Anna Nurse's Lamb Shanks in Tomato Sauce with Orecchiette

Anna Nurse's Lamb Shanks in Tomato Sauce with Orecchiette
Orecchiette in Salsa di Pomodoro con Agnello

Serves 4

A few years ago I spent some time in Puglia, the region at the heel of Italy's boot, and it was there that I met the well-known and well-loved New York cooking teacher Anna Amendolara Nurse. Anna's family came from Bari, so the trip to Puglia put together by Oldways Preservation Trust and the International Olive Oil Council was a special one for her.

Anna not only knew Pugliese specialties and the culture surrounding them, she was also very active serving on the board of the James Beard Foundation. As we traveled around Puglia I asked Anna about her favorite Pugliese foods. Orecchiette, a dried pasta made from water and semolina flour and shaped by hand into something resembling little ears, was at the top of her list. The indentations were meant to trap a hearty tomato sauce in which the lamb shanks were cooked.

Anna uses the sauce to serve orecchiette as a first course, then offers the lamb shanks as a secondo, or second course.

6 cups canned plum tomatoes (2 28-ounce cans)
1/2 cup Filippo Berio Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
1 to 1/4 pounds (about 4) meaty lamb shanks
4 cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
3/4 cup dry red wine
3/4 cup tomato paste
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
Dried red pepper flakes to taste
5 large fresh basil leaves
1 pound orecchiette, store-bought or homemade
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons water
Grated Pecorino cheese for sprinkling

Puree the tomatoes with their juice in a food processor, blender, or food mill. Transfer the tomatoes to a pot large enough to hold the lamb shanks. Bring the tomatoes to a boil, reduce the heat to simmer, and allow the tomatoes to cook while preparing the lamb shanks.

Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan large enough to hold the lamb shanks. When the oil is hot, add the shanks and brown them evenly on all sides. Transfer the lamb shanks to the pot with the tomatoes. Discard all but 1/3 cup of the oil remaining in the sauté pan.

Add the garlic to the sauté pan and cook over medium-low heat until the garlic is golden brown. With a slotted spoon, remove the garlic and add it to the pot with the tomatoes and lamb shanks. Add the onion to the oil and cook over medium-low heat until the onions are soft, about 15 minutes. Increase the heat to medium, pour in the wine, and allow it to evaporate, about 3 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste with a wooden spoon and scrape up any bits of meat that are stuck to the bottom of the pan.

Add the onion mixture to the tomatoes and lamb; stir in the salt and red pepper flakes; cover the pot and allow the ingredients to simmer gently. Stir occasionally. When the meat is fork-tender but not falling from the bones, remove it to a dish, cover, and keep warm. Stir the basil into the tomato sauce.

Cook the orecchiette in 4 to 6 quarts of rapidly boiling water to which 1 tablespoon of salt has been added. Orecchiette take a little longer to cook than other types of dried pasta because of their concave shape. They are cooked when there is no trace of white flour remaining when cut into; the orecchiette should retain their shape and be al dente, firm but cooked.

Drain the orecchiette, reserving 2 tablespoons of the cooking water. Transfer the orecchiette to a serving dish. Mix 2 cups of the tomato sauce with the 2 tablespoons of water and pour it over the orecchiette. Mix well. Serve the pasta immediately as a first course with a sprinkling of grated Pecorino cheese. Serve the lamb shanks as a second course.

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