Braised beef shanks...
With the price of the weekly grocery bill going up quite a bit this past year, The Motley Monk has devoted a bit of time researching how people cooked during the Depression. In general, one "take away" from this research has been that Depression-era recipes provide an instructive lesson about how to make many inexpensive yet flavorful dishes.
Interviewing family members who lived during the Depression yields all sorts of experiences and memories of how creative ordinary cooks could be on a limited budget. Short of that, The Motley Monk also found a great website, Great Depression Cooking, which is worth watching:
To view additional videos, click on the following link: Depression Cooking.
Some of the basic lessons The Motley Monk learned about cooking during the Depression included:
During the 1930's, the U.S. Food Administration advised citizens to:
All of this sounds like the "organic movement," no?
Stews, chili's, hearty soups and gumbos represent the ideal: cheaper pieces of meats with plenty of vegetables, all flavored with a variety of spices and additions—molasses, wine, peppers as well as thickeners like barley, potatoes, quinoa—and cooked or roasted very slowly to soften the meat and enhance the flavors. This is what made for great meals when some of the basic ingredients were rationed. There was even a recipe called "Depression Soup," made of fresh broth from bones, potato chunks, sliced onion, and tomato. Not much in terms of protein, but no one would die from malnourishment by consuming this soup.
All of this is background for one Depression-like meal The Motley Monk loves to make.
Several years back when The Motley Monk was visiting Rome, a priest-friend took The Motley Monk to Ostia, Italy, for a tour of the city's historic ruins. In a previous incarnation, The Motley Monk taught western history and had lots of artifacts and the like from the period when Ostia was a bustling seaport. The Motley Monk also used filmstrips of Ostia to teach his students about life in ancient Rome. So the tour was a much-anticipated treat for The Motley Monk to view first-hand what he had learned about second-hand.
The tour began early Sunday morning with a drive to Ostia and a walk through its cathedral. Notwithstanding the frescos in the back stairwells dating back hundreds of years, the highlight was to meet the cook who was preparing osso buco for dinner. As she was browning the veal shanks, The Motley Monk transformed into a bloodhound, following the scent from the cathedral to the kitchen. And, although The Motley Monk doesn't speak Italian, he quickly became fast friends with the cook who, by demonstration as she spoke Italian, showed The Motley Monk step-by-step exactly what she was doing to prepare osso buco for Sunday dinner. The payoff would come five hours or so later in the day when, after the tour of Ostia's ruins—The Motley Monk would be the pastor's guest for Sunday dinner at the rectory.
Using tougher cuts of meat and slowly roasting them to perfection with lots of vegetables, spices, and wine produces a wonderful taste treat. The Motley Monk has replicated the cook's osso buco on many occasions, but veal shanks are getting to be prohibitively expensive for what's supposed to be a Depression-era type of dinner.
However, the local grocery store oftentimes has a cut of meat (and bones) that fits the bill for a Depression-era type dinner: braised beef shanks. The six beef shanks pictured below set The Motley Monk back about $8 dollars.
For this recipe, all The Motley Monk had to purchase were the beef shanks and mushrooms. Otherwise, all the other ingredients were "in stock" at HIH II. For example, the carrots, celery, leeks, and dried prunes came straight out of the refrigerator.
The first step in this recipe is to dust the shanks with the spice mixture so that it coats the shanks.
Then, the shanks must be browned. Here, The Motley Monk used some rendered bacon fat (saved in the freezer from the last time The Motley Monk made bacon bits) and olive oil in a Dutch oven. Make sure the heat is medium high so that the beef shanks brown well. Also, use a wooden spoon to press down on the shanks as they brown so they remain "flat" rather than "bubble up."
After the shanks are well-browned, it's time to "sweat" the vegetables in a little more bacon fat and olive oil. As the vegetables sweat, make sure to scrape up any burned pieces of the spice mixture adhering to the bottom of the pot. These add incredible flavor to the dish.
It's all down hill after that. Return the beef shanks to the Dutch oven. Add beef broth to cover everything. Give the ingredients a good stir, bring to a simmer, and cover. Place the covered Dutch oven into the oven, preheated to 325°.
After one hour, remove the Dutch oven and give everything a stir. Add more broth if the original broth is evaporating too fast to cook down into a gravy. Adjust the seasonings as may be necessary. Return the Dutch oven to the oven for another hour.
After another hour (a total of 2 hours), remove the Dutch oven and give everything a stir. The gravy should be nice and thick. If it isn't, thicken with either a quick roux (flour/butter compressed together with the fingertips) or a flour/water mixture (best way: shake in a covered jar).
In this preparation, The Motley Monk sweated the vegetables before roasting. In the recipe below, The Motley Monk doesn't sweat the vegetables before roasting. In the end, there's no discernable difference in the product. The point is: a recipe provides guidelines not a straightjacket. Be inventive and have no fear!
There also are many ways to serve braised beef shanks. The Motley Monk likes to serve this dish with mashed potatoes (regular mashed potatoes except don't add milk; instead, add chunk applesauce), risotto, or polenta...accompanied by a robust Malbec.
This is a very good Depression-era braised beef shanks.
Like the idea? Here's the recipe:
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