Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Recipe Corner: Easter Lamb

Easter Lamb
Agnello Pasquale

Serves 6

Easter is our biggest feast, comparable to Thanksgiving in America. At my house, we fasted the day before Easter, in keeping with religious tradition. We would cook up plenty of eggs, wrapping them in onion skins and flowers and then boiling them. In this way, they acquired rich color which made for beautiful accents for dinner the next day. The priest came to our house to bless the eggs (and anything else we wanted him to bless!). Alongside the eggs on the Easter table, we put some olive branches, also blessed by the priest. The main course was the Paschal lamb. This recipe, which includes a lamb stew and a separately cooked rack of lamb, all garnished with fried artichokes, has been in my family for generations. The only thing I have omitted is the split and roasted lamb’s head. Consuming it was an honor reserved for the men in the family. I am sorry that this custom has not transplanted well across the Atlantic.

2 1/2 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, trimmed of excess fat and cut into ½-inch cubes
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
12 tablespoons (6 ounces) unsalted butter
¼ pound pancetta, cut into ¼-inch dice
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 sprig thyme
1 sprig rosemary
4 cups dry white wine, such as Verdicchio or Pinot Grigio
4 cups chicken stock
2 ½ quarts sunflower or peanut oil
1 rack of lamb, 7 or 8 chops
Juice of ½ lemon
12 baby artichokes
4 large eggs
½ cup dry bread crumbs
¾ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
3 tablespoons grated lemon zest
¼ cup finely chopped Italian parsley

For the Lamb Stew
Lightly season the lamb shoulder with salt and pepper. Put on a plate and let stand at room temperature for 20 minutes.

In a Dutch oven or other large heavy pot, melt 6 tablespoons of the butter over medium-high heat. Add the pancetta and sauté for 4 to 5 minutes, or until it begins to crispy. Add the onion, garlic, thyme, and rosemary and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the onion is soft and translucent. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Place a colander over a medium bowl. Melt the remaining 6 tablespoons butter in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Working in small batches so as not to overcrowd the pan, add the cubed lamb and sauté for about 3 to 4 minutes, or until the meat has browned. Transfer to the colander to drain. When all the lamb is browned and drained, add to the pot with the onions.

Set the pot over medium-high heat and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon. Add the wine and sue a wooden spatula or spoon to scrape any caramelized bits from the bottom of the pot. Reduce the heat to simmer and cook until the wine has reduced by two-thirds.

Meanwhile, heat the chicken stock in a medium saucepan.

Ladle the warm stock into the pot and quickly bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and let the stew cook gently for about 1 hour and 20 minutes, or until the lamb is very tender. (The stew can be made ahead. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day.)

Twenty minutes before cooking, remove the rack of lamb and the stew (if made ahead) from the refrigerator. Season the rack with salt and pepper and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 375. In a deep fryer or deep heavy pot, heat the oil to 350F.

For the Artichokes
 Combine the lemon juice with 4 cups water in a large bowl. Working with 1 artichoke at a time, cut off ¼ inch from the top of the artichoke and discard. Cut off the bottom of the stem. Break away the green outer leaves until you reach the tender yellow leaves. Using a paring knife, trim the heart and stem, cutting downward from the base of the leaves to the end of the stem, creating a smooth line. Cut the artichoke lengthwise in half. Using a spoon, scoop out the fuzzy choke. Place the cleaned heart in the lemon water.

For the Rack of Lamb
To cook the rack of lamb, heat a large cast-iron skillet or heavy oven proof sauté pan over medium-high heat. Place the rack fat side down in the pan and brown the meat in its own fat, about 4 minutes on each side.

Turn the rack fat side up, transfer the pan to the oven, and roast for about 8 minutes, or until it reaches an internal temperature of 125F, for medium-rare. Transfer the lamb to a platter, cover with aluminum foil, and let rest for 10 to 12 minutes.

Meanwhile, gently warm the stew over medium-low heat.

In a bowl, thoroughly mix the eggs, breadcrumbs, Parmigiano, and lemon zest. Season lightly with salt and pepper, and set aside.

While the lamb rests, cook the artichokes:

Line a baking sheet with paper towels. Drain the artichokes and pat dry. Using a slotted spoon, place the artichokes, in batches, in the hot oil and cook for about 3 minutes, or until lightly golden. Transfer the artichokes to the prepared baking sheet. Blot with paper towels and season with a little salt.

Just before serving, remove the stew from the heat. Mix in the egg mixture and stir until the sauce thickens. If the sauce doesn’t thicken, warm it slightly over very low heat; do not overheat, or the eggs will scramble.

Spoon the stew into a large serving dish. Slice the rack into individual chops and arrange around the stew. Garnish with the artichokes and sprinkle with the parsley. Serve immediately.