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Ancho Coffee Braised Beef Shanks

The fact that I am not a fan of Valentine's Day did not stop me from making jokes about Shack and his shanks for two days as I was preparing this dish last week. It was only a happy accident that we ended up having this for dinner on Feb 14 but I ran with the opportunity to pretend that it was meant to be a romantic token of my undying love and that alone make them worth their weight in gold. Shank is a funny word at any time but when your husband's name is Shack, it's even funnier. Actually, I often call The Kid Shank in moments of confusion.... you know, now that I think about it, I really should take this as a sign and make them more often.

I have been obsessing about this beef cooked in a an ancho coffee sauce that they serve at Xola, a mexican restaurant in The Beaches. The first time I had it they were not called Xola and they were on the Danforth but it's the same restaurant and it's the same, delicious beef that is served with warm corn tortillas so you can make little tacos with it at the table.  I have been playing around, trying to replicate it for over a year but I never really seem to get it quite right. Up until now I was only using stewing beef but then I spied the beef shanks that were on special at the butcher and my little brain got to work.

When I went looking for some shankspiration I kept seeing the same recipe for Ancho Braised Beef Shanks from The Unorthodox Epicure pop up all over the place and thought it sounded kind of close to something I could work with. What I was really interested in was the idea of making a paste out of the dried chilis and aromatics and in the end, it was this paste that finally got me over the hump. I used the recipe as a jumping off point, taking out what I didn't want, adding the things I did want in there and tweaking it until I got it just right. I don't know that this dish actually tastes all the much like the beef I am trying to copy but that's okay because it's so good that it's made me forget about the other beef and that is even better. Now that I have the paste/sauce thing down, I will try it with stewing beef next and report back with the results.

The sauce is a bit on the thin side so if you really want you can thicken it up by either boiling and reducing the braising liquid, adding a slurry of flour/water or just do whatever you would normally do to thicken up a gravy but I like it a bit on the soupy side myself. I love the way it pools around the mashed potatoes and, to be honest,  I almost like the gravy and potatoes so much that I could happily skip the meat altogether.

It's a good idea to try to make these types of braised dishes ahead of time because they just get better after sitting for a day or two so when at all possible, make it in advance and leave it in the fridge for up to three days. This way you can just scrape off the fat that will congeal on the top before you reheat it, which is much easier than trying to degrease it when it's still hot out of the oven. Shanks are cheap and full of flavour but they are fatty so you do want to make the effort to remove as much fat as possible from the top of the cooking liquid. I just let it cool to room temperature and throw the whole pot that I cooked it in right in the fridge.

Chocolate, candy and flowers are all very nice but nothing says I love you like a big pot of spicy shanks.

Ancho Coffee Braised Beef Shanks

adapted from The Unorthodox Epicure
serves 4

buttery savoy cabbage was a perfect foil for the rich sauce and creamy mashed potatoes


4 beef shanks about 6 oz each
4 dried ancho chilis
2 cups water
1 onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tbls chipotle chili powder
1 tbls kosher salt
1 tbls brown sugar
1 tbls cumin
2 tbls canola oil or other veg oil
salt and pepper
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup strong coffee
1 leek, chopped


bring 2 cups of water to a boil and drop in the dried ancho chilis. Let simmer for 10 minutes and then take out the chilis but reserve the water. Remove and discard the stems and the seeds from the chilis and chop them roughly.

In a food processor or blender, blend the chopped ancho chili, the onion, garlic, chipotle powder, kosher salt, sugar and cumin until you have a thick paste. Add the soaking water, 1 tbls at a time,  if you need it to help make a thick paste.

Preheat the oven to 300F

Heat the canola oil in a heavy, oven proof pot or braising pan over med heat. Lightly salt and pepper the shanks and brown them in the hot pan. Leave the shanks, undisturbed for at least 3 minutes per side to make sure they get nicely browned and remove them to a big plate.

Deglaze the pan with some of the chicken stock, stirring with a wooden spoon to make sure you get up all that nice fond from the bottom. Add in the ancho paste and the leeks and saute for just a minute before you add in the rest of the stock, the coffee and the reserved chili soaking liquid. Put the meat back into the pot - it should be just covered with liquid. Bring to a boil, cover and put it into the oven and cook for between 2-3 hours.

If I am cooking it to eat the next day (or even the day after that) I cook for two hours and then reheat it for an hour at 300F on the day. If you are going to eat it that night, cook it for 3 hours.

If you are serving it right away, you are going to have to remove the meat and then skim as much of the fat off the top as you can manage before you serve it. If you are going to refrigerate it for a day or two, just scrape the congealed fat off the top after you take it out of the fridge, before you reheat it (again, reheat it in the same oven proof pot, covered for an hour at 300F)

The best way to serve it, to me, is to remove a shank with tongs and lay it on top of a bed of mashed potatoes before covering the whole thing in sauce. YUM

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