A Leg Up On Passover | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

A Leg Up On Passover


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The complicated culinary politics of serving lamb on Pesach.

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When we think about the prohibitions of Passover, chametz comes to mind first, of course, and yet other foods are restricted too, at least for some of us. Lamb, for example. Because of traditions that have emerged over centuries, lamb is a frequent seder entree for Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews but not for Ashkenazim. 

In ancient times, a whole lamb was sacrificed at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem on the eve of Passover. After the Temple was destroyed, rabbis forbade serving a whole, roasted lamb out of respect for the loss of sacrificial practices. Ashkenazim gave up serving lamb completely, as an expression of sorrow — the only acknowledgment to the ancient sacrifice is a shank bone, represented on the seder plate. 

But Sephardim and Mizrachi Jews took the opposite view. For them, eating lamb is a reminder that the beloved holy place once existed.

There is no actual biblical or Talmudic rule that forbids eating lamb meat on Passover, and as a culinary choice, it is a delicious one. I’m from an Ashkenazi family and sometimes serve lamb at my seders. Everyone enjoys the occasional change-up in the menu. 

If you are of a mind to serve something different this Passover, or, if you always serve lamb and are looking for a new recipe, may we offer: Braised Lamb Shanks with Dried Fruit and Spices.

Shank is a cut of meat from the lamb’s leg, just below the knee. Some say it is unglamorous because it’s muscular and can be gristly and tough unless you cook it properly. It’s also less expensive than premium cuts such as the rib — but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, do you? Besides, this dish has a bonus for harried home cooks preparing for Passover: You can make it two to three days ahead. It actually tastes better after the flavors have mixed and mellowed for a day or so.

You have to take some time when cooking fibrous meat cuts such as shank. The best method is braising, that is, cooking slowly at low heat surrounded by fluids. This slow cooking helps the gristly fibers to soften to tenderness and the gelatin in the fibrous connective tissue breaks down and melts into the rich, glossy sauce.

Most braising recipes recommend that you brown the meat first. It isn’t an essential step, but I think it gives the dish a rich color and adds flavor to the pan fluids.

Once you brown the meat and add the other ingredients, it’s easy going. Either leave the casserole on low on the cooktop, or in a low temperature oven (no higher than 300 degrees; I usually set my oven at 275 degrees) for at least three hours, until the meat is practically falling off the bone. I always serve the dish as is: the shank with its cooking vegetables and sauce. But if you prefer, puree the liquid and vegetables together to create a smooth, perhaps fancier-looking sauce.

When all is said and done, this is a festive, colorful dish, worthy of any celebration. I’ve served it on the High Holidays with noodles, but on Passover mashed potatoes would be an ideal side dish to sop up the glorious gravy. I like sautéed spinach or broccoli as a side dish; any green vegetable will do.

Braised Lamb Shanks with Dried Apricots and Fragrant Spices

Ronnie Fein is a cookbook author, food writer and cooking teacher in Stamford, Conn. She is the author of The Modern Kosher Kitchen and Hip Kosher. Visit her food blog, Kitchen Vignettes, at www.ronniefein.com, friend on Facebook at RonnieVailFein, Twitter at @RonnieVFein, Instagram at RonnieVFein.

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