This recipe is special to me for so many reasons. It soothes my soul both in flavors and process and it just has so much depth. I once gave it with someone I really admired, “in confidence” secret-recipe style, but that didn’t go so well. More on that another time. Still, the recipe was given to me in the first place, and the whole point of cooking is to share anyway. You’d be hard-pressed to convince some of the Chefs I’ve encountered of this (also more on that another time), but no one invents a recipe. So no one can really steal it from you, either.
Last time I cooked this, it was an amazing night over looking the busy Abbot Kinney Blvd in Venice, CA. I was in my dream kitchen with music blasting, incredible wine, and some very awesome friends, including Mickey - also known as The Sabah Dealer. (Check out his amazing shoes)
When you make something, it is its original self in that moment only, varying each time you make it again, according to the company, your mood, and the bottle you're drinking. Now I want to share it with you, because it makes me so happy to think of you falling in love with the same flavors I did, but in your own home with your own people. Pay attention to the details: I’ve learned some tricks of the trade standing in the kitchen during service, where I had no business being, dipping my fingers or bread into nearby fat drippings or pan sauces.
The small things you can do to elevate this recipe require only patience and attention, not the skill of pro Chef. I’ve also learned that if you enjoy process and you’ll find the dish tastes so. much. better. And always, always, cook with a glass of wine in hand. Preferably the same wine you’re cooking with.
- *2.5 large carrots, washed, peeled and chopped to ¼ cubes
- *2.5 celery stalks, washed and chopped to the same shape as the carrots
- *2 medium yellow onions, diced to above measurements
*these three vegetables comprise the sofrito; you should have nearly equal parts of all three once chopped
- 1 bone in lamb shoulder, preferably tied in twine but not mandatory (easier to handle). Found at your local butcher. If you’re in LA, I like Belcampo Meats for Westsiders, and McCall’s if you’re an Eastsider. Call ahead.
- 1 bottle of Italian wine
- 1 tube of tomato paste double-concentrated. I like Mutti brand
- A quart of vegetable or chicken stock (be careful, not broth, you want stock that is not seasoned at all). You can pick this up at the butcher along with the shoulder.
- Kosher salt
- Rosemary sprig
- Parmiggiano Reggiano (a chunk, not pre-grated) or Grana Padano
- Extra virgin olive oil
For the pasta:
- 2 cups semolina flour
- 2 cups Type 00 flour (AP works fine, too)
- Room temp filtered water on hand
Mix the flours together and get a nice, clean, smooth work surface. Make a volcano shape out of the flour mixture, and then with your index finger, make a little well at the peak. Pour a small amount of luke warm water to fill the small well, and swirl it around with your fingers to incorporate the flour. Repeat this process until your flour all becomes incorporated and you have a flakey ball to work with. Then add small amount of water and knead it with the palm of your hand until it becomes smooth, a little springy, and totally incorporated. This is a bit of physical labor – be prepared to work the arms out. Press down through your palm, and keep folding it in on itself. Let the dough rest at least 30 min wrapped in plastic wrap in the fridge.
Make long ropes and then cut into two inch segments. Drag your fingertips across the segment HARD. Press down and pull toward you with force, the dough should be able to handle it. You can also use a butter knife. Check this out:
Here’s how to make the Capunti shape:
NOTE: spread all the little pasta out on a baking sheet sprinkled with semolina – if you stack them, you’ll end up with a big globby mess. You can do this a day ahead, and cover with a damp dish towel and let it sit out overnight. I prefer to cook the same day.
Now for the meaty part: This is my go-to recipe that just makes anyone happy, every time. Except vegans. Be warned: It’s a process. But so worth it. Really it’s not that hard, it just takes time. And love. That sounds corny, but you cannot cook if you are feeling negative emotions in any way. It gets into the food and just F’s things up. Take your time, this is a full day of work. Hopefully you’re just drinking vino and chillin while the magic happens. I recommend doing this a day ahead, and then heating up when you’re ready to serve. Be prepared to have your whole house smell like your long-lost Nonna’s villa in Puglia.
The Crucial Details:
The lamb shoulder has to be bone-in. Bone adds flavor that you just can’t recreate any other way. BONE. IN.
Buy the meat the day before you plan on making the whole shebang, rinse the meat, dry it off, and then salt it generously with kosher salt. Then let the meat rest on a rack in the fridge overnight. Why? Because. This will form a slight crust that will give you a better sear (read Maillard Reaction and "fond" in Harold McGee if you want to nerd out - yes, I am giving you homework but no test). It will also build deeper flavor, produce a better sauce, season the meat more fully, and just all of that secret meat jazz you never knew till now. Details matter. You’re welcome.
Okay, you’re ready to cook (glass of wine in hand, music LOUD - Click here for epic cooking playlist - or hit play on the Spotify Widget):
Remove the meat from the refrigerator before you start chopping any vegetables and assembling your mise en place. You guys! You’re speaking kitchen! Mise en place, Mise for short, is all of your things in order. Like, get your shit together.
You’re letting the meat come up in temp (this is called tempering) so that the surface of the meat is not fridge cold when you place it in the hot oil to sear it (a cold piece of meat will cool the oil and just dog your overall process, not cool).
