olive oil as needed
2 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, trimmed into 1 1/2 inch pieces
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 yellow onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
4 TBSP chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 tsp fennel seeds, toasted in a dry pan and crushed
pinch of chile pepper flakes (optional)
3 cups meat stock or water
3 fennel bulbs
6 or 7 pita breads
2 TBSP butter, cut into small pieces
1 1/2 cups crumbled ricotta salata or feta cheese
Place a large deep saute pan or Dutch oven over high heat and film the bottom with olive oil. Working in batches, add the lamb and brown on all sides, adding oil as needed and seasoning with salt and pepper. Each batch should take 8 to 10 minutes. As each batch is ready, use a slotted spoon to transfer to a plate.
Return the pan to medium heat and add the onion, garlic, parsley, fennel seeds, and chile flakes (if using) to the oil remaining in the pan, adding more oil if needed. Saute until the onion is softened, about 8 minutes. Add 2 cups of the stock or water, return the lamb to the pan, raise the heat to medium-high, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the lamb is very tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Taste and adjust seasoning.
While the lamb is cooking, cut off any stalks and fronds from the fennel bulbs if still attached, and reserve the fronds for garnish, if desired. Cut the fennel bulbs in quarters or eighths and cut out the tough core from each piece. Peel off any discoloured outer leaves. Bring a saucepan three-fourths full of water to a boil. Salt lightly, add the fennel, reduce the heat to medium, and cook until tender, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, drain well, and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Select a large earthenware baking dish, about 10 by 12 by 3 inches (3-quart capacity).
Line the bottom of the dish with pita bread, tearing or cutting as necessary to fit. Spoon the lamb stew evenly over the bread and scatter half the cheese evenly over the top. Top with the fennel. Drizzle the remaining 1 cup stock or water evenly over the top, adding more as needed to moisten the fennel and bread lightly. Scatter remaining cheese evenly over the surface, and dot with the 2 TBSP butter pieces.
Bake until cheese melts and is tinged with gold, about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and garnish with chopped fennel fronds if using. Serve immediately.
Notes: This was my experiment for this year's New Year's Eve dinner. And I must say it was worth all the time and effort. The lamb was so tender it was ridiculous, and the flavor of the fennel infused the entire dish.