As it is in most of the Mediterranean, lamb is the great celebratory ritual food of Puglia, the very symbol of feasting and sacrifice. In the old, pre-Christian Mediterranean described in the verses of The Iliad, no feast began without a sacrifice, an offer of the best part of the meal to the gods. The Paschal lamb served at Easter and Passover, like the lamb for the great Eid at the end of Ramadan, is a symbol meant, even if unconsciously, to recall this ancient pagan rite.
In the region around Bari, if the Easter lamb isn't roasted, then it will most likely be turned into verdetto, lamb cooked with peas-or sometimes with fresh green asparagus, or young, tender cardoons, the choice of vegetable depending in part on where in the spring season Easter happens to fall. At the end of cooking, this savory stew is made richer by the addition of eggs and grated cheese to coat the meat and vegetables with an unctuous cream.
This is a traditional dish for Easter (Pasqua) but more especially for the Monday following, called Pasquetta or Pasqualino, a national holiday.
2 ounces pancetta or blanched bacon, diced
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, halved and very finely sliced
2 pounds very young boneless lamb shoulder, or 2 1/2 to 3 pounds lamb shoulder with bones, cut in pieces (see Note)
Salt to taste
1 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 pounds (shelled weight) fresh green peas-about
1 1/2 pounds peas in their pods (see Note)
1/2 cup finely minced flat-leaf parsley
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 large eggs
1/3 cup freshly grated pecorino or Parmigiano - Reggiano
Ovenproof pan with cover, boiling water.
PREHEAT the oven to 325 degrees F.
IN a heavy ovenproof saucepan over medium-low heat, saute' the pancetta or blanched bacon in 1 tablespoon oil until the pieces are crisp and brown. Add the onion slices and continue cooking, stirring frequently until the onion is soft but not turning brown.
PUSH the onion and pancetta out to the sides of the pan, raise the heat to medium-high, and add the remaining tablespoon of oil and lamb pieces to the center. Sprinkle with salt to taste and brown the lamb on all sides-about 10 minutes. When the lamb pieces are thoroughly brown, stir in the wine. Let the wine boil rapidly to throw off the alcohol, then cover the pan and place in the preheated oven to bake for 1 hour, or until the lamb is very tender. Check from time to time and if the lamb juices are drying up add a very little boiling water.
AFTER 1 hour of cooking, remove the pot from the oven and stir in the peas and half the parsley. Add black pepper to taste, stir to combine well, then cover and continue cooking, on medium-low heat on top of the stove for about 20 minutes, or until the peas are tender, again adding boiling water from time to time if necessary.
FIVE minutes before you are ready to serve the dish, mix the eggs with the cheese and remaining parsley, beating with a fork. Quickly beat a few tablespoons of hot juices from the pan into the egg mixture to warm it up, then, off the heat, stir the egg mixture into the lamb and peas, using a wooden spoon to reach all the meat and vegetables and coat them well with the eggs. There should be sufficient heat to set the eggs into a creamy sauce, but not so much heat that they will scramble. If necessary, the dish may be returned to the heat, but be very careful. If the eggs scramble, there's not much you can do about it except pretend that's what you intended all along.
SERVE immediately. The dish should not be reheated.
NOTE: In Puglia the lamb for verdetto is usually shoulder, cut into chunks with the bones, the wise observation being that bones add considera ble flavor. In my experience, most Americans will be happier with boneless meat, in which case the quantity served should be no more than 2 pounds.
If you wish to serve cardoons or asparagus instead of peas, clean the vegetable in the usual manner; the quantity used should be the trimmed weight. Cook the vegetable, like the peas above, until it is tender.