Rosalba Ciannamea waited until the ninth and last night of my stay at her Puglia guest farm to serve this lamb casserole. She said the dish was family food, not elegant enough for guests. Her family loved it, it came from her grandmother who, in turn, learned the recipe from her grandmother. She layers chunks of seasoned lamb with thin sliced new potatoes in a deep terracotta baking dish.
If you follow Rosalba's counsel, never stir the casserole, and bake it slowly, you will have a fabulous dinner. Everything is steeped in the soft roasted tastes of garlic, tomato, cheese, and parsley. The lamb practically melts, and the potatoes get a little crusty as they absorb all those flavors. When several of my friends tasted the lamb, they voted that its sauce and chunks of meat were made for Puglia's Orecchiette pasta. Try it and see. Plan on only a salad with the lamb.
Cook to Cook: The lamb bakes in about 2 1/4 hours. It can be held at room temperature an hour and reheated. The next day it tastes even better. Puglia cooks stuff the same seasoning blend into slits of a leg of lamb for roasting, baked fish, and even pork roast and breast of turkey. Toss it with hot potatoes, cooked green beans or sauteed broccoli. Yellow Finn potatoes, with their tight waxiness and buttery sweetness, are just like the potatoes dug from Il Frantoio's vegetable gardens. Next best are small red skins, then Yukon Golds.
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Mince together the parsley, garlic, and drained tomato. Blend with the cheese. If using a food processor, first grate the cheese and turn it into a medium bowl. With the machine running, drop in the garlic, then the parsley, and finally the tomatoes to just coarsely chop them. Immediately turn off processor and blend everything with the cheese. Toss 1/3 of the mixture with the lamb, adding salt and pepper. Lightly oil the bottom and sides of a deep 4 1/2 to 5 quart casserole or pot. ( I use a 5 quart enameled cast iron pot, or a deep 5 quart terra cotta casserole.)
2. Spread 1 tablespoon of the minced blend over the bottom of the pot. Cover with half the potatoes arranged in an overlapping pattern. Sprinkle potatoes with salt and pepper, another 2 tablespoons of the minced blend, and about 1 teaspoon olive oil. Top with all the meat and another teaspoon oil. Overlap the rest of the potatoes on the meat, sprinkle with remaining herb blend, and a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Finish with salt and pepper. Pour the water down the side of the casserole.
3. Bake, uncovered, 45 minutes. Tip casserole and carefully spoon out pan juices to baste the top of the potatoes. Turn heat up to 325 degrees and continue baking another 1 1/2 hours, or until lamb is tender when pierced. Baste 2 or 3 times, while cooking. Serve hot, or hold up to an hour, reheating at 350 degrees. Sprinkle with the parsley just before taking to the table.
Serving with Pasta: The stew makes an outrageously good sauce. Leftover lamb is so fine reheated on its own, and outstanding tossed with orecchiette pasta. Count on about half pound orecchiette for a full recipe.
Reprinted from The Italian Country Table: Home Cooking from Italy’s Farmhouse Kitchens, by Lynne Rossetto Kasper.
Darra Goldstein is editor in chief of The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, an 888-page reference guide to all things sweet. "The book is really a compendium of human desires, a cultural history of desire for things that are sweet and what it has caused in the world, in both the realm of pleasure and also of pain," she says.