Back in the day, I sat across the table at work from George Weld, now chef-owner of egg in Brooklyn. I was a Web designer then and George was a poet who wanted to try his hand in writing code rather than rhymes. I remember asking him what a crock pot was because a friend told me she was buying one to give as a birthday present. Crock pots, I was told, worked like a rice cooker. Anything you put in it would cook for a long period of time in heat so low you don’t have to attend to it. So it’s like braising? Yes, George confirmed, but what’s the point of braising if you don’t brown first? I whole-heartedly agreed.
Reading about the Jamaican oxtail stew recipe from Golden Krust in the New York Times reminded me of this conversation. When I first read it, I found several things that I knew wouldn’t work out for me. It called for cooking stovetop for a couple of hours–so why not just braise and put it in the oven? And I love oxtail as much as the next guy, but shanks just have more meat so I opted for them instead. When shank meat falls off the bone, you get the melt-in-your-mouth goodness. I also thought melting the sugar would just caramelize and not mix with the meat too well. I was right, so I occasionally added hot water while I was browning the meat to avoid the sugar from hardening. (I was also thinking of the clean-up I have to do afterwards.) And one Scotch bonnet pepper? Why not try three? I did and the entire dish had a really nice kick to it. You can rummage through the pot after the first hour of braising to remove them, but I totally forgot and they just sort of melted in the sauce. The bonus? I cleaned the stewy-sauce bottom of the pot with rice.
5 pieces of large beef shanks
3 tbsps light brown sugar
1 large white onion, roughly chopped
half a head of garlic, minced
1 knob of ginger, peeled, chopped
3 Scotch bonnet peppers
4 sprigs fresh thyme
3 tbsps allspice powder
1 bunch scallions, chopped
2 tbsps white sugar
3 tbsps soy sauce
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1. Preheat oven preheat oven 350º. Season shanks aggressively with salt and pepper. Heat a large Dutch oven over high heat. At the same time, boil some water in a separate pan so it’s next to your pot. Add brown sugar to the pot and melt, stirring with a wooden spoon, until it darkens and starts to smoke. When sugar is dark brown, add 2 tbsps boiling water. It will splatter, so have your pot cover handy. Stir to mix.
2. Working in batches, add the shanks to the pot and brown both sides so they’re covered with the blackened sugar. Spoon in tbsps of hot water when the sugar gets too sticky and hard to avoid burning sugar. Remove shanks to a large plate.
3. Add half of the onions, garlic and ginger to the same pot, along with the pepper, the thyme, the allspice and a third of the scallions, and stir to combine. Allow to cook until softened, approximately 5 minutes.
4. Return the shanks to the pot along with any accumulated juices and put water into the pot so that they are almost submerged. Bring to a simmer and then cook, covered, in the oven for an hour, stirring occasionally.
5. After an hour, stir in remaining onions, scallions, garlic and ginger to the pot. Add sugar, soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce. Stir to combine and cover. Continue to cook until the meat is yielding and loose on the bone, approximately one hour longer.