I’m pretty sure that no one will disagree that tomato season has reached its end. For many of us who cook, this means transitioning from meaty plum or Roma tomatoes to their canned counterparts. Last Saturday, however, I still had four Romas from our local farmers market on my counter ready to sing their swan song but in need of some accompaniment.
Ready to step into that role was a small boned leg of lamb longing for release from the depths of my freezer. Now it was up to me to find these talented performers a score. Given the odd shape of my small roast, I thought. It would do best in some kind of stew or braise, but most of cookbooks called for shoulder to fulfill this role.
Eventually, I found a recipe that seemed custom made for these ingredients in Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca’s Seasons of the Italian Kitchen: “Braised Lamb Abruzzi Style.” Although this dish would traditionally be prepared with lamb shoulder, the recipe allowed for boneless leg. Moreover, its calling for just a few ingredients would allow the tomatoes and lamb to take center stage.
As the conductor for this performance, and alas its only critic, I must say it was a hit. The tomatoes and the lamb sang in perfect harmony, both exhibiting their strengths. The lamb was juicy and tender, infused with rosemary and garlic notes. The tomatoes yielded a richly flavored savory sauce that lingered on the palate with hints of heat from two tiny peperoncini and an unctuousness from some diced pork. (I should add here that the pork role, which was to be played by pancetta, was assumed at the last minute by some thick-sliced bacon, owing to the former’s unavailability that night.) Indeed, the entire cast came together in what the only other attendee called an “exhibition of counterpoint” between sweet and savory as well as spicy and herbaceous.
I’m sure my readers are glad that I’m finished with my indulgence in prose, but I hope at least a few of them will attempt to recreate this dish in their kitchens and enjoy it as much as we did at our table.
The original recipe called for the meat to be served with homemade wide egg noodles, buttered and sprinkled with Parmigiano, but I substituted a creamy polenta. Other substitutions included fresh tomatoes for canned Italian style and bacon for pancetta.
Braised Lamb, Abruzzi Style (adapted from The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen by Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca.)
2 pounds boneless leg of lamb in one piece
4 cloves of garlic, 2 slivered; 2 minced
1 tablespoon, fresh rosemary leaves
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 dried peperoncini peppers, or ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
6 ounces thickly sliced bacon or pancetta, blanched for one minute, drained, and dried and then diced
½ cup Sauvignon Blanc, or there dry white
4 large ripe Roma or plum tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1. Using a knife, open the lamb up like a book.
2. Make small incisions in the interior of the roast and insert the slivered garlic.
3. Sprinkle the rosemary leaves over the meat
4. Close the roast and tie securely in several places with kitchen string.
5. In a heavy-bottomed casserole or Dutch oven, just large enough to hold the roast,heat the olive oil and brown the roast on all sides over medium-high heat, approximately 8 to 10 minutes.
6. Season with salt and add the peperoncini and bacon.
7. Add the wine and cook briskly, scraping any browned bits from the bottom of the pot, until the wine is almost evaporated, approximately 4 to 5 minutes.
8. Add the tomatoes, parsley, minced garlic, and oregano. Stir everything together well and bring to a simmer.
9. Cover and simmer 1 1/2 – 2 hours, or until the lamb is tender. During cooking, occasionally turn the meat and stir the sauce. After the first hour, check the level of liquid in the pot and continue cooking either covered or uncovered as necessary to thicken the sauce.
10. If used, remove the peperoncini.
11. Remove the strings from the lamb and carve into thick slices or chunks and serve on warmed plates, with polenta or noodles.
Wine Pairing: Montepulcino d’Abruzzo