Braised Leg of Lamb
Ragù di Agnello

serves: 8 servings

Slowly braised meats are a specialty of cooks in the high country of Abruzzo. With a fire always burning in the hearth or on a stove, it makes sense to keep a pot stewing. And from the ubiquitous flocks of sheep there's always some mutton or lamb that will benefit from long cooking. This is a typically tasty example. To savor it Italian-style, I encourage you to present this in two courses, using the sauce to dress maccheroni alla chitarra or other pasta for a primo (first course), and serving the sliced lamb leg as the main course. Mashed potatoes and braised broccoli or chicory would be excellent accompaniments to the meat.

2½ cups bread crumbs, slightly dried
1 cup Pecorino Romano, grated
3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
4 tablespoons Italian parsley, chopped
6 pound boneless leg or lamb, preferably butterflied and untied
1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups onion, chopped
4 bay leaves
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
3 sprigs fresh thyme
6 cups canned San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand


To make the filling, Put the bread cubes in a mixing bowl, and pour in enough water to cover them. Toss the cubes in the water, and let them soak it up for a few minutes. When they're saturated, dump the cubes into a strainer (along with any water remaining in the bowl), and squeeze the bread to get out most of the water. Put the soft, wet bread back in the bowl, tearing it into shreds with your fingers. Scatter the grated cheese, chopped garlic, and parsley over the bread, and stir everything together vigorously (or work together with your hands) into a spreadable paste.

Lay out the butterflied lamb leg, and trim any thick fat from the outside surface (a few traces are okay). If the boneless leg was rolled and tied by the butcher, cut away the strings or netting, then unroll it and trim any thick fat. Turn the meat over so the inside of the leg (where the bone was) faces up, and arrange it to form a flat, solid oblong slab.

Drop mounds of the bread paste on the lamb, and spread it to cover the whole surface, leaving a margin around the edges (so it won't ooze out). Now roll up the meat to form a snug, loaf-shaped roll. Loop short pieces of twine around the roll every few inches along its length, to keep it in shape, and knot securely. Press and tuck in the flaps of meat at the ends of the roll, and secure them with twine looped lengthwise around the roll and tied tight. Season the outside of the tied roll with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt.

Pour the olive oil into the big pan, and set over medium-high heat. Lay the meat in the hot oil, and let it sizzle for a minute or two without moving, until browned on the bottom. Rotate the roll, and brown more of the meat surface for a couple of minutes, then rotate again, until the lamb leg is nicely caramelized all over.

Push the meat to the side of the pan, clearing as much space in the middle as possible, and spill in the chopped onions. Stir and spread them in the pan as they start to sizzle, scraping up the bits of caramelization from the pan bottom; shift the lamb to stir the onions all around. After 4 or 5 minutes, when the onions have softened, drop in the bay leaves, rosemary, and thyme, and stir for another minute, to toast the herbs.

Move the meat to the center of the pan, and pour the crushed tomatoes around it. Slosh out the tomato bowl and cans with 2 cups water, and pour that in, along with more water if needed, until three-quarters of the rolled lamb is submerged in the liquids. Sprinkle remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons salt all over, and stir the tomatoes, water, onions, and seasonings together. Cover the pan, and bring the braising liquids to a boil over high heat, then adjust the flame to keep a steady, gentle bubbling around the lamb.

Cook, tightly covered, checking the liquid level occasionally to see that it is not cooking too fast or reducing rapidly. Every 40 minutes or so, rotate the meat so the top of the roll gets submerged, and add water, if needed, to maintain the level of braising liquids. Reduce until the liquid covers three quarters of the lamb. Cook the lamb for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, or until a long fork can pierce the thickest part of the leg and slide out easily. If the sauce is concentrated and velvety, the dish is done; turn off the heat, and let the leg rest in the sauce for 30 minutes or longer before serving.

If the meat is tender but the sauce is too thin, transfer the meat to a platter (in a warm place) and cook the sauce uncovered, reducing it to a velvety consistency. If you want to dress pasta with the sauce, however, don't let it get too thick. Turn off the heat, and replace the lamb in the sauce to rest.

After the rest period, remove the lamb leg and finish the sauce. Pick out the herb stems and bay leaves, skim off any fat that has collected on the top, and taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve the sauce as is, or pass it through a food mill if you want it to be smoother.

To serve the lamb, cut and remove the twine. Slice the leg crosswise into 1/2-inch thick slices, and arrange them, fanned out or overlapping, on a warm platter. Moisten the slices with spoonfuls of warm sauce, and pass more sauce at the table.

This braised lamb also makes an excellent primo, pasta course. To serve a primo: Put 2 cups of sauce (for each pound of pasta) into a big skillet, and heat to a simmer while the pasta cooks. Drop the drained al dente pasta into the sauce, and toss until coated, then shut off the heat, and toss with grated pecorino or Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano. Serve immediately in warm bowls.

To cook the lamb a few hours or even a day in advance, let it cool in the sauce and refrigerate overnight. To serve, slice the meat while it’s cool. Put a shallow layer of sauce in a wide skillet, and lay in the lamb slices. Slowly heat the sauce to bubbling, spooning it over the meat until heated through. Arrange the slices on a platter.