Lamb Shanks Two Ways, and the World’s Rarest Pasta

Awhile back, I was reading Saveur magazine, and stumbled on an article entitled “On the Hunt for the World’s Rarest Pasta.”

Su filindeu — or “threads of God” — are a hand-pulled pasta the width approximately of human hair, served at the end of a 20-mile overnight pilgrimage through sheep country on the isle of Sardinia, a tradition that has dwindled down to two or three woman still able to make it. Here’s the article, a great read, if you want to learn more of the back story.

Sardinian sheep

The fine filamented noodle supposedly takes decades to master. Repeatedly stretched by hand, it grows thinner and thinner with each successive round. It is only eaten one morning a year, following a foot bath, in the Sardinian village of Lulu at the Sanctuary of San Francesco, boiled in a sheep stock and showered with grated sheep’s cheese.

“How hard can that be?” I said to myself. The article pointed out that both Jamie Oliver and the pasta company, Barilla, had both failed in their attempts. But I was a bit of a pasta expert myself, a better chef than Jamie Oliver if I do say so myself, and what does a multinational pasta company know of tradition? Surely I could do it!

Dried su filindeu, photo from Saveur

I absorbed the technique described in the book, did some research online (including watching a video of one of the three extant masters making it herself), put together a formidable dough, and made… a mess. Soundly defeated, I squeezed by stretched pasta blob back into a ball, rolled it out and made some tagliatelle instead.

But I had not forgotten su filindeu.

Fast forward a couple years, I saw some lamb shanks on sale at the grocery store, and I remembered the story of the world’s rarest pasta. I bought the shanks and threw the in the freezer, determined to revisit this vexing challenge. Another day, I discovered little nests of a very fine imported capellini at the Italian deli. And I was in business! It would not, I was certain, be as fine as the threads of God. But at least I could craft an approximation that would hint at the dish described in the article.

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I had invited some friends over and was cooking Greek food. I defrosted the lamb shanks and set them to a braise in some salted water. When they had cooked for two or three hours, the meat fork tender and nearly falling off the bone, I carefully removed them to a plate to cool. Left in the pan was a rich, gelatinous lamb stock, which I strained into a bowl and put in the fridge.

As part of the Greek dinner, I doused the cooled shanks in olive oil, garlic and rosemary, turned the grill on to high, and carefully scorched them to a glistening gold. These I served on piles of Greek white beans with roasted garlic rosemary potatoes, a feta cheese pastry and some greek salad.

Su filendeu, approximately

A couple days later, I pulled out the lamb stock, set it over a simmer and dropped in the capellini.

The result was quite a bit less rustic, more refined (i.e. less animal-colored and more white) than the photo I’d seen of the original online. But it captured everything I had imagined — the grassy, gaminess of the lamb (present in stock form only), the delicateness of the noodles, the sharp salinity of the cheese — plus, the fresh notes of chopped Italian parsley and fresh minced garlic I’d added of my own ingenuity. (Would you have thought of that, Jamie Oliver??)

Here, then, are BOTH preparations of the lamb shank. Because if you go through the trouble of tracking down lamb shanks, shouldn’t you at least get two meals out of it??

Enjoy!

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Greek lamb shanks with gigantes plaki
serves 4

Lamb:
2 medium-size lamb shanks
1 tbsp. olive oil
salt
2 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
sprig fresh rosemary

Beans:
1 cup dried lima or other large white beans
salt
water
1 large heirloom tomato, roughly chopped
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 sprig fresh oregano

Heat 2 quarts of water in a large pot over high heat to a boil. Add lamb shanks and a big dash of salt (1 heaping tsp.). Reduce heat to medium-low and cover. Cook for 2 hours, checking periodically to make sure the shanks are still covered with water (if not, add a cup more at a time).

Remove shanks from braising liquid — save liquid for your pasta! — and let cool.

Soak beans in hot water for an hour. Drain.

Place beans in a saucepan with water to cover (about 3 cups), a dash of salt, tomato, garlic, 1/4 cup olive oil and oregano. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cover. Cook until beans are tender, approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour. Drizzle in remaining olive oil, and adjust seasoning.

Bring a grill (gas or charcoal) to a high heat. Remove leaves from rosemary. Sprinkle shanks with salt, drizzle with olive oil, and toss with garlic and rosemary. Grill shanks over high heat, turning once or twice, until golden brown and beginning to burn in spots. Remove from grill to a serving platter.

Serve with beans.

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Su filindeu, approximately
serves 4

2 quarts lamb stock (see above)
12 oz. angel hair pasta
extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
grated pecorino Romano (or other hard sheep’s cheese)

Bring the lamb stock to a simmer in a sauce pot over medium-high heat. Add angel hair pasta, and cook until al dente, about 4-5 minutes.

With tongs, remove noodles to four bowls. Ladle the stock over the soup with a large spoon or ladle. Drizzle each with olive oil.

Toss together garlic and parsley, and sprinkle over the top of the pasta. Follow with a generous sprinkling of pecorino Romano, and serve.

 

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Speaking of those five ingredients… the dish will be tasty even if you purchase whichever brands of spaghetti, pecorino, butter, parsley and pepper they’ve got at the local Safeway (or, because I can track readers on six of the seven continents, whatever the local grocery store in your neck of the woods/jungle/savannah/desert may be). But I highly recommend finding a beautiful aged pecorino, the highest quality spaghetti you can (I like spaghetti alla chitarra), fresh organic parsley, a freshly churned or raw butter and some tellicherry pepper.

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And please… enjoy!

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Cacio e pepe
serves 4-6

1 lb. spaghetti
1 packed cup grated pecorino romano
1 heaping tbsp. best quality butter
2 tbsp. freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup chopped parsley

Cook spaghetti to al dente in a large pot of salted water.

Drain spaghetti, retaining 1/2 cup of the pasta water.

Return spaghetti to pot. Toss spaghetti with remaining ingredients until creamy and incorporated.

Season to taste with salt and serve.

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