In Italy, as elsewhere, lamb—especially the milk-fed baby lamb called abbacchio—is strongly associated with the Springtime. Roman cookery has some wonderful lamb dishes, such as the grilled rib chops known as scottadito (see this post) and lamb roasted with potatoes known as abbacchio al forno con le patate (see this post for something very similar) as well as lamb braised with rosemary, vinegar and finished with a touch of mashed anchovy called abbacchio alla cacciatora.
Slightly less usual but equally good is this dish of braised lamb with lemon and egg sauce. The term ‘brodettato‘, literally ‘in a little broth’, is more or less synonymous with the term ‘fricassea’; they both refer to braises that are thickened just before serving with a lemon and egg finish. The technique is wonderful with lamb, but it is widely used with vegetables, too (as in this post on green beans in fricassea).
This dish is traditionally eaten at Easter, lamb and egg being symbols of the crucifixion and resurrection, but in my book it is too good to reserve for a single day of the year. The truly authentic version, by the way, is capretto brodettato, made with baby goat (aka kid) but since neither baby goat nor baby lamb is very common these days, at least here in the US, I have prepared the dish with good old fashioned lamb stew meat.
The recipe is simple but a bit tricky at the end. You begin with a soffritto of an onion and 50g (2 oz.) of rather fatty prosciutto (or pancetta), chopped together finely and gently sautéed in olive oil or, if you want to be truly authentic, lard. Then add 1 kilo (2 lbs.) of lightly floured cubes of lamb meat and turn up the heat a bit. Allow the meat to brown lightly—taking care not to burn the onion—and season with salt and pepper. Then add a splash of dry white wine and allow it to evaporate completely. Add enough water to almost cover the meat, lower the flame and cover. Let the lamb braise until tender, normally about an hour but the time will vary depending on how young your lamb is and how big your cubes of meat are.
Shortly before the meat is done, beat two egg yolks in a bowl and mix with the juice of a freshly squeezed lemon and finely chopped parsley. When the meat is fork tender, remove from the heat. Add a spoonful of the cooking liquid to the egg and lemon mixture to temper it, then pour the mixture immediately over the lamb and stir, until well incorporated. Return to the burner over very low heat and keep stirring gently, until the egg has thickened the cooking liquid into a smooth, silky consistency. Serve immediately.
NOTES: The trickiest part of the dish is the final addition of the lemon and egg mixture. If you let it cook too long or get too hot, the egg may curdle and the sauce will ‘break’, so let it just thicken to the point where the sauce will coat a spoon and remove it immediately from the heat. (NB: The residual heat from the pot will continue to cook the egg and thicken the sauce, so allow for that.) If things seem to be getting out of hand, add a few more drops of lemon juice, which should cool the sauce enough to prevent it from separating. If you are using a terracotta or enameled cast iron cooking vessel, you may well find that the pot retains enough residual heat that you need not put it back on the heat at all.
Some recipes for this dish, including the one in La cucina romana e del Lazio by Livio Jannattoni, from Newton & Compton’s wonderful Quest’Italia series, call for braising the lamb meat until only a minimal amount of liquid is left in the pot—but I prefer ‘brothier’ version, so I add a bit more water if need be during braising, which gives you lots of delicious sauce to fare la scarpetta.
Post scriptum: The slaughtering and eating of baby lamb for Easter is an age-old tradition in Italy and one that the first generation of immigrants to America maintained—or at least they did in my family. According to family legend, in the old days, my great aunt would buy a live baby lamb in the market, still baaing, bring it home and keep it in the bathtub. Then, the day before Easter, she would take a sharp knife and…. well, you can imagine the rest of the story.