Sunday, August 29, 2010

Abbacchio alla Cacciatora

If you find yourself in Rome, opportunities to Bunbury abound. Tour books invariably guide you to the Pantheon, Colosseum, Spanish Steps and any number of wonderful fountains. However, one should not miss the opportunity to enjoy authentic Roman cooking.

Getting to the essence of any local cuisine is challenging. The food of a geographic region rarely evolves in isolation. Yet over thousands of year historians and food writers have described the food of Rome as simple, direct and frugal. Roman cuisine has a “pride of place” featuring ingredients such as mint, olives, breads, anchovies, eels, artichokes, celery, chicory, fava beans, tomatoes, ricotta cheese, lamb, pork and ox.

These local ingredients are married in a number of ways to form uniquely Roman dishes. Carciofi alla romana is a dish made with a large, purple artichokes that are pared down to their heart, stuffed with mint and garlic, placed face down and gently braised in olive oil and water.

Insalata di puntarelle con alici is a salad made with puntarelle, a bitter local chicory, that is slivered, soaked in ice water, drained and then dressed with an anchovy, garlic and olive oil dressing.

Coda alla vaccinara is an oxtail stew made by simmering pieces of oxtail in wine and tomatoes with ample celery.

Another quintessentially Roman dish is Abbacchio alla cacciatora. Abbacchico is a milk-fed baby lamb typically served during the Easter season. In Roman cooking, alla cacciatora means that the lamb is cooked “hunter’s style” in a sauce of garlic, rosemary, sage, anchovies, white wine and red wine vinegar.

If you do not have access to a milk-fed lamb (it is difficult but not impossible to find in the United States), and you are worried about authenticity, then perhaps you would do well to move your dinner party from Rome’s Lazio region to Le Marche where you will find a remarkably similar dish called Agnello alla cacciatora. Milk-fed lamb is replaced with grazed lamb, parsley replaces sage and a pinch of chili pepper flakes is added for good measure. Otherwise the sauce of garlic, rosemary, anchovy, vinegar and red wine remain the same.

The following recipe for Abbacchio alla cacciatora is from the new English-language translation of an outstanding and comprehensive cookbook from the Accademia Italiana della Cucina called La Cucina - The Regional Cooking of Italy [2009]. The Accademia’s goal is to safeguard Italy’s culinary tradition. The book’s Italian editor likens the work, which contains over 2,000 recipes, to a census of local Italian cooking. All of the recipes are traced to a specific Italian region (and often to a specific town or city). This cookbook is a great resource if you are looking for authentic Italian food.

  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 tsp. rosemary leaves
  • 2 anchovies, boned
  • ¼ cup red wine vinegar
  • 2¼ lbs. leg of lamb [milk-fed or Spring lamb, if available], cut in pieces weighing about 1 oz. each
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • ¼ cup dry white wine, such as Orvieto
  • Salt and pepper

In a wooden mortar grind the garlic, rosemary, and anchovies to obtain a paste. Add the vinegar, a little at a time, and mix to obtain a dense sauce. Rinse and pat dry the pieces of lamb. Heat the olive oil in a pan. Season the lamb with salt and pepper and brown it over moderate heat. Stir from time to time with a wooden spoon to cook them evenly. Pour in the wine and turn up the heat; when the wine has evaporated, add the vinegar sauce. Cover and cook for 2 hours at low heat stirring often. Let the lamb rest for at least half an hour before serving; the longer the lamb rests in its pan, the greater will be its flavor. Serve hot.

Ada Boni’s Italian Region Cooking [1969], another outstanding cookbook, also contains a recipe for Abbacchio alla cacciatora with a few variations. Boni adds sage, an ingredient used in most other Abbacchio alla cacciatora recipes I reviewed. The most significant difference between Boni’s recipe and the Accademia’s is the cooking time. Both recipes call for small, even-sized pieces of lamb, but Boni cooks her lamb in sauce for 15 minutes while the Accademia cooks its lamb for 2 hours. A bit puzzling, but do not let this difference put you off. Recipes are guides and not gospels (baking recipes often being an exception). Taste as you go. After trying a recipe once or twice you will sense what works and what does not. From experience I try the lamb about 45 minutes to 1 hour after adding the vinegar sauce.