicken Marbella -- and from Paula Wolfert's Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco (Harper Collins, $19).

In the Marbella chicken recipe, there is a fine balance of tart and sweet provided by wine and dried fruits. In Moroccan cooking, as explained in Wolfert's book, stew-type dishes of meat or poultry are often cooked with dried fruits, such as raisins, and countered with the sharp flavor of preserved lemons.

Inspired by these ideas, I created Lamb Shanks with Dates and Olives. I browned the meat, then sprinkled it with cumin, coarse salt and pepper. Bay leaves, dried thyme, capers and olives provided robust seasoning, while brown sugar and plump dates offered sweet notes, and wine and vinegar a bit of tartness. After two hours of almost completely unattended oven cooking, the lamb was fork tender.

I have since served Lamb Shanks with Dates and Olives as the centerpiece for two casual suppers for friends. This all-in-one main course has turned out to be an ideal entree for entertaining because it can be made two days in advance so there's no last-minute work.

For accompaniments, I prepared couscous according to package directions and scented it with a pinch of saffron. I also tossed together a simple green salad. Dessert included tarts bought at a local bakery.

Nobody went home hungry either night.

Lamb Shanks with Dates and Olives

Serves 4

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 1/2 to 4 pounds lamb shanks (see note)

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper

2 teaspoons dried thyme

3 bay leaves, broken in half

2 sprigs plus 3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

1/2 cup green Mediterranean olives, either pitted or unpitted

1/3 cup capers with a little of the juice

1 cup dry red wine

1/3 cup red wine vinegar

1/3 cup light brown sugar

12 large Medjool dates, unpitted

1/4 teaspoon harissa or two pinches hot red pepper flakes (see note)


Heat oil in a large, nonreactive, deep-sided pot with a lid, set over medium-high heat. When hot, add lamb shanks and brown on all sides, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove pot from heat.

In a small bowl, mix together cumin, salt, pepper and thyme, then sprinkle this mixture over browned lamb. Add bay leaves, 2 parsley sprigs, olives and capers to pot. Pour wine and vinegar over lamb, then sprinkle brown sugar over the mixture. Cover pan tightly with a double thickness of aluminum foil, then with the lid.

Bake on center rack of preheated 375-degree oven for 45 minutes, then remove pot from oven and turn meat. Add dates; cover pan again with foil and lid, and continue to cook until meat is fork-tender, about 50 to 60 minutes more.

Remove pan from oven and uncover it. Stir in harissa or red pepper flakes and 1/2 cup water. (Lamb can be prepared two days ahead. Cool, cover it with foil and lid, and refrigerate. Reheat, covered with foil and lid, in 375-degree oven until hot, about 25 minutes.)

To serve, arrange lamb shanks over couscous mounded in a serving bowl or on a platter. Ladle sauce with dates and olives over lamb, then sprinkle with chopped parsley. With a sharp knife, slice lamb shanks before serving. You can also serve lamb individually by cutting lamb from shanks first. Mound some couscous in four shallow bowls and arrange meat on top, then ladle sauce over and sprinkle with parsley. Be sure to let everyone know there are pits in the olives, if you used unpitted ones.

Note: I've bought large lamb shanks (a pound or more each) and also purchased smaller shanks (12 to 14 ounces each). Either way is fine as long as you have 3 1/2 to 4 pounds of meat. The cooking time will be the same for both. Harissa, a paste of hot pureed peppers and spices used in Moroccan and North African cooking, is sold in tubes in specialty food stores. If you can't find it, substitute hot red pepper flakes.

Per serving: 749 calories, 43 grams protein, 33 grams fat, 12 grams saturated fat, 75 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams fiber, 149 milligrams cholesterol, 2,139 milligrams sodium

Nutritional analysis was conducted by registered dietitian Jodie Shield.

Party tips

Here are tips for an impromptu dinner party from

Make a deluxe starter platter without cooking a thing. Buy artichoke hearts, hearts of palm, prosciutto, top-of-the-line olives and a few mozzarella balls.

Make one thing. Everything else can be prepared if your starring dish shows a bit of care.

Get a bunch of basil or another herb (oregano, parsley). Let that be a guiding flavor in your main dish and use the rest as garnish for the plates, then bunch the rest in a bouquet for the table's centerpiece.

Menu for a casual evening with friends

Green salad

Couscous from a packaged mix

Lamb Shanks with Dates and Olives

Tarts from a local bakery

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