This recipe idea came to me when I was writing Death in Abundance, the third Antonio Cortese Mystery novel set in beautiful Montepulciano, in Tuscany. In the novel, Antonio’s aunt prepares these amazing Lamb Shanks, and the family gathers around to make homemade pici pasta. Once the lamb shanks are done cooking, she adds tomato paste to the braising liquid to create this amazing pasta sauce!
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WHAT IS PICI? Pici is a thick, rustic pasta rolled out by hand. You can easily substitute dried bucatini pasta, or any other pasta shape that you like.
If you are on a Keto Diet you can forego the pasta or substitute zucchini zoodles, spaghetti squash, or hearts of palm pasta, available at Trader Joe’s. I only made two lamb shanks, but the sauce would easily accommodate up to six servings of pasta.
BRAISING EXPLAINED: Not all home cooks understand what braising is. It is simply the process of cooking the meat for an extended period in liquid which tenderizes the meat. In my view, it is the only way to cook a lamb shank which is otherwise a tough cookie so to speak. Meats are almost always browned in advance to maximize flavor.
PREPARATION TIME: Braising is a slow-cooking process. With that in mind you need to allow for a long cooking time, typically about three hours in the oven after you brown the meat. Additionally, you need time for your mis en place, the assembling and preparation of ingredients, such as cutting up the vegetables and herbs. This could take an hour if you’re extra fast with the knife. If you throw in the time for browning the meat and then allowing the meat to rest after it comes out of the oven, you’re looking at a total of about five hours give or take.
But remember you’ll have plenty of time to do other things while the meat is in the oven. You can make fresh pasta if desired, or skip that and read a book, watch a movie, or play a game of cards. You only need to stop once and turn the meat over to ensure it cooks evenly.
MIS EN PLACE is simply the French term for everything in place. In other words, assemble all your ingredients, then do any pre-preparation such as slicing, dicing, mincing, etc. This will make the job so much easier. In this case, the first thing you should do is place your meat out at room temperature and salt liberally before doing the other assembly and prep. Then if you are using dried mushrooms, place those in a cup or bowl with about a cup of hot water to rehydrate them.
Next, you want to brown the lamb shanks. Heat two tablespoons of the oil in a large, flat-bottom Dutch Oven or heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat until oil begins to shimmer. Brown lamb shanks well on all sides and transfer to a platter. I really like this enameled cast-iron braising pan I bought at Costco! If you have more than three to four shanks, you’ll need to brown them in two batches.
After browning the shanks, reduce heat to medium and add additional olive oil if needed. Add onions, carrots, celery, garlic, and herbs. Sauté, stirring occasionally until the vegetables start to caramelize, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add mushrooms with their liquid.
Meanwhile, pre-heat oven to 325 F (or slow-cooker if you prefer).
Add the wine and chicken stock. Use a spatula or wooden spoon to scrape the browned bits from the pan bottom (this step is known as deglazing). Simmer until liquids are reduced by about a quarter.
Now, use your hands to squish the whole plum tomatoes and add them to the sauce. Careful or they will squirt juice in your eye!
Next, return the shanks to the pan and turn to coat all sides. Cover and place in the oven for approximately 3 hours, or until a knife inserted into the meat meets no resistance. After 1-1/2 to 2 hours, flip the meat over (see Frankie’s Tips).
When the meat is fully cooked you will see it pulling away from the bone. Transfer the meat to a platter and cover with foil to rest for 10 to 15 minutes. While meat is resting move the pan of sauce back to the stovetop. Add tomato paste to the sauce to accomplish the thickness you desire. Taste the sauce and add salt and pepper to taste.
Here is the recipe for the lamb shanks. Then if you want to make the pici pasta, you’ll find that recipe below.
- One lamb shank per person (see Frankie’s Tips)
- salt & pepper
- 3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 to 2 oz. dried porcini mushrooms
- 1 medium onion—diced
- 2 medium carrots—diced
- 1 to 2 ribs of celery—diced
- 3-5 cloves garlic—minced
- 3 sprigs Italian parsley—chopped
- 2 sprigs fresh rosemary—chopped
- 1-1/2 cups Tuscan red wine (see Frankie’s Tips)
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 28 oz. can whole-peeled plum tomatoes
- 3-5 ounces tomato paste
- Recipe of homemade pici pasta or one-pound dried bucatini or pasta of choice.
- I recommend one lamb shank per person. This may be more than most people will eat but the leftovers are superb!
- You can use any red wine but for authenticity I suggest a Tuscan Sangiovese. In my novel they used a Rosso di Montepulciano but that they be hard to find unless you have an excellent wine shop nearby. Any Sangiovese, such as an inexpensive Chianti, will do fine.
- I went to three stores looking for porcini mushrooms. All of them were out of stock or did not carry them. I settled on dried oyster mushrooms which were still quite acceptable, but I would use porcinis if you can find them.
- If you are making your own homemade pici pasta I would start it as soon as your lamb shanks go into the oven. You will find the recipe on the following page.
- Salt and pepper lamb shanks on all sides. Allow to sit at room temperature for about an hour.
- Place dried mushrooms in 8 ounces of hot water. Set aside to rehydrate.
- Prep all ingredients (a step the French call mis en place).
- Heat two tablespoons of the oil in a large, flat-bottom Dutch Oven or heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat until oil begins to shimmer. Brown lamb shanks well on all sides and transfer to a platter.
