Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What You Need to Know About Sciatica - Parshat Vayishlach

In this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob is on the run from his brother Esav. Things aren't so smooth between them and while Jacob has been trying to patch things up by sending gifts - sounds fool proof to me - he is still pretty afraid of his brother. One night, while on the run with his family, he is alone on the banks of a river and encounters an angel. They wrestle, and the angel injures Jacob in the leg, in the sciatic nerve to be exact (so technically, Jacob is the first recorded case of Sciatica). As dawn breaks the angel asks Jacob to let him go, but Jacob first wants a blessing. The angel asks his name, and then tells him that he won't be called Jacob anymore, but will be known as Israel/Yisrael from now on because he struggled with God and prevailed (the Hebrew word for struggle and God combine to make up the word Yisrael).

But Jacob isn't ready to put down his dukes and wants to know the angel's name - in Hebrew he says "Hagidah Na Shimecha" "Tell me your name." But the angel has no more fight in him and leaves. As Jacob limps away the Torah inserts a verse into the narrative: "Therefore the children of Israel do not eat the sciatic nerve that is on the thigh, to this day because Jacob was injured in his sciatic nerve" (Genesis 32:32). Interestingly, the word for the sciatic nerve is "Gid Hanashe," which sounds very similar to Jacob's words "Hagidah Na Shimecha" "Tell me your name". The Torah is full of these kinds of plays on words and connections and this has always been an interesting one to me.

The prohibition of eating the sciatic nerve, the gid hanashe, is a rule that made it into the traditional laws of keeping kosher (for a great illustration of the nerve on a cow check out my dad's Mishna Chulin). The sciatic nerve is the longest and widest nerve in a mammal's body, running from the lower back down to the lower limb. In animals it can technically be removed through a process called nikkur, but it is labor intensive and costly to do so. So no rump roast, leg of lamb, sirloin, or fillet mignon for us. Apparently, cuts that contain the gid hanashe, are available but are expensive and harder to find. I looked at the menu from my favorite kosher NY steakhouse, La Marais, and didn't see any of these cuts on their website, but did find fillet mignon for $40 a pound somewhere else online. I have heard that these cuts are more available in Europe.

Ah Europe. I just finished My Life in France by Julia Child and and Alex Prud'Homme and now all I want to do is go to France to eat meat and drink wine. I saw the movie Julie and Julia over the summer with my friends Jess, after which my mother offered me her 1961 copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I snapped it up. Yes, my mom is a major supplier for my personal cookbook library. She claims that she has offered the book to me before but I don't recall, or the sad truth may be that it took a movie to make me appreciate one of the greatest chefs of all time. I am enjoying the cook book even more, now that I know what went into it's production!

The first recipe that I tried from Mastering was for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year. I wanted to make a lamb roast and went to my favorite local butcher in Newton, Gordon and Alperin. I wanted rack or leg of lamb. He was out of rack and explained that he never carries leg because the sciatic nerve rule makes it hard to find. So instead he gave me a wonderful shoulder roast. Once I got home from that shopping trip I cracked open Mastering and chose my first recipe to execute - Herbal Mustard Coating for Roast Lamb. I cross referenced the cooking time and temperatures for the different cuts and weight of lamb to accommodate my 5 lb shoulder roast. The recipe is very straightforward and the dish has a rich yet mellow flavor. It was enjoyed by all of our Rosh Hashana guests, including my father-in-law Ruben (who was the impetus for a roast since he has a serious aversion to poultry) and my mother-in-law Judy (who gave it rave reviews).

So I present to you Julia's recipe for a delicious, gid hanashe free, shoulder roast of lamb. I dedicate the recipe to my brother Ben, (unlike Jacob I am not afraid of my brother) whom I love very much and love when he calls me asking for recipes for sweet and sour meat balls.

Mustard Encrusted Lamb Roast

From the recipe for Herbal Mustard Coating for Roast Lamb found in Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Child, Berthole and Beck- adapted for a 5lb shoulder roast.

5 lb shoulder roast (my butcher tied it up for me and it formed a nice square - this allows for more even cooking, so ask yours to do the same)
*beware the roast will shrink considerably
1/2 cup of Dijon mustard
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 clove crushed garlic (I recommend using my all time favorite garlic crusher - there's no need to peel the garlic!)
1 tsp fresh rosemary or thyme (pulled from the leaf or roughly chopped or ground)
1/4 tsp ground ginger
2 tbsp olive oil

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a bowl, mix together all the ingredients except the olive oil. Beat that in last to create a thick sauce.

Place the lamb on a rack in a roasting pan. Use a brush to cover the meat with all of the mustard sauce.

Let sit for about 20 minutes and then put into the over for an hour and fifteen minutes.

Let the lamb cool and slice right before serving. If you will be reheating it before serving don't slice until after you have reheated the meat.


  1. My favorite part of this post is your reference to "dukes." I adore you.

  2. Thanks for the shout-out Elish!

  3. Thanks Jess - glad you enjoyed that!

    You're welcome Ben, hope you keep calling for more recipes!

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