While at my favorite store Uwajimaya a couple of weeks ago, I noticed a special on beef shank. I had never had beef shank before. But always looking for a deal, I purchased some with the thought that I could surely make something with it.
So I started my research, and realized that the reason I had never seen beef shank in a store is that it is hardly ever for sale.
Because hardly anyone in the United States wants it.
Because it is really tough.
As stated in Wikipedia, “Due to the constant use of this muscle by the animal it tends to be tough, dry, and sinewy.” Now that's an endorsement, if I ever heard one.
Further research indicates that the disdain for beef shank is historical in nature. For example, I found that in the mid-19th century, butchers would hang beef shank on a post outside their doors instead of a sign to advertise their presence. Kinda creepy.
In addition to finding recipes for beef shank in reference to Depression era cooking, I found out that beef shank was also served at Civil War prisons, known for their fine cuisine. At the Libby Prison near Richmond, Virginia Colonel William Power bragged that:
“During my stay in Libby … I succeeded in making for each of my children, neatly finished, napkin rings out of the rebel beef shank bones - also a representative bible-formed pin cushion for my wife..”
The story of Libby Prison is an odd one, which I would never have learned about had it not been for my beef shank research. Evidently it is now located in Chicago, having been shipped in its entirety by a megalomaniac named Charles Gunther via 132 railroad cars and reassembled on Wabash Avenue to become a Civil War Museum. Known as Chicago's most prolific collector, Gunther later attempted to move to Chicago a pyramid from Egypt, and even Uncle Tom’s Cabin from Louisiana. He even tried to negotiate the transfer of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall to Chicago.
Some people just don’t understand personal boundaries.
Again, I digress. But I learn so much on the internet.
In truth, beef shank is a standard item on Chinese, Mexican, Italian and Indian menus. As long as you braise it for a very long time (I’m talking 3 to 8 hours), beef shank can be delectable indeed. You just have to be very patient.
If you keep the bone in, and you can get your butcher to saw the shank into thick slices, you can make Osso Buco. Beef shank is also evidently a star ingredient in a thick and saucy ragu. What I did with my shank was to combine recipes for number of Indonesian and Chinese appetizers, to excellent effect:
Cold Five-Spice Soy Braised Beef Shank Appetizer
First, dust a boneless shank with salt, pepper and five spice powder and let it set over night. The next morning, sear it well in a dutch oven. Take it out of the pot and then sauté two onions, chunked and a dozen cloves of minced garlic. Once those are soft, add the following ingredients:
1 ½ cups of soy sauce
1t Chinese black vinegar
3 tablespoons of kecap manis (thick sweet soy sauce)
3 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons chopped ginger
¼ cup brown sugar, or more to taste
5 star anise
1 cinnamon stick
1T five spice
1T garam masala
A bunch of chopped cilantro
1T Szechuan pepper corn
1 chopped jalepeno
1 T sesame oil
Put your meat back in the pot. And braise, braise, braise on very low heat. Taste it after a while, giving the flavors a chance to meld, and make whatever adjustments you feel necessary. More sugar? A little more garlic? More hot pepper? You be the judge.
I let it go for about 4 hours, then I turned off the stove and went out. When I got back, the shank was at room temperature, sitting in a luscious, dark, intensely flavored sauce.
The next step is to refrigerate it over night. This is important, because otherwise the meat will fall apart, and the whole point of the appetizer is to slice it very thinly and arrange it in artful overlapping layers on a pretty platter.
The garnish is up to you. I drizzled a bit of the braising sauce (drizzle, not pour), spicy sesame oil and sprinkled cilantro on the top, but other recipes call for lightly dressed microgreens. That sounds good too.
So all I am saying, is give beef (shank) a chance.