Caitlin Bensel
Active Time
30 MIN
Total Time
2 HR 10 MIN
Yield
Serves : 6

Last summer, I had the good fortune to travel with my partner to Croatia. We spent two weeks traversing the coastline of Croatia, where, in a cinderblock cabin surrounded by olive trees outside the Istrian town of Pula, Croatia, we got a lesson in how to make Croatia’s most prized dish, peka. Peka is the name for both the bell-shaped, domed cooking vessel made of cast iron and the meal that is prepared in it. The process for making peka is ancient and involves placing the pan over a bed of glowing coal embers and scooping more embers on top of the domed lid to create an oven-like environment where meats or seafood and vegetables are slow-roasted inside.

Our teacher was Nikola of Eat Istria, and our day began at the market in Pula, where Nikola led me and my partner from stall to stall to collect ingredients. We were asked if we preferred lamb necks or veal chops. Perhaps octopus? We chose lamb, and that meant a stop at the vegetable stand for potatoes, carrots, onions, and garlic to accompany.

At the cabin, we prepped the ingredients with minimal fuss, roughly cutting the carrots and onions, leaving the potatoes and garlic cloves whole, and layering them in the base of the dish with the lamb on top so the fat and juices would baste them throughout cooking. We plucked needles from a handful of rosemary sprigs snipped from the yard and doused the whole thing in white wine and a luxurious amount of extra-virgin olive oil that created a heady sauce of sorts in the bottom of the dish.

As Nikola built a campfire on the side of a stone wall, he explained that we would wait for the fire to die down and then surround the peka with the residual ashy embers. These small chunks of coal produce just the right amount of heat to slowly cook the meal over the course of an hour or two. Once the embers were ready, we carried the weighty peka from the kitchen to the bed of coals and opened some local wines to while away the afternoon, patiently awaiting our one-pot feast.

A waft of scented steam roared from the pot as Nikola lifted the dome to reveal the gloriously browned lamb necks. We peeked in and spied potatoes and carrots that were so dark in spots they were nearly burnt, but in a good way. The olive oil at the bottom was still bubbling and spitting as we gathered around the weathered wood table under a vine-covered pergola.

Many of the homes we saw in Croatia had an outdoor fireplace for live-fire cooking—a centerpiece of the home, where meals are still made and families still gather. We spent the next few hours lingering at the table, talking about life in Croatia, politics, food—and most of all, wine. The large peninsula of Istria where our meal took place makes up Croatia’s northern coast; it is known for its gastronomic riches, including some of the best wines in the country. We tasted broody reds made from indigenous grapes like Teran, Refosco, and Borgonja and complex whites made from Malvasia. These regional varieties all matched perfectly with the meal, naturally, and we found the offerings from Piquentum particularly good.

That experience inspired me to cook over a fire more often this past year. It makes me feel more connected to the elemental act of preparing food and sharing it with others, and it satisfies the soul the way no modern method can. For convenience, I’ve adapted this recipe to be prepared using a charcoal grill, as well as using your oven. But if you have the time, I encourage you to lean into tradition: build a fire, and settle in for a long, slow roast. It will be an experience neither you nor your guests will soon forget.

How to Make It

Step 1    To prepare this recipe using your oven

Preheat oven to 350°F. Arrange potatoes in a single layer on bottom of 12-inch 8-quart Dutch oven. Top potatoes with onions, garlic, and carrots. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Remove rosemary leaves from sprigs and scatter over vegetables. Drizzle with 3 tablespoons olive oil.

Step 2    

Season lamb with remaining 2 teaspoons salt and remaining 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Place lamb chops on vegetables, and drizzle with remaining 3 tablespoons oil. Cover and bake in preheated oven until starting to brown, about 1 hour.

Step 3    

Remove lid, and carefully flip lamb and vegetables to prevent burning. Add wine, replace lid, and return to oven. Continue cooking until vegetables are tender when pierced with a fork and lamb is tender enough to just pull away from bone, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove lid, and cook until lamb is browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Serve directly from pot, drizzled with additional olive oil and flaky sea salt.

Step 4    To prepare this recipe using a charcoal grill

Light 2 charcoal chimney starters filled halfway with briquettes. When briquettes are covered with gray ash, pour 1 chimney starter’s briquettes onto the bottom of a charcoal grill. Place bottom grate on top of charcoal.

Step
Step 5    

Meanwhile, while charcoal is heating, arrange potatoes in a single layer on bottom of a 12-inch, 8-quart cast-iron Dutch oven with a flanged lid. Top potatoes with onions, garlic, and carrots. Sprinkle vegetables with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Remove rosemary leaves from sprigs, and scatter over vegetables. Drizzle with 3 tablespoons olive oil. Season lamb with remaining 2 teaspoons salt and remaining 1/2 teaspoon pepper.

Step 6    

Arrange lamb on vegetables, and drizzle with remaining 3 tablespoons oil. Cover and place Dutch oven on top of bottom grill grate. Carefully spread a thin layer of remaining charcoal over lid of Dutch oven. Cook until lamb is starting to brown, about 1 hour. Light 1 additional charcoal chimney starter filled halfway with briquettes for later use.

Step 7    

Carefully scrape off charcoal from lid. Remove lid, and flip lamb and vegetables to prevent burning. Add wine, replace lid, and spread another thin layer of charcoal over lid. Continue cooking until vegetables are tender when pierced with a fork and lamb is tender enough to just pull away from bone, 30 to 45 minutes. Remove from grill and serve directly from pot, drizzled with additional olive oil and flaky sea salt.

Step 8    To prepare this recipe over an open fire

About 1 hour before cooking, build a hardwood campfire in a fire pit and let it burn down to red-hot coals, which then turn into smaller, ash-covered glowing embers. At this point you are ready for cooking.

Step 9    

Arrange potatoes in a single layer on bottom of a 12-inch, 8-quart cast-iron Dutch oven with a flanged lid. Top potatoes with onions, garlic, and carrots. Sprinkle vegetables with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Remove rosemary leaves from sprigs, and scatter over vegetables. Drizzle with 3 tablespoons olive oil. Season lamb with remaining 2 teaspoons salt and remaining 1/2 teaspoon pepper.

Step 10    

Arrange lamb on vegetables, and drizzle with remaining 3 tablespoons oil. Cover pot. When the embers are ready, push some of them to the side of the fire pit leaving a thin, even layer. Place the pot on the thin layer. Shovel some of the remaining embers onto the lid in a sparse layer, creating an oven-like environment inside the Dutch oven. Cook 1 hour. Meanwhile, pile the excess embers on the edge of the fire pit, and add a little more wood to get a small fire going in case additional embers are needed later.

Step 11    

After 1 hour, remove the embers from the lid, and carefully remove the lid. Flip the meat to brown on the other side, and add wine. Take note if it’s cooking evenly, and rotate the pot or add more embers as needed. Return the lid, and add embers to top. Cook until the meat and vegetables are very tender when pierced with a fork, 30 to 45 minutes.

Step 12    

Brush the embers from the lid, and remove the lid. Wearing heatproof grilling gloves or heavy-duty oven mitts, lift the pot from the fire pit. Serve directly from pot, drizzled with additional olive oil and flaky sea salt.

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