Baby milk-fed lamb or abbacchio is one of the wonders of Roman cooking, in particular in the spring. Lamb that young is not often found in markets in our neck of the woods, but the same techniques work well with mature lamb as well. So the other day I took some lamb shanks I had in the freezer, braised them slowly until the meat was falling-off-the-bone tender, and finished them with flavorings typical of abbachio alla romana, Roman-Style Baby Lamb. The result was certainly different, but delicious all the same. I served the shanks with polenta, a combination perhaps more typical of America than Rome, but all the same it makes a fine combination for a piatto unico.
- 4-6 lamb shanks
- 1 garlic clove
- 1 sprig of rosemary
- Olive oil (or lard)
- Salt and pepper
- White wine
For the finish:
- 1-2 cloves of garlic
- 2-3 anchovy fillets
- A spoonful or two white wine vinegar, enough to form a paste
Sauté the garlic and rosemary in olive oil (or lard) in a heavy casserole until the garlic has been ever so lightly browned and fragrant. Remove both the garlic and the rosemary from the pot.
Add the lamb shanks to the seasoned fat and brown them well on all sides. Season them generously with salt and pepper, turning all the while. Add a splash of white wine to the pot, turning the lamb shanks around once again to coat them well.
Then cover the pot tightly and lower the heat. Let the lamb shanks simmer, covered, until very tender, about 2-1/2 hours or so. Moisten from time time, as needed, with a bit more wine or water.
About 20 minutes before the lamb is done, mash together the garlic and anchovy finely, then add a bit of the vinegar, enough to form a loose paste. Add this mixture to the lamb and mix well. Then finish simmering the lamb.
Serve hot. As part of a traditional Italian meal, this dish would a secondo. For a one-dish meal (but not in the usual Roman style but very nice all the same) accompany with some hot polenta.
They say that meat is sweetest close to the bone, and lamb shanks are certainly evidence for that assertion. I don’t recall shanks being served on their own in Rome, even if lamb was perhaps the favorite local meat. Rib chops, as is the iconic scottaditto, were, of course, very popular, but otherwise the whole baby lamb would be cut up into pieces and prepared just like this. Although shanks are particularly delicious prepared this way, the same method can be used with lamb stew meat or cut up lamb shoulder meat, or even with shoulder chops, adjusting times according. One hour should do fine for any of these other options.
In some recipes, chopped rosemary is added to the finishing paste, but personally I find that this gives it too strong a flavor. Many recipes call for sage as well as rosemary. Ada Boni, in her classic Talismano della Felicità, tells you to add the garlic, rosemary and sage, all chopped up, to the pot after you have browned the lamb pieces (in lard). If you want a stronger flavor, by the way, add the finishing paste only a few minutes before the end or even at the very last minute. By the way, don’t worry about the anchovies if you don’t care for them—they melt into the sauce as the lamb simmers and lend a savory, but not at all fishy, note to the dish.
By the way, in Rome itself abbacchio alla romana is often called abbacchio alla cacciatora.