It started, as many things do, with my sister, Sue. She followed a Middle Eastern recipe for lamb shanks from The New York Times that called for saffron and pomegranates. “Amazing,” she texted afterwards. How could I not do the the same, especially for dinner on an inhospitable winter night?
The choices to where I could find the best shanks falls between my neighborhood’s Greek or Middle Eastern markets. They each have glass cases that prominently display whole lambs and goats. The Greek market is closer and, since it’s a three layers bundling up day, the Greek market it is.
“Two lamb shanks, please?” I ask the man behinds the counter.
“Two?” He asks in a thick accent.
He disappears into the back and, upon returning, holds up a plastic bag. “Okay?” he says.
The bag is opaque with frost but its heft should reveal two meaty shanks. And they’re a bargain at $7. I very excitedly walk home where I place the bag on the counter to defrost for cooking later in the day.
“What the hell is that thing down there?” The husband shouts from the kitchen a few hours later. I’m half way through a very difficult paragraph in a story that should be pouring from my brain through my fingers and easily swirling across the blank screen that I’ve been staring at for a week.
Not getting a response, he breaks into my room and repeats his question. “What is that?”
“In the kitchen?”
“No it isn’t.”
Annoyed, I say, “yes it is.”
“It’s staring at me! It has teeth!”
Jesus, Mary and Joseph I utter and get up to prove him wrong.
The frost has dewed in the plastic bag and, even from the doorway, I can see what he’s talking about. Large startled black eyes, a long narrow nose ending in a mouth where the tip of a tongue lulls behind buck teeth.
“You’re not cooking that thing!”
“You’re going to throw it away, right?” He asks in a tone half way between commanding and pleading, then leaves me to decipher his meaning.
I do throw it out but then retrieve it. I hate wasting food, especially since so many are doing without. The little head represents a prominent food culture edict that meat eaters should contemplate where their meat comes from. Besides, I’ve read that lamb’s head–actually a lot of animal and fish heads–is a delicacy. And I’ve never backed away from dishes that nauseate others.
A couple of cookbooks pile up beside the head. Every recipe calls for a split head. Surely there’s one for a whole head. That, of course, means YouTube but this confirms that a lamb’s head should be halved. I suspect the reason is a) it’ll be easier to cook and b) it’ll look less like a head.
Sidebar here: I’m not completely on board with not cooking a whole head considering the number of spit and oven roasted whole pigs I’ve stood around in my travels. They’re always surrounded by a crowd of people not at all turned off as they fight over cheek meat.
One video, however, reveals how to break a skull in two. The guy starts with a large butcher knife, then a hack saw, chisel and hammer, and back to the knife–with a cleaver kept nearby–before the job is done. He seems to enjoy the challenge and, once accomplished, shows how to soak the head overnight, remove the brain and tongue, and roast it in olive oil, rosemary, salt and pepper. He fries the brains and boils the tongue before frying it, as well. The little cheeks, scooped out of the roasted head, seems to be the only part he enjoys out of the whole production.
I contemplate the head. It contemplates me. I struggle back into three layers, trudge out into the freezing cold and return the little fellow to the Greek market where they’re happy to exchange it. They don’t carry shanks so I grab a couple of lamb chops that I’m not convinced I’ll cook anytime soon.
Hed credit: Farm2Fork.com