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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Barbecued Lamb Shanks

Passover is coming.  So is Holy Week, for that matter, so I'm working on plans for a Maundy Thursday Passover Seder and Last Supper Service at church.   Over the years, I've been to seders hosted by a variety of organizations:  Hillel societies, synagogues, interfaith associations, and churches and I've seen what can go right when people come together to celebrate the ancient story of the journey from slavery to freedom.  I've also seen what can go wrong when allegedly well-meaning Christians appropriate the rituals of Judaism and try to Christianize them, saying things like, "When Jews celebrate the Passover, they think that the lamb shank represents the lambs whose blood was sprinkled on the doorposts of their homes so that the Angel of Death would pass over, but we Christians know that the real Lamb of God is Jesus, who died on the cross so that we can have eternal life."  Our service, therefore, will be a Passover seder, celebrating the Jewishness of the story of the Exodus and celebrating how this was a regular part of Jesus' life.  We'll also explore how Jesus took the elements of the seder and reinterpreted them when he broke the bread and shared the cup with his disciples in what we now understand to be the sacrament of Communion. 

So, we're getting ready for the event, a full-bore family-style sit-down meal with candles on the tables and I'm working on the logistics of figuring out how many people will be there, how many matzot we'll need, and how much charoset we'll have to make. The food items, though, are easy, compared to the one inedible item on the seder plate: a lamb shank bone.

Several years ago, when I was in Pennsylvania, my church held a similar event for Maundy Thursday. I made braised lamb shanks for my family's dinner a week or so earlier and then took the bones and boiled them until anything objectionable had detached from them. The only problem was that it took a long time to boil all the connective tissue from the bones and I accidentally left them on the stove when we all went to church one evening. We returned to find the fire department in our apartment, with ventilation fans clearing the smoke.

This year, I'm opted for barbecued lamb shanks. I did a quick check on the internet and found that almost everyone says that it can't be done, that the meat will burn or dry out before all of the tough and chewy bits soften up. Steve Raichlen, in Barbecue USA, has a rather Byzantine method of cooking shanks, involving a combination of traditional low-and-slow barbecuing techniques for an hour and change and, then, wrapping the shanks in foil for an additional hour while they finish cooking.

I'm nothing if not hopeful and ambitious, so I decided that I could make barbecued lamb shanks for dinner tonight. Around 2:00, I started a bunch of shanks brining. By 4:30, I had them coated in olive oil, garlic, rosemary, salt and pepper, and put them on the cool side of the grill, with a pan of water with onions and garlic beneath the meat, next to the bank of coals. For the next two hours, I kept basting the shanks with a mixture of orange, lemon & lime juice, as they cooked slowly, then I added honey to the mixture for the final baste at 6:30. I took the meat off the grill and served dinner -- the lamb shanks, with raisin and toasted almond couscous and grilled zucchini. Unfortunately, though the meat was done, the connective tissue was still very connective and, while I don't mind gnawing on a bone to get the meat off, neither Kimberly nor Ian is particularly happy with doing so.

While the meat wasn't exactly a failure, it was far from a success. I'd try again, using Raichlen's technique, except that I'm not actually that big a fan of lamb shanks. (Remember, I was really doing this to produced shank bones for the seder plates at church.) I expect that the next lamb that hits my grill will be a boneless leg of lamb, with lots of cumin and cilantro. Oh well...

So, now, I've got a freezer bag of cubed lamb and a pot of lamb shank-bones simmering on the stove, making some lamb stock for a future recipe. I see a lamb stew in the future.

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