Lamb Shanks with Tomatoes and Olives

Makes 4 servings
Time: 2 hours or more, largely unattended

The briny flavor of olives makes this dish, so buy good ones. My favorites here are a mixture of the big green kind from southern Italy and kalamatas or the small dried olives from Morocco or Greece. Other cuts and meats you can use: short ribs (which will also take a long time); chunks of lamb or pork shoulder (which will be faster) or beef chuck or brisket; bone-in chicken parts (which will be much quicker), preferably thighs.

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

4 lamb shanks, about 1 pound each

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 cups sliced onion

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, a couple sprigs fresh thyme, or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 cup chicken, beef, or vegetable stock, white or red wine, water, or a combination 1 cup chopped tomato (drained canned is fine)

1 1/2 cups assorted olives, pitted

Minced fresh basil or parsley leaves for garnish

1. Put the oil in a large pot with a lid or a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. When hot, add the shanks and brown on all sides, sprinkling with salt and pepper as they cook. (You can also do the initial browning in the oven: Heat to 500°F and roast the lamb shanks-you may omit the oil-turning once or twice, until brown all over; this will take a little longer but will be somewhat easier and much neater.) Remove the lamb and pour off all but 2 tablespoons of fat. Add the onion and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until softened and golden, about 10 minutes.

2. Add the garlic and thyme and cook for another minute, then add the liquid, some salt and pepper, and the tomato; stir to blend. Return the lamb shanks to the pan, turn them once or twice, cover, and turn the heat to low.

3. Cook for 30 minutes, turn the shanks, and add the olives. Continue to cook for at least another hour, turning occasionally, until the shanks are very tender (a toothpick inserted into them will meet little resistance) and the meat is nearly falling from the bone. (At this point, you may refrigerate the shanks for a day or two and then reheat.) Garnish with basil or parsley and serve.

Lamb Shanks with Pasilla Chile Sauce.

Soak 3 to 5 pasilla or other mild dried red chiles in hot water to cover until soft, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, proceed with Step 1, adding 1 cup chopped tomato along with the onion. Transfer the onion mixture to a food processor. Drain the chiles, reserving the soaking liquid, and tear them into pieces while removing their stems and seeds. Add the chiles to the processor along with 2 cloves garlic and purée, adding the chile liquid as necessary to get a smooth paste. In Step 2, substitute 1 tablespoon fresh marjoram or oregano leaves or 1 teaspoon dried for the thyme and add the chile purée with the stock or water (don't use wine). Sprinkle in salt and pepper and 1 teaspoon ground cumin. Proceed with the recipe, omitting the olives.