'Tis the season for braises, slow-cooked meat that falls apart into tender chunks. Here's a new favorite cut of meat for me: The inexpensive, incredibly delicious crosscut beef shank.
The crosscut beef shank is basically just what it sounds (and looks) like: A crosscut piece of the animal's leg. It's full of tendons and muscle, and a chunk of bone. It doesn't look very pretty, and if you tried to cook it fast, it would be tough and hard to chew.
But if you cook this meat low and slow, the marrow in that bone melts out, helping create a smooth, rich sauce, and the meat itself gets melting and tender.
Here I match the robust taste of this beefy cut with an entire bottle of red wine (this, people, is what Trader Joe's Two Buck Chuck is made for), a lot of beef broth, and a bit of balsamic vinegar for acidity. I also add a heaping dose of black pepper, which wakes up the dish. It isn't terribly spicy, but that black pepper is very assertive, matching the beef in intensity. Beef needs this kind of treatment, sometimes; it can be overwhelmingly rich and sweet. Here the acidity of the vinegar and the punch of pepper balance that out for a more well-rounded dish.
This dish also illustrates my philosophy on slow cookers: The slow cooker is not always there to save you work. If you threw the meat into the slow cooker with these ingredients, without building some flavor in the skillet first, you would miss out on a lot of flavor and depth. It's important to do a little up-front work, but then of course you can walk away from it all day (or all night), let the slow cooker do the hard work of melting the meat into something delicious, and come back to a meal all ready to be devoured.
Slow Cooker Peppered Beef Shank in Red Wine
2 to 2 1/2 pounds beef crosscut shank, fat trimmed away
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable or peanut oil
10 to 12 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
2 medium yellow onions, peeled and roughly chopped
1 large stalk celery, roughly chopped
1 bay leaf
1 rosemary sprig
750 ml bottle inexpensive red wine, such as Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon
4 cups beef broth
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Heat a wide, deep skillet over medium high heat. Pat the beef shanks dry and season generously with salt and pepper. Add a drizzle of oil to the pan, and when it hot, add the beef shank. Sear the meat for at least 7 minutes on each side, creating a dark brown crust. When the meat has been thoroughly browned, remove from the pan and place in a slow cooker insert.
Turn the heat down to medium and add the garlic, onion, and celery. Cook for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, letting the onion acquire some browning and color. Add the bay leaf and the rosemary sprig, and pour in the red wine and broth. Add 1/2 tablespoon ground black pepper. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes. The liquid should reduce by about 1/3. (Check out this brilliant tip for checking to see how far a sauce has reduced.)
Pour the sauce and vegetables over the meat in the slow cooker. Stir in the balsamic vinegar. Cover and cook for 6 to 8 hours on LOW. You will know the meat is done when it is extremely tender and has fallen away from the bone and into small pieces.
If you do not wish to serve it right away, refrigerate. This also makes it easier to remove the excess fat. Spoon out any chilled shards of fat after the shanks have been refrigerated for several hours. To serve, heat gently in its sauce in a Dutch oven or saucepan on the stovetop. Taste and if necessary add additional salt.
Serve over polenta or pasta.
(Image: Faith Durand)