Looking through a number of recently acquired cookbooks, I came across a recipe for a Tuscan beef stew called peposo (peppery) owing to its liberal use (up to 6 tablespoons) of black pepper. As I researched the recipe both in my books and online, my mouth started to water. But the more I read, the more it appeared that this tasty dish was better suited for winter than early summer. So, I placed peposo on the back burner and began to search for a more seasonal recipe, which eventually led me to Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca’s insightful collection of authentic recipes, The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen.
In the book’s “Estate – Summer” section, I found a relatively simple dish, Summertime Lamb Stew, which the authors describe as “comforting, homey. . .one of those recipes that ‘gourmet cooks’ are always surprised at, because ‘there’s nothing to it’ except the kind of ingredients that every refrigerator provides; and yet it tastes simply delicious.”
“Simply delicious” perfectly describes this dish, with lamb flavor that was succulent yet light; much different from other braises of this meat. The judicious use of marjoram, as opposed to the more typical and aggressive rosemary, also contributed to the unique flavor profile of what the authors aptly call “this cheerful little stew.”
I followed the recipe rather closely, but unable to find good tomatoes, I substituted canned San Marzanos drained of their liquid. My use of a full teaspoon of fresh marjoram leaves far exceeded the ¼ teaspoon called for by the recipe. Some other departures from the recipe included: (1) my having to remove my too finely diced pancetta from the pan as I was browning the lamb to avoid burning it and (2) doubling the cooking time to 90 minutes for “perfectly tender” meat because I had butchered my lamb into rather generous 2-inch pieces.
If you’re looking for a seasonal entrée for your next dinner party, this is it. I served mine accompanied by sautéed string beans and a crusty loaf of bread. For wine, I chose a bottle of Pinot Noir I had on hand or, if you prefer to keep it Italian, the authors suggest a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.
Summertime Lamb Stew (from The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen by Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca)
3 to 5 tablespoons olive oil
1½ ounces pancetta, chopped (Don’t chop the pancetta too fine like I did lest it burn while you’re browning the lamb.)
Flour for dredging
2 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut in 1½- to 2-inch chunks
½ cup chopped onion
½ cup chopped carrot
½ cup chopped celery
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
¼ teaspoon chopped fresh marjoram leaves (I used a full teaspoon.)
Freshly ground black pepper
¾ pound ripe plum tomatoes, roughly chopped (I substituted canned San Marzano tomatoes.)
½ cup broth
1. In a large flameproof casserole, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil and sauté the pancetta over low heat 2 to 3 minutes, until it begins to render its fat.
2. Raise heat to medium-high, lightly flour the pieces of lamb, and brown them a few at a time, removing them to a plate as they are done. Add another tablespoon or two of oil if necessary.
3. When all the lamb is browned, add the onion, carrot, celery, parsley, and marjoram to the pan and sauté 5 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft, stirring occasionally.
4. Return the lamb to the pan, mix it with the vegetables, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. (Be sure to add any accumulated juices from the browned meat.)
5. Pass the tomatoes through a food mill directly into the casserole. (At this point, you may want to scrape off any burned lamb or vegetable pieces stuck to the bottom of the pan.)
6. Add the broth and stir everything together.
7. Bring to a boil, reduced to a simmer, cover, and cook 45 to 50 minutes, or until the lamb is perfectly tender. (Because of the size of my lamb chunks, it took 90 minutes for the lamb to reach the perfectly tender stage.)
8. If there is more than a moderate amount of liquid in the pan when the lamb is ready, raise heat and boil rapidly for a minute or two to reduce it. Served directly from the casserole.
Wine Pairing: Pinot Noir, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo