The Simplest and Best Roast Lamb with Potatoes

Every Tuesday at Food52, Italian expat Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home.

Today: Go Roman for your Christmas roast.

This may look like it is just a roast lamb. But it's not just any roast lamb. This is abbacchio, the roast leg of lamb that graces Roman tables for special occasions, usually Christmas and Easter. And for it to be real, true abbacchio -- we're talking about a delicacy famous throughout Lazio -- it must be milkfed or suckling lamb.

Proper abbacchio romano (a product that even has prestigious Protected Geographical Indication status) is a delicate and lean specialty that follows ancient traditions and seasonal cycles: The free-range mother sheep graze on the open pastures of Lazio, producing full-flavored milk for their babies, which in turn produces healthy, happy, and delicious lamb. And when it comes to butchering, another tradition makes sure none of the lamb is wasted; lamb offal is an enduring specialty of Roman cuisine, particularly pajata, the intestines of the milkfed lamb, tied to keep in the ricotta-like natural filling and served in a hearty sauce with rigatoni.

Next to abbacchio a scottadito (piping hot grilled lamb chops eaten with hands) and abbacchio alla cacciatora (lamb stewed with anchovies, rosemary, sage, garlic, and vinegar), abbacchio al forno is one of this central Italian region's claims to fame in the kitchen.

While the leg is small, it often comes with ribs and kidneys attached so you have more to work with. When doing this with regular grass-fed lamb, you could even use half a leg if it's quite large. Shoulder can also be used instead of leg -- again, with ribs attached if possible, or if working with a larger lamb, half a shoulder.

The lamb is prepared by slashing it deeply, almost as if cutting it into thick slices. It's traditionally flavored with garlic and rosemary, with lard (or olive oil) rubbed all over. The final step -- the roasting -- is best in a wood-fired oven (for those lucky enough to have them).

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This is one of the simplest versions of this classic dish -- some add fresh sage or bay leaves; others add white wine vinegar in place of or together with the white wine; others don't use them at all. It is always cooked and served with potatoes, which become crisp and golden as they cook and soak up the lamb's juices. They will be some of the tastiest potatoes you have ever had.

Abbacchio al Forno (Roast Lamb with Potatoes)

Serves 4

One 4-pound leg of lamb
Bunch of rosemary
2 to 3 cloves garlic, smashed
Extra virgin olive oil
2 pounds potatoes
Glass of white wine
Salt and pepper

1. Slash the leg deeply - almost as if cutting into slices - and poke cuts over the leg. Massage the smashed garlic, rosemary leaves and an appropriate amount of olive oil all over the leg, pushing the garlic and rosemary into the cuts and slashes. Let the leg rest while preparing the potatoes.

2. Wash, peel and chop the potatoes into large chunks. Place the potatoes in the bottom of a large tray, season with salt and pepper, add some olive oil to coat and toss well. Add a few sprigs of extra rosemary. Place the leg of lamb in the centre of the tray, with the potatoes around it.

3. Roast in a hot oven at 350º F for about an hour or -- if you want to be precise -- until a meat thermometer inserted into the leg reaches 150-160º F. Halfway through, pour the glass of wine over the lamb and give the potatoes a shake and a turn. Let the lamb rest, keeping warm under foil. You may, like I do, like to return the potatoes back to the oven for a further 10-15 minutes to crisp up further while the lamb is resting. Serve thick slices of lamb with the potatoes and a spoonful of the juices from the bottom of the pan.

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Photos by Emiko Davies

This article originally appeared on Abbacchio al Forno (Roast Lamb with Potatoes)