- Reduce heat to medium. Add additional olive oil if needed. Add onions, carrots, celery, garlic, rosemary and half of the parsley (save remainder for garnish). Sauté, stirring occasionally until the vegetables start to caramelize, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add mushrooms with their liquid.
- Pre-heat oven to 325 F (or slow-cooker if you prefer).
- Add wine and chicken stock. Use a spatula or wooden spoon to scrape the browned bits from the pan bottom (this step is known as deglazing). Simmer until liquids are reduced by about a quarter.
- Use your hands to squish the whole plum tomatoes and add them to the sauce. Return the shanks to the pan and turn to coat all sides.
- Cover and place in the oven for approximately 3 hours, or until a knife inserted into the meat meets no resistance. After 1-1/2 to 2 hours, flip the meat over (see Frankie’s Tips).
- Move meat to a platter and cover with foil to rest for 10 to 15 minutes. While meat is resting, add tomato paste to sauce to accomplish the thickness you desire. Taste sauce and add salt and pepper as needed.
- Enjoy your meal with joy, laughter, and a heart of gratitude for all your blessings. Buon appetito!
Making Pici Pasta if Desired:
This rustic, hearty pasta from central Italy is super fun and easy to make. It is not an egg pasta. It has a mere four ingredients (or five if you choose to use two types of flour as some do). It is perfect with a Tuscan meat sauce, or with Pasta all’Amatriciana from the town of Amatriciano in Lazio. It is a fun group project so if you have the counter space, I suggest making it with friends or family. They’ll love it!
It will be even more fun if you put on some Italian music and open a bottle of Italian vino!
PRONUNCIATION: But I won’t let you make this pasta unless you know how to pronounce it, haha! You might embarrass yourself in front of friends.
It’s simple. The i’s are pronounced like longs e’s and the c is pronounced like a ch. So, the pronunciation is pee-chee, with a slight emphasis on the first syllable.
If you don’t want to make the pasta, or drive all over town looking for it, feel free to substitute another pasta that you like. My favorite for this would be dried bucatini pasta which is about the same thickness but hollow on the inside like a straw. I did find pici online but mostly for outrageous prices. So, let’s just get busy and make our own. The recipe I am giving you is for the food processor. You can do the same thing in a mixer using the paddle attachment, or if you’re more adventurous, watch a video on how to mix it by hand. That is more than I want to cover here. Maybe in a future post.
I neglected to get pics of making the dough. I’ll let you read that in the recipe below.
The first picture above was taken after I made it. I allow it to rest in a plastic bag for 15-20 minutes. Next, I pull it out, cut off some strips, and return the remaining dough to the bag so it does not dry out. Then I take those strips and roll them out to roughly the thickness of a normal size drinking straw. The third photo only shows one hand because the other hand was holding the camera. Two hands are better of course. You can also lift these up to roll them between your two hands. Don’t worry about perfection. You’ll have some slight variations in thickness. I like to say, “Rustic is cool!”
As you roll these out set them aside on a floured baking sheet or countertop. If they are going to touch or overlap, make sure they are well floured or they will stick together. Continue until all dough is used up. There is no rush to cook them. You can use these right away, or let them sit for a time. It won’t hurt them. Or feel free to freeze them for later use.
COOKING PICI: Pici pasta cooks like any other fresh pasta, meaning it will cook quite a bit faster than dried pasta. It should only need two to four minutes depending on just how thick you rolled them. This is a lot of pasta, so I recommend cooking half at a time and use a skimmer or tongs to remove.
The recipe below will serve 6
- 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour* *(or 2 cups all-purpose flour and one cup of semolina–see Frankie’s Tips)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt or fine sea salt
- 3 teaspoons olive oil
- approximately 1 cup warm water (see step two of instructions)
- The objective is to achieve a dough which has an adequate level of moisture without being too wet. If you’ve never made dough before, it is better to err on the side of slightly too much moisture as the dough will be easier to work with. However, this will require more flour on your work surface and a longer drying time before cutting.
- Just work the dough enough to bring it all together. Overworking will create tough pasta.
- When rolling these out it is easier if you have little or no flour on the work surface. Too much will make them difficult to roll (as opposed to sliding around in the flour).
- Some people like to use part semolina flour which is the flour used to make dried pasta. It will give a more yellow to the dough which is fine. If you want to try it, make sure it is finely ground. It costs more and can be hard to find.
- Place flour, salt, oil, and 3/4 cup warm water in a food processor.
- Process for about 15 seconds. Stop the food processor and feel the dough. It should begin adhering together when squeezed between your fingers (but not be wet and sticky). If the mixture has not begun to form a ball – gradually add a little more water, about a tablespoon at a time. Continue processing in short bursts until the mixture just begins to come together as a ball.
- Remove mixture from processor and place on a lightly floured work surface. Squish it together then knead with the ball of your hand, turning and folding until the dough is smooth and elastic. Press into a rectangle, no more than one inch thick. Place in a plastic bag, or wrap with plastic wrap.Set aside to rest for at least 20 minutes.
- After resting, use a knife or pizza cutter to cut strips of dough (keep the remainder covered until needed). Take the strips and roll them on the work surface or between your hands to make long strings of dough. They should be fatter than spaghetti but no thicker than a straw. Set these aside on a floured tray or countertop. Continue until all dough is used up.
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