Region: Italy, Apulia
Difficulty: Easy but long cooking time
Why does this stew from the hinterland of Apulia, the region called the heel of the Italian boot, taste so incredible? One can imagine the origin of this stew as the kind of soul-satisfying fare the shepherd's wife would cook.
Gravina in the province of Bari claims this stew as their own, but the method and ingredients are old enough and common enough to be skeptical of such assertions. Traditionally, the lamb is stewed very gently in wild fennel-flavored sheep’s milk in a small, pot-bellied stewpot called a caldariello, derived from the caldaia or cauldron which gives its name to the stew itself. The method of cooking the meat in milk is reminiscent of an Arab method of lamb cookery, specifically the Palestinian laban ummu (his mother’s milk), lamb cooked in its mother’s milk (see A Mediterranean Feast, page 129-30). Sheep’s milk will prove difficult to find in the United States, so goat’s milk and lacking that, of course cow’s milk would be fine substitutes. In the U.S., only Californians have access to wild fennel which grows by roadsides, so elsewhere use the leaves and bulb of a Florence fennel with a teaspoon of ground fennel seeds. Serve with pieces of toasted or grilled Italian country bread.
[photo: Clifford A. Wright]
Yield: Makes 4 servings
Preparation Time: 2:30 hours
Put the garlic, parsley, fennel, onion, and olive oil in a stew pot, preferably earthenware, and add the milk and cream. Turn the heat to high, but reduce it to low before the milk comes to a boil. Once the milk is just quivering on the surface, add the lamb, and season with salt and pepper. Simmer over low heat, using a heat diffuser if necessary, until the lamb is fork tender, about 2 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. It is important that the milk never come to a boil. If it does, it won't affect the taste, but it will make the final dish a little less pleasing to look at. Serve immediately.