So, assemble your sofrito (mirepoix in French but this is an Italian dish, so it’s sofrito), consolidate it into a bowl, open your wine, and take a swig - FROM THE BOTTLE yes, and side note: if the wine you’re cooking with isn’t at least swiggable, you need to up your cooking wine. You don’t want dyes, artificial ingredients and other added crap interfering with your vibe. I’m a purist, and I know every chef I’ve worked with would agree.
Find a decent bottle, not expensive, just like more than $3 a box. Something in a bottle, something Italian.
Pull the leaves from the rosemary and chop it, get your salt out in a small container for easy access, open the tube of tomato paste, and get your pan coated with Extra-Virgin Olive Oil and set it on high. Once the oil is smoking, put the lamb in the pan and let it sear – you want a super dark, golden, crispy brown on every possible surface. The key to this is to let it sear for a minute or two before checking it. If the bits on the bottom of the pan are getting burnt (black, bitter smelling), lower the heat of the pan by 25%. Oh, and listen: This process produces a large amount of smoke. A LOT. Open your windows. I cannot emphasize this enough. First, your neighbors are gonna think your house is on fire (because your smoke alarm is going off if you don’t open the windows like I said), and then they will be insanely jealous because of the delicious smells coming from your open windows. You win. Fan on, too. Use your tongs to pick the meat up and rotate it so that every possible inch gets a nice deep brown-golden sear.
Once the meat is completely seared off, remove it from the pan, set it aside, and pour off some of the fat – you want a decent amount but not more than a half cup left in the pot. Add your sofrito (this is where being prepared comes in handy – you’ve already chopped and consolidated it, so its ready, go you!), a sprinkle of salt (more than you think is appropriate, but nothing crazy), and turn the flame to low, cook slow and move it around regularly. This is also a crucial step. One that’s easy to skimp on but I swear an extra 15 minutes makes a huge difference. You want to cook the vegetables down until you don’t smell celery, onion, and carrot as individual things anymore, but one singular smell that has a little more depth and flavor aroma. 30 minutes is usually about right. Feel it out. That’s how the grandmas did it.
Next, add a whole tube of tomato paste, raise the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring constantly until the paste becomes a deep, rusty color and the smell has become more complex, sweeter, and more fragrant than when it came from the tube. Add your chopped rosemary, stir throughout, and now jack the heat up to high again, take ANOTHER swig of the wine, and dump the whole bottle in. Cook off the alcohol on high (the smell of booze will evaporate after about 5 min), and then reintroduce the lamb (remember, it’s been resting). The lamb should be ¾ submerged in liquid. If you need more liquid, add a little stock (NOT broth, make sure you’re addin stuff that has no added sodium), water works, too. Bring everything to a boil, season with salt to less than where you want it to be - it reduces and concentrates as it cooks so go conservative or don’t salt at all. Then turn it down to a bare simmer, cover and cook for at least 3 1/2 hours. You can do this on the stovetop, or you can put the oven on 250 and let it simmer covered in foil – just make sure the foil is tightly sealed – a few layers to be safe.
After four hours (it’s totally fine to go a little over) the meat will be ultra-tender, fall off the bone tender. This is how to be sure it’s done – the shoulder blade should be super loose, and feel like you could pull it right out. Don’t. And also: DO NOT remove the meat from the braising liquid! This will only dry it out and ruin all your hard work. Let it cool in the liquid - it will absorb some of the braising liquid (aka flavor town) and be an altogether better braise. Cooling takes awhile, at least an hour. Once it’s cooled (you should be able to comfortably put your hand in the liquid and have it feel cooler than your skin), pull the meat out, take out the bone (it should slide right out) and then pull the meat apart slash chop it. This part is super messy. You’re basically pulling the meat from the bits of fat, skin, tendon and not tender stuff.
Strain the liquid through a fine mesh strainer, or at least a pasta strainer over a large pot. This step isn’t mandatory, but it’ll yield a glossier, more refined sauce. This is the step you take if you’re a perfectionist. If you skip it, you might just get a bit of rosemary or have visible celery skin or carrot in your sauce, which is not bad, it’s just a little more rustic. Not the biggest deal in the world. Skip it if you’re the one who puts the empty milk carton back in the fridge. Basically one is the restaurant technique, one is the Italian Grandma technique. I’ve done both. Either way, you’re good.
Put the pulled meat (should be free of gelatin, skin, fat etc) back in the strained sauce, and bring it up to a gentle boil, lower the flame and reduce it uncovered. Salt to taste as you go. Depending on how much liquid you have this could take a little while. Allow yourself at least an hour to be safe. You’re going for a glossy, deep, thicker-than-water but thinner than ranch dressing. It should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon but still slide off the back of it.
Now you can cash in on your hard work. Prepare to accept gifts of all sizes.
If you made the handmade pasta, bravo. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, drop those cuties into the boiling water, and as they float to the top, pull them off and set in a bowl. Then toss them with the epic crack sauce you just made and shave some parm over the top. Holy F*** I am starving just thinking about it!! Polenta, dried rigatoni (cook according to the package), and even just warm baguette also make the perfect nest for this otherworldly sauce. It’s SO GOOD. Top with shaved or grated Parm or Grana Padano.
Expect anyone you share it with to immediately offer you diamonds, profess love, or take their clothes off. Even better on day two, like a good red wine.