Flavorful lamb shanks may come from the lowly ankle of the lamb, but their long cooking time transforms them into a special dinner, and the meal deserves a distinctive starter to match. Choose a starter that contrasts with the lamb's richness and that uses fresh and interesting ingredients to make the first course as out of the ordinary as the lamb shanks themselves. Braised lamb shanks are even more flavorful and rich if you make them a day ahead and let their flavors develop in the refrigerator overnight.
Light and Flavorful Salads
The freshness, crispness or slightly bitter flavors of a salad will make the richness of the lamb shanks all the more welcome. Serve a salad with lettuces that you normally would not serve, such as tender butterhead or feathery frisee. Or, add ingredients to elevate the salad beyond everyday fare, such as thin fennel shavings, blue cheese crumbles or herbs, such as dill, parsley and basil leaves.
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A Sip of Soup
Lamb shanks are a warming and heavy entree, so light soups whet the appetite but aren't too filling before the piece de resistance arrives. Your choices for clear soups, also called consomme, include pea shoots in a vegetable broth, beef broth with scallions or a tomato soup made with broth instead of milk or cream. For soups that are only slightly more heavy, serve small cups of asparagus, roasted red bell pepper, scallion or watercress soup.
Eat Your Veggies
If you serve a vegetable starter, you can save the lamb shanks and a starch for the main course. Flavorful but simple possibilities include broccoli, tomatoes, leeks or fennel roasted with a drizzle of olive oil, some minced garlic, salt, pepper and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Sprinkle on some buttered breadcrumbs during the last 15 minutes of roasting and serve the vegetables either straight from the oven or cooled to room temperature.
A Little of Everything
With an antipasto plate, from the Italian for "before the meal," your guests can pick and choose among an assortment of treats to perk-up their taste buds or you can compose individual plates in the kitchen. Typical antipasto foods include cured meats, such as salami, an assortment of deli-style olives, marinated vegetables, such as mushrooms or raw carrots, and thin slices of cheese or balls of fresh mozzarella.