Inspired by axoa—a traditional Basque stew of braised veal and peppers, flavored with piment d’Espelette—these braised lamb shanks are an ode to my great-grandmother Jeanne-Marie. While I never had the pleasure of meeting her, or experiencing the gustatory delight of eating one of her coursed meals, I grew up listening to my mom tell me stories of those dinners, especially my great-grandmother’s roast lamb (as my mom would say—a thing of beauty!).
Axoa is one of those rustic dishes that varies from household to household in the French Basque Country. Most use veal, some use beef or lamb. Some recipes call for tomatoes, others no tomatoes and just peppers. Some even add chopped jambon de Bayonne to the mix. Whatever the slight variations, there are three things that are constant in this dish: a mix of red and green peppers, diced onions, and dried piment d’Espelette (one of the four French Basque ingredients always in my pantry). Traditionally, this stew is served with boiled potatoes. I love it with peeled Yukon Gold potatoes that have been boiled until tender in abundantly salted water and then tossed with a little extra-virgin olive oil. If you don’t serve it with potatoes, make sure to have lots of crusty bread on hand to sop up the sauce!
While you can make quick-cooking versions of axoa, this stew is best made with whole-muscle cuts that are braised until meltingly, fall-off-the-bone tender. Here, we are using lamb shanks, but lamb shoulder would be nice, too. Or you could go classic and use veal shoulder or shanks. This recipe would also work with large pieces of beef chuck or beef shanks (just reduce the amount of boneless meat to 2½ pounds). If you choose to use meats that are off the bone, substitute vegetable or beef stock for the water (as the bones give lots of meaty flavor to the braising liquid).
- Prep time 1 hour 30 minutes
- Cook time 3 hours 30 minutes
- Serves 4 to 6
lamb shanks (about 3 pounds)
1 1/2 tablespoons
kosher salt, divided
large red bell pepper
medium poblano peppers, or one large green bell pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons
extra-virgin olive oil
large yellow onion, finely diced
garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
dry white wine
piment d’Espelette powder, plus more for garnishing
large sprigs of thyme
dried bay leaves
boiled waxy potatoes, such as Yukon Gold or red bliss, for serving
- Pat the lamb shanks dry. Sprinkle all over with 1 tablespoon of kosher salt, making sure to season them evenly. Place on a plate or sheet pan and let them come to room temperature, about 1 hour.
- Meanwhile, prepare the peppers. Using a vegetable peeler, peel the skin off the red and poblano peppers, applying gentle pressure while peeling to prevent taking off too much of the flesh (don't worry about getting the peels in the ridges). Halve each pepper, remove the seeds and ribs, and finely dice. Place in a medium bowl and set aside.
- Heat the oven to 300°F. To start the braise, heat a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat for 1 to 2 minutes. When the pan is hot, add the olive oil and continue to heat for another 15 seconds (heating the pan before adding the oil will prevent the oil from getting scorched). Add the lamb shanks, browning them on all sides, about 3 to 4 minutes per side. Remove the browned shanks, transfer to a plate and set aside.
- Reduce the heat to medium and add the reserved diced peppers, as well as the onions, garlic, and the remaining ½ tablespoon of kosher salt. Sauté, stirring frequently, until the vegetables soften and the onions start to turn translucent, about 5 to 6 minutes. Add the tomato paste and continue to cook for another minute. Add the wine and the piment d’Espelette, stir, and continue to cook until most of the alcohol has burned off, about 2 minutes more. Add the thyme sprigs, bay leaves, and water, stirring to combine. Nestle the browned lamb shanks into the braising liquid, cover, and bring to a simmer.
- Transfer the covered pot to the oven and cook for 1½ hours. Uncover and continue to cook until the lamb is falling-off-the-bone tender and the sauce has reduced by half, about another 1 to 1½ hours more. Transfer the lamb shanks to a plate and cover with foil to keep warm, then carefully skim off any excess fat on the surface of the sauce, saving it for another use. If you want the sauce to be a little thicker, return it to the stove over medium heat and reduce to your desired thickness. The sauce should still be a little soupy but coat a spoon.
- To serve, ladle half the sauce into a large, shallow serving dish, place the braised lamb shanks on top, and pour the rest of the sauce over them. Serve with boiled potatoes and garnish with an extra sprinkling of piment d’Espelette.