Lamb Chops Calabrese
A Lesson In A Recipe by Marcella Hazan
- Servings: 4.
Italian food is as diverse as Italy itself with each region having its own flavors and favorite ingredients. This simple recipe for lamb chops cooked with tomatoes, onions, and briny olives is a lesson in the foods of Calabria -- the tip of the Italian boot.
I first saw this recipe in an early issue of Saveur magazine, about a decade ago. Along with the treasure of the recipe was a lengthy interview with the great author and teacher Signora Marcella Hazan in which she explained the precise techniques that turn these simple ingredients into such a flavorful result. One is to treat each ingredient respectfully so as to layer flavors. Another is to peel the peppers to release their tenderness and taste. And the lamb must be browned first, and then the onion. Finally, the tomatoes are added only after the other ingredients have cooked a bit so to prevent the other vegetables from steaming rather than sautéeing.
She refers to this as insaporire, which means to give taste, from the Italian word sapore. Key to this way of cooking is drawing out and developing the flavors of a single or several ingredients. For example, to use no less and no more heat or flavors or stirring than you need to achieve the best results. In her words: "Insaporire does not take long, but it does not forgive distraction. You must monitor the moment attentively, stirring the onion or garlic to make sure that high heat does not scorch it.… There are occasions when you need to insaporire more than one ingredient. In such instances you apply the method successively to each single ingredient, thus layering its flavor over that of the ingredient that preceded it."
In this recipe for Lamb Chops Calabria Style with Tomatoes, Peppers, and Olives -- Costolette d'Agnello alla Calabrese -- rib lamb chops are quickly browned, then held aside while you make a rich, thick sauce of onions, red bell peppers, fresh or canned plum tomatoes, and chopped green olives. The chops are then added to the sauce at the end to meld with it and be served together.
A few tips I've learned from making this dish often:
- I know rib lamb chops are expensive so if you choose to instead use loin or shoulder chops in their place, ask your butcher to cut the chops to no more than 1-inch thick so that they'll cook quickly. But this dish is about the mix, and not the meat, so you really don't need lots of lamb per person.
- Use good tomatoes. They are really the main ingredient in this dish and the tomatoes deserve as much attention as the lamb. If you're making this at summer's end and you can find good local plum tomatoes, peel and chop them, saving any juices that escape. Otherwise please use DOC San Marzano tomatoes, imported from Italy which is the only place San Marzano's are grown. [Those California-grown ones with San Marzano seeds that are sold in cans with cute labels are a pale and tasteless version of the real ones grown in Italian volcanic soil which is what really makes the difference in their flavor and texture.]
- Don't skip the step of peeling the peppers. They will cook better, become more tender, and be more flavorful.
- I buy brined green olives (as opposed to ones cured in oil) that have been already pitted. If they have been stuffed, as with pimentos, I either just leave the stuffing in place and slice the olives, or else remove and discard the stuffing and then chop the olives.
- This dish is quick enough for a weeknight supper but it's good enough for company. I always serve it with a short pasta, such as ziti or rotini.
- I don't second-guess Mrs. Hazan but I do add garlic to her original recipe -- but just one clove . And I don't always add the parsley.
May we all learn and practice the lessons of insaporire.
- 1 large red bell pepper or 2 small ones, about 1 1/4 cup when cut into squares
- 8 rib lamb chops, each about 3/4-to-1-inch thick
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2-cup finely chopped onion
- 1 clove garlic, peel and either finely minced or finely grated with a Microplane
- 2 cups peeled, ripe, fresh plum tomatoes, cut up with their juice, or canned imported Italian San Marzano tomatoes, also cut up with their juices
- 3 tablespoons chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley (optional)
- 1/4- cup green olives in brine, pitted and chopped or sliced
- Cut each pepper lengthwise. Remove and discard the stem, seeds, and core. Peel with a vegetable peeler. Cut into approximately 1-inch squares.
- Sprinkle the chops on both sides with a little salt and a few grinds of black pepper.
- Put the olive oil into a 12-inch skillet or sauté pan over high heat. When simmering but not smoking, add the lamb chops. Brown them thoroughly on one side, about 2 minutes, and then turn them over and continue to brown on the other side for another 2 minutes or so. Remove them from the pan to a plate.
- Put the chopped onion into the pan and cook over medium high heat, stirring frequently, until it softens and becomes golden brown.
- Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, which will be less than a minute.
- Add the cut-up peppers, olives, a generous pinch of salt, and several grinds of black pepper. Turn the heat down to medium and cook for about 5 minutes.
- Add the tomatoes with their juice, turning them over in the pan once or twice, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 8 to 10 minutes, until the peppers are tender but firm and the sauce has thickened a bit. Add the parsley and cook for about 1 minute until the parsley combines with the other ingredients.
- Return the lamb chops to the pan with the sauce. Turn the chops over once or twice to coat them and get hot again. Transfer the full contents of the skillet onto a warm serving platter and serve immediately. Alternatively, pour the contents of the skillet over a pound of cooked pasta that you've drained and spread on a serving platter; gently toss to coat the pasta, arranging the lamb chops on top for attractive and easy serving.