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Braised lamb with juniper berries

Adapted from an Italian grandmother’s recipe, slow oven braising allows many flavors to melt together in this soul-satisfying, fork tender lamb dish.

By Blue Kitchen / October 14, 2011

There are many assertive flavors in this braised lamb dish – lots of onion and garlic, celery, juniper berries, fennel seed, sage, and even a little kick from cayenne pepper.

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One of the perks of doing Blue Kitchen is that we’re occasionally asked to review cookbooks. It’s also one of the drawbacks. Writing, thinking, reading and talking about food on a daily basis means that we’re almost always at least a little bit hungry – kind of a low grade infection that never clears up unless you are actually actively engaged in consuming a substantial meal at the moment. And when a gorgeous cookbook like Jessica Theroux’s Cooking with Italian Grandmothers: Recipes and Stories from Tuscany to Sicily comes along, whole hams can’t quite stay your hunger.

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To write Cooking with Italian Grandmothers, Theroux spent a year in Italy talking, cooking and often staying with a dozen different grandmothers. Italy is the birthplace of Slow Food, a movement focusing on local, seasonal, sustainable food and preservation of traditional foods, methods and history. The beautiful, thoughtful cookbook Theroux and her army of grandmothers have created does just that.

To learn more about this amazing adventure – and about the book and chef/writer/photographer/filmmaker Theroux – read my post on the USA Character Approved Blog. Here, I’m going to concentrate on the recipe I adapted from the book this week. (I say this week, because I know right now that more will follow.)

Carluccia, one of Theroux’s “grandmothers,” lives in Italy’s boot tip in Calabria, maybe 60 miles from Sicily. She makes this dish with goat; I would have too, but our source for goat at the Logan Square Farmers Market was fresh out this weekend. They had lamb stew meat, though, and it was a perfect substitute.

There are many assertive flavors in this dish – lots of onion and garlic, celery, juniper berries (with their bracing gin note), fennel seed, sage (the recipe called for thyme, but I substituted the last of our fresh sage) and even a little kick from cayenne pepper. Nearly any of these elements could take on a starring role with quieter fellow ingredients, but an interesting thing happens when you throw them all together. No one ingredient stands out as something identifiable. Instead, you get a wonderfully complex, wonderfully mysterious big dish, rustic and farm table simple, but impressive enough for company. The kind of dish that will have them asking, “What’s in this?” and meaning it in a good way.

Carluccia uses another flavor-enhancing technique to add depth to the braise: She reduces the wine by half before adding it to the pot. I’d first discovered this trick in a recipe by chef Daniel Boulud, who says it makes the sauce taste as if it has cooked for days. You’ll probably notice you add water to the pot that exactly matches how much you reduce the wine. Never mind, the reduced wine will still work its magic.

(see next page for recipe)