• Stir It Up: Passover lamb symbolizes Jews’ escape from slavery
     | March 15,2013
    Renee Comet Photo

    Diners can celebrate Passover with a succulent, savory dish of braised lamb. The photo is from “The New Jewish Table,” by Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff Gray.

    Lamb has been eaten to celebrate spring since biblical times, and it is a traditional Easter dish. But what about lamb for Passover? Like most food questions concerning this culinarily complicated holiday, it’s tricky.

    Passover, according to the Old Testament, marks the time when God helped the Jews escape slavery by bringing 10 plagues upon the Egyptians, the last being the death of the Egyptians’ firstborn. The Jews were told to mark their door posts with lamb blood to signal death to “pass over” their homes. It worked, and the Egyptian pharaoh freed the slaves.

    The Jews left in such a hurry that they could not wait for their bread to rise and ate unleavened bread (matzo) with their roast lamb. Thus, Passover is celebrated by eating unleavened bread and abstaining from foods that could possibly be leavened, including a long list of grains, legumes, seeds, oils from seeds, food additives from grains or legumes, yeasts and more.

    But what about lamb? Roast lamb was eaten at Passover until A.D. 70, when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. In memory of this, the eating of roasted lamb was prohibited. But many Jews find lamb acceptable as long as it is not roasted but cooked in a pan with liquid.

    That sounds like braising. A lively book called “The New Jewish Table” (St. Martin’s Press, 2013) by chef Todd Gray and his wife, Ellen Kassoff Gray, offers a tasty recipe for braised lamb. Todd was raised Episcopalian, Ellen was raised Jewish, and their marriage has resulted in a successful culinary melding.

    As printed in the Grays’ book, the recipe for lamb that follows includes flour and canola oil and thus is not a Passover recipe. However, I have made a few substitutions that solve the problem. Happy Passover!

    Braised Lamb Shanks

    Yield: 6 servings

    1 large head garlic

    ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling (see notes)

    1½ teaspoons salt

    Freshly ground black pepper

    6 lamb shanks (preferably foreshanks, which are meatier)

    2 medium carrots, chopped

    1 onion, chopped

    2 stalks celery, chopped

    1/3 cup tomato paste

    3 cups red wine (see notes)

    4 cups chicken stock

    2 cups water

    3 sprigs fresh thyme

    2 cups mixed diced root vegetables, such as celery root, turnips and carrots

    Remove 4 cloves garlic from the head and set aside. Slice off the pointy end of the head to expose a bit of garlic flesh. Place the garlic head, root down, on a small square of aluminum foil, drizzle with oil and wrap. Set aside.

    Heat ¼ cup oil in a large skillet over medium-high. Sprinkle lamb with salt and pepper. Transfer to the skillet and cook until golden brown on all sides, 6 to 8 minutes total. Remove shanks from the pan and set aside on a platter lined with paper towels. In the same skillet, cook the chopped carrots, onion and celery until slightly brown, about 5 minutes.

    Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

    Peel and crush the 4 reserved garlic cloves and add to vegetables in the skillet; stir in tomato paste and cook 2 minutes. Lower heat to medium, add wine and cook until liquid is reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Taste the mixture and add salt or pepper if needed. Place shanks in a Dutch oven or casserole large enough to hold them with room to spare. Pour the vegetable and wine mixture over them; add stock, water and thyme. Cover and bake until the meat pulls away from the bone, 1½ to 2 hours. While meat is cooking, put the wrapped head of garlic in the oven. Bake until cloves are soft and caramelized, about 45 minutes. Set aside.

    When lamb is done, transfer to a warm platter and cover with foil to keep warm. Strain the liquid (the “jus”) through a mesh strainer into a saucepan and discard solids. Wash and dry the Dutch oven or casserole and return the shanks to it; keep warm. Squeeze roasted garlic into liquid in the saucepan; add diced root vegetables. Heat over medium until simmering, lower heat to medium-low and simmer until vegetables are soft, about 10 minutes. Pour liquid and vegetables over the shanks and serve.

    Notes: If “kosher for Passover” restrictions are not in play, you can substitute canola oil for the olive oil and dredge the lamb shanks in 2 cups all-purpose flour before browning them. Cabernet sauvignon would be a delicious choice for the wine.

    Recipe from “The New Jewish Table” by Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff Gray (St. Martin’s Press, 2013).

    Marialisa Calta is a syndicated food writer who lives in Calais.

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