I have a dark and shameful past. A period of my former life in which I could barely make rice in the electric rice cooker, consistently turned out rubbery tough scrambled eggs for Sunday's breakfast, and served guests frozen meals from a box and called it my own homecooking. This latter practice, however shameful and unspeakable it may be now, actually helped me to throw some of my most successful dinner parties. The first of Mr.S's birthdays that we celebrated together, I pulled one over on him with one of my slaved-over-a-hot-stove "home cooked" meal.
The menu consisted of braised lamb shanks in a rosemary-mint sauce, oat blinis with creme fraiche, and roasted root vegetables. I don't know if Mr.S fell for me that night or for the lamb, but he decided to stick around.
Luckily for him, I learned how to cook. Eventually I revealed my secret to him years later, that my fork-tender lamb shanks were actually store bought, precooked and frozen, from Costco.
These lamb shanks are some of the most delicious and succulent pieces I've ever had because they truly taste like they've been cooking away for hours. The meat is rich and tender, without the least bit of game, falling off the bone as you gently pry your fork into it.
The sauce is like a thickened au jus, sweet and intense, flavored with rosemary. I can never really fully taste the mint, but it's there, a soft nuance to balance out the richness of the sauce. After you pull away the meat, the invitingly attractive bone implores you to gnaw away at it; it's difficult not to give in.
These lamb shanks are made by a company called Cuisine Solutions, which specializes in a method of cooking called sous-vide.
In recent years, it's become a term more popularized thanks to shows like Top Chef and actual top chefs like Thomas Keller, Wylie Dufresne, and Ferran Adrià. Essentially, it's a purely scientific approach to cooking. Based on the molecular makeup of the food to be cooked, a combination of heat, timing, and cooling is used. All this, and a hermetically-sealed plastic pouch. The food is sealed in such a package, and cooks for hours, sometimes even a day, over the lowest heat possible, basically in its own juices. This is achieved by heating the pouch in a temperature-controlled water bath, then cooling it gradually. Accordingly, the flavors remain concentrated. They completely saturate the food, usually a protein, which maintains its structural integrity and keeps nice and tender because it retains all of its original juices.
Reheating is a breeze. For smaller servings, I heat up a large pot of water over medium-low heat and simply place the pouch, frozen, into the water. It will gradually heat up over 10-15 minutes or so. This is like a mock sous-vide setup in your home kitchen. Because of the low heat, the meat will heat up evenly and not seize up. For larger batches, say 3 or more large pouches (for a group of guests), I unwrap the frozen meat from the pouches, place them in a shallow pan, and bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes or so. The lamb will form a nice crust from the dry heat, and the sauce will reduce down a bit.
You'd never expect a frozen meal to be much palatable, let alone mouth watering. But I've certainly discovered one that is all this and quite versatile. I usually always have a box of these sitting in my freezer on hand, ready for surprise guest visits, a quick weeknight dinner for Mr.S and me, or an upscale meal for myself and a group of discerning dinner companions.
Cuisine Solutions lamb shanks are available at Costco, Wegman's, and online through Peapod.