Lamb for Rosh Hashana continues family's tradition

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Lamb for Rosh Hashana continues family's tradition picked up in Israel when that was the animal

A fresh approach to Rosh Hashana (the observance begins at sundown Sept. 20) brings lamb to the table, a Sephardic family custom from Shoshana (Shoshy) Mor and her older brother Yoram Danino, who now live in Skokie. They were born and raised in Israel on Moshav Mivtahim, a collective farm where their parents, Sol and Yosef Danino, had found a safe home a long way from the anti-Semitism and hatred from Arab neighbors in their native Morocco.

Why lamb? "That's what was there, lamb and goats, raised by Arabs in nearby Gaza," said Sol Danino. "We would get a few of them at 2 to 3 weeks old, mix powdered milk with water, feed them through a nipple slipped on top of a beer bottle."

When the young were weaned, Yoram Danino's job was to walk them on a long rope, then tie the animals to a stake he put in the weeds. Before leaving for school, he filled a bucket of water, leaving the animals to walk around, still tied to the post.

Over many phone calls to her mother, Sol, in Israel, Mor translated their conversations for me. "Lamb was the cheapest way to feed a family and get as much meat as possible. It was nothing to do with the Torah," referring to the Book of Genesis and the binding of Isaac, a story read on Rosh Hashana about Abraham's intended sacrifice of his son. A ram caught in a thicket appeared, and it was sacrificed instead.

Ashkenazim in America do cook lamb for Rosh Hashana, but it depends on their tradition, explained Joan Nathan, the doyenne of worldwide Jewish cooking, in an email. "Many Conservative and Orthodox Jews won't cook lamb, especially roast lamb, as it reminds them of the destruction of the first temple. However, it is not a law and loads of Jews, even Conservative ones, are now making it for the holidays."

"The shochet (rabbi) — he always looked like an old man to me," said Danino as he reconstructed the killing of the lamb, a scene he had witnessed more than 50 times.

You might cringe all the way through each beat of a kosher kill, and I probably did, yet Danino was unfazed, and talked about his appetite — for the intestines or a barbecued tail. His eyes widened. "A big round tail."

"And full of fat," his sister Mor chimed in.

"The most delicious dish, it's called the ... the ..." He faltered for the English translation.

Knowing they ate the whole animal, I offered up "stomach?"

"Yes! Stomach! Where all the food they just ate sits," Danino was excited.

Again, Mor's words caught other details. "But it's washed out in water before you eat it."

On the eve of Rosh Hashana, they had fish first, then bone-in lamb, their version of osso buco, served with rice and small potatoes. For lunch the next day, the lamb was barbecued and served with couscous made from scratch.

Although a lamb's tail might not make it to your holiday table this year, perhaps the shanks would offer a delicious change from brisket?

Peggy Wolff is a freelance writer.

Moroccan-style lamb shanks

Prep: 40 minutes

Cook: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Makes: 6 servings

When the family lived in Israel, Sol Danino served lamb for the first night of Rosh Hashana, Erev Chag, and for lunch the following day. Since there was no freezer, every part of the animal was used, providing enough meat for the two-day holiday, intestines for casing some ground meat pieces, internal organs such as the heart and liver, and skin for a drum called darbuka.

1/4 cup vegetable oil

6 lamb shanks, about 14 ounces each, bone-in, don't trim fat

Salt to taste

6 large onions, sliced

3 tablespoons brown sugar

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1/2 tablespoon turmeric

1/2 tablespoon white pepper

3 tablespoons granulated beef bouillon or 9 instant beef bouillon cubes

1/3 cup blanched, sliced almonds without skins

1 Heat oven to 375 degrees. Place a wide skillet on medium to medium-high heat; coat the bottom with the oil. Season the lamb shanks generously with salt. In two batches, sear both sides of the lamb shanks, 3-5 minutes per side.

2 Transfer the meat to a platter, leaving the liquid in the pan; cook the onions on medium until golden brown, about 18 minutes.

3 Mix brown sugar, spices and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a small bowl; stir the mixture into the onions; add the beef bouillon. Mix well.

4 Using two ungreased baking pans, layer each in this order: a thin layer of onions on the bottom, then lamb shanks, then top with more onions. Cover with foil. Bake until lamb is tender, 2 hours.

5 To toast almonds, spread them in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet; toast in the oven until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle over the shanks before serving.

Nutrition information per serving: 601 calories, 27 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 181 mg cholesterol, 26 g carbohydrates, 13 g sugar, 62 g protein, 1,406 mg sodium, 4 g fiber

Variation: Braising

In the test kitchen, we also had good results braising the lamb. To do so, in step 4, use 2 cups reduced-sodium beef broth instead of the buillion. Pour the onion mixture into a large Dutch oven. Add the lamb shanks. Bake, covered, at 300 degrees until lamb is tender, about 2 1/2 hours.

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