Using History to Create Inventive Dishes–Stuffed Lamb with Amaretti

San Giovanni degli Eremiti 2 (Palermo-Sicily)

San Giovanni degli Eremiti in Palermo

I first became fascinated with the role of the Arabs in Sicily after a trip to that island in 1983. There were noticeable Arab influences in everything from palaces, to bridges, to woodwork, to architecture, as well as a curious feeling to the local Sicilian food—not all of it, but some of it—which felt “Arab” in some way. I subsequently discovered that this feeling was in fact a real category of Sicilian food called cucina arabo-sicula which basically referred to a Sicilian folkloric conception of an imagined Arab influence that resided vestigially in various dishes as the Arabs had a presence in Sicily from A.D. 827 until about 1230. A dish could be so described if it fulfilled certain criteria such as using an agricultural product that the Arabs introduced, if it used certain methods or techniques such as the stuffing or rolling of vegetables and meats with filling, if it had a real linguistic connection such as couscous, or if it had flavoring elements that were Arab in some way such as sweet-and-sour with the use of sugar instead of honey, or the pine nut-raisin-caper-olive combination, or spicing involving saffron. This fascination was so great that I eventually published my first cookbook, Cucina Paradiso: The Heavenly Food of Sicily (Simon & Schuster, 1992) based on this style of cooking. Anyway, before I ever wrote about food professionally, and upon my return from Sicily, I experimented with this style of cooking by creating dishes such as this one. Stuffed Leg of Lamb with Amaretti di Saronno (10)

One evening, while in an experimental mode, I first made this dish for my then wife Najwa and her cousin Bassam. I told Bassam that I was trying to make something that could be considered as derived from cucina arabo-siculo and he naturally asked what that was. I gave him some examples of real dishes and he rightly said “those aren’t Arab.” I told him he was right, that this was simply a Sicilian folkloric idea. I explained that I was going to first butterfly the lamb. He cut me off and asked, in a mock incredulous way, “you’re going to make butterflys?” We laughed, and I went on to explain that the Arab penchant for stuffed foods and the sweet and sour aspect of the stuffing mixed with the succulence of the slow-cooked lamb seemed like a delicious idea that could be legitimately related to cucina arabo-sicula even if it was something I invented. I love to make this stuffed lamb on a cold day in the late fall when the oven is on all afternoon. See here on how to butterfly meat.
Yield: Makes 6 servings
Preparation Time: 4 hours in all
One 4-pound boneless leg of lamb, butterflied
1/2 cup crumbled Amaretti di Saronno cookies
1/4 cup half and half
3 tablespoons pine nuts
3 tablespoons golden raisins
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon fennel seed
1/4 cup freshly grated pecorino cheese
1/2 cup freshly grated caciocavallo or provolone cheese
2 slices of round Italian or French country bread or 5 slices of a French baguette with crusts, toasted or 2 days old, and crumbled
1 large egg, beaten
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
Salt to taste
1. You can either ask your butcher to butterfly the leg of lamb or you can do it yourself. Make sure there is a nice layer of fat on top. In order to make the surface of the butterflied lamb even, cut off and save for another use any lumpy, protruding pieces of meat.
2. In a bowl, soak the Amaretti di Saronno cookies in the half and half. After a minute or two add the pine nuts, raisins, cinnamon, fennel seed, pecorino, caciocavallo, bread, and egg. If the stuffing looks too dry add 2 to 3 tablespoons of half and half. The mixture should be just short of soggy.
3. Salt the lamb, and spread the stuffing mixture over the whole, bunching slightly in the middle. Roll up or fold, whichever works, depending on how the lamb has been cut. Tie in 3 places with kitchen twine around the width of the meat and once lengthwise, making sure the mixture doesn’t ooze out. If it does anyway, take one of the extra pieces of lamb that you are not using, and plug the leak with it, securing it with a toothpick.
4. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
5. In a large and deep flameproof baking casserole, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook the lamb on all sides until browned, turning with tongs, about 6 minutes. In a small bowl, dissolve the sugar with the vinegar and pour over the lamb. Transfer the casserole to the oven and roast until the lamb is very tender, about 3 1/2 hours. Remove from the oven and let the lamb rest for 10 minutes to make slicing easier. If the lamb appears dry, drizzle 1 tablespoon of the remaining sauce from the casserole over the servings of those who want it.

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