Lamb Shank with Spruce Tips, Juniper, and Pink Peppercorn

Spring lamb gets a Nordic makeover.

Lamb Shank with Spruce Tips, Juniper, and Pink Peppercorn
Bright young spruce tips.

Bright young spruce tips.

My time at the the Nordic Food Lab taught me that not only are pine, spruce, and fir tips edible, but that they are surprisingly delicious if harvested in the spring when young and still soft. I have every intention of gathering all three to post on identification and flavor subtleties, but until then, here's a helpful article. Just know that if you come across a "Christmas tree" in the spring with delicate, very bright green tufts of soft needles on the end of its branches (see photo to right), you have likely come across spruce or fir tips (pine needles are longer). Take a teeny tiny bit of a needle and give it a taste - it should taste tart and slightly resinous. If you've ever had the Greek retsina wine you will know exactly what I mean. 

Spruce tips pushing through their brown papery casings.

Spruce tips pushing through their brown papery casings.

What I love about spruce tips is that they are so very seasonal that anything you use them in has a uniquely spring flavor and color. At Noma, the restaurant that many consider the best in the world, uses these fresh conifer needles in variety of ways and I specifically remember a fermented apple beverage infused with pine that was amazing. Additionally, they're very rich in Vitamin C and can be dried and used for a throat soothing tea. The flavor may not be to everyone's liking, but if you like it then you love like it and the tartness can really make other deeper flavors pop, as they do for this rich lamb shank recipe adapted from Cooking with Italian Grandmothers. I recently purchased a quarter of a lamb from Devil's Gulch Ranch, as I have done a few other times, and am always happy to have an excuse to make lamb in a variety of new, fun ways. Recipe makes enough for 2, but can be expanded. 

  • 1 cup dry red wine
  • 1 large lamb shank or 2 small (about 1.5 pounds total)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 large red onion, thinly sliced (about 1-1.5 cups)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped celery (about 1 rib)
  • 5 juniper berries, finely crushed with a mortar and pestle
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • Water as needed
  • 1 bay leaf (I used a foraged bay leaf, which imparts a stronger flavor)
  • 1/2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons whole pink peppercorn, crushed with fingers
  • 7-9 fresh spruce tips, stems removed from most

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bring wine to boil in a sauce pan. Reduce heat and simmer until wine is reduced in half, about 7 to 9 minutes. You should have about 1/2 cup - if you don't, just add a bit more wine and reduce again to get 1/2 cup. Set aside.

Season lamb shank generously with salt and pepper. Heat a heavy oven-safe pot over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Once oil is hot, brown lamb shank on all sides and transfer to a plate.

Reduce heat to medium and sauté onions with a little salt until just softened, 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add garlic, celery, and crushed juniper berries and cook for another 5 to 7 minutes.

Add reduced wine, 1/3 cup of water, tomato paste, and bay leaf and stir, scraping up browned bits. Return lamb and any accumulated juices to the pot and bring to boil. Remove from heat, cover with lid and place in oven. Braise for about 1-1.5 hours, until meat is almost tender.

Finish cooking on the stovetop over low heat for about 1/2 hour. If sauce is too liquid, leave the lid slightly ajar so it will reduce. Conversely, if it gets too dry, add water, a little at a time. Remove from heat. Stir in lemon juice and transfer to individual plates or a serving dish. Top with crushed pink peppercorn and spruce needles and garnish with a few whole spruce tips.