It Ain't Pretty, But it Sure is Good

There’s a hotel in my neighborhood that straddles the High Line Park, and became rather infamous due to an aspect of its design. Rather than face the view of the Hudson a block away, the hotel windows face out on the park and surrounding neighborhood below. Which leads to the infamy. When the hotel opened, its guests were “encouraged” to exhibit. The art on display was the guest, preferably sans apparel. Naturally, the cheekier guests always oblige. I suppose if you are proud of what you’ve got there’s no reason to not show it off. Especially if you are encouraged to do so and 50 feet above the viewing public below, thus being somewhat anonymous to all but those with the sharpest eyesight. However, as one who walks along the High Line early morning, the scenery can come as a bit of a shock. Imagine walking along lost in thought and whatever tune is in your head, and looking up to see a buck-naked guest “stretching” in front of the window. (Naked folk who know someone is probably watching always seem to be stretching, obviously to give you the full effect). You glance away quickly, and then look again because that’s the arrangement between exhibitionist and unintentional voyeur. When the “view” is appealing, all this early morning activity isn’t all together bad. Hell, it works to wake me up almost as well as the cup of caffeine in my hand. However when it’s 7:30am and the view is less so, well, just because you can stand naked in a hotel window doesn’t mean you should. Perhaps that’s not fair or particularly kind, maybe the displayer is a terrific guy, but all I can think is "GOOD GOD MAN, put on a robe!"

Unfortunately we all have a tendency to jump to judgment on superficial data. If something doesn’t look appealing how could it possibly be appealing? This is especially true when it comes to food.  Sure we taste with our eyes, but sometimes beauty is in the tongue and nose of the beholder. Just because something doesn’t look pretty doesn’t mean it’s not tasty as all get out. Fact is, ugly food can be awfully good. For example, I have a wonderful recipe for creamy spinach soup that’s absolutely delicious. Unfortunately, it’s color of khaki. Khaki food would never make it into the glossy pages of a magazine. Food, tasty food isn’t supposed to be khaki. I’d bet it’s happened to you too. We’ve all made wonderful food, delicious dishes that when complete look like a train wreck. You follow a recipe to the T, yet when you’re done the stuff on the plate looked nothing like the picture in the cookbook. Sure it tasted great, but somehow you think you’ve failed because what was on the plate wasn’t pretty.  And I bet you would think twice before making it again.


But I say there’s hope for tasty yet ugly fare. You didn’t fail; you just found a dish that is perfect for a romantic candlelit dinner!  What better to serve when you want the recipient to focus on you?  Of course it has to taste terrific, but if it looks like a mess never fear. Just light some candles, turn down the lights and tell your someone to close their eyes as you put the first bite in their mouth. Believe me, between you, the candlelight, the wonderful taste on their tongue, and the thoughts of what might be on the menu for dessert, they’re not going to be looking at the plate anyway. And that ugly food gets a little love too.

I seem to have accumulated several recipes that taste better than they look. It’s the culinary equivalent of buying a dress because you know it looks better on you than on the hanger. My Cozy Lamb shanks with White Beans and Vermouth is one of those dishes. One of the recipes that served as inspiration, (looking lovely on its clipped glossy page), called for serving the lamb standing proudly on the shank. Yet when I was done, the bone decided to go one way and the meat the other. That’s when I decided I liked it better with the meat shredded a bit and off the bone anyway. While not exactly ugly, the final dish is a bit of a mishmash of tender pieces of lamb, beans, and vegetables in a rich reddish sauce. While I doubt it would make the glossy pages of anything, it sure tastes good!

Cozy Lamb Shanks with While Beans and Vermouth

Serves 4

  • 1 ½ TBSP olive oil
  • 2 lamb shanks (about 2 lbs total), trimmed of some of the fat
  • 1 cup chopped onions
  • 2 fat garlic cloves, sliced thin
  • 1 cup chopped carrots (about 2 carrots)
  • 2 ribs celery, chopped
  • 2-3 sage leaves, finely chopped
  • 2-inch piece of rosemary
  • 3-4 branches of thyme
  • 1 14oz can diced tomatoes
  • 1 can cannellini beans (don’t drain)
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1/3 cup dry vermouth
  • 1 TBSP white balsamic vinegar (you could substitute red)
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper
  • Flour for dredging

Season the lamb shanks well with salt and pepper and dredge in the flour.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Brown the shanks well on all sides and remove to a plate. Add the onions, carrots and celery and a good pinch of salt and sauté 5 minutes over medium high heat. Add the garlic and herbs and sauté another 1-2 minutes (don’t brown).  Off the heat add the vermouth and scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Return the pan to heat and add tomatoes and stock and nestle the lamb shanks in (the liquid should be about half way up the lamb – add more stock if necessary.) Bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer and cover. Simmer for 1-½ hours. After 90 minutes, add in the beans and half their liquid. Cover and simmer another 30 minutes.  When done, remove shanks to a board, shred the meat and add back into the stew. Remove the stems from the thyme and rosemary. Light the candles, fill the wine glasses, slice some crusty bread and devour! Calories: approximately 400 calories per serving.

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