As my wife and I ambled around the farmers market last Saturday morning, I spotted a basket of little onions and immediately thought stifado.
I’ve been cooking Mediterranean of late and the thought of a Greek beef and onion stew, slow-cooked with lots of spice, made me a little giddy.
Don’t get me wrong, I love an old-fashioned traditional beef stew as much as the next guy: beef, carrots, onion, potatoes, and so on.
But I also love this.
Like so much old-world food, there are as many recipes for stifado as there are families that make it. A stew of braised meat and onions seems simple enough. But I’ve also seen it made with rabbit, seafood (like octopus!), chicken, and even vegetarian versions with mushrooms and chestnuts.
I started with a chuck roast from our local butcher, my favorite for stews and pot roast, and cut it into cubes about one-inch square. Don’t worry about being exact here, it’s going to cook for a long time and no one will notice. I trimmed away any big fat pieces that were unlikely to break down over time but this is not supposed to be a lean cut of meat. But it does have a lot of great flavor and is reasonably affordable. (One of my big rules: if you look at it and think, “I’m not going to eat that even if it’s cooked,” then don’t cook it.)
Salt the meat generously and let it sit for half-an-hour at room temperature while you do the rest of the prep and putter about the kitchen.
Then brown the meat in olive oil.
(You will taste a piece at this point, we all do, it looks so good. Remember, it’s supposed to be tough at this point. That’s what the braising is for!)
I trimmed and peeled the onions. Try not to cut too deeply into the onions – it’s better if they mostly don’t fall apart as they soften during the cooking. You are not going to believe how sweet and amazing these will get.
I also found some German Red garlic at the market and I have to tell you, this is wonderful stuff. The bite is up front, hot and spicy, but it mellows out fast and doesn’t hang around to leave an aftertaste. (Your regular garlic will do fine too.)
And tomatoes. Use fresh when you can and canned when you can’t and a can if you must. (Say that five times fast.)
If you’re not using fresh, drain them first – we don’t want this to be a tomato sauce. Since tomatoes didn’t hit the Mediterranean until after the Americas were discovered, using them isn’t historically accurate. But you see them used commonly today and, hey, I like them in the dish.
Please, please use good spices when you cook. And taste a little of your spices before you cook with them. If they don’t have much flavor, they’re probably too old and need replaced. And there is no fast rule for that. Different spices degrade at different rates. When you buy a spice, write the date on the container with a permanent marker. Then at least you know.
The fresher the better but dried is fine – they don’t have to be fresh fresh. Myself, I grow a few out back in big pots, I buy a few in small jars (okay, a couple in BIG jars too), and the rest I only get when I need them.
Good salt (I like to use Diamond Crystal Kosher), some red wine vinegar (organic), and spices.
I used oregano and marjoram (which tastes like oregano but is more delicate or mild and sweeter.) Marjoram has been used as a stewing herb since the Middle Ages. It’s worth hunting down if you can. It’s used like crazy in Europe but I don’t see it locally too often.
Marjoram is indigenous to Cyprus and southern Turkey, and was known to the Greeks and Romans as a symbol of happiness. – Wikipedia
For the heat, I used Aleppo pepper. It’s a Turkish crushed chili powder that some people say tastes like a hotter ancho chili. There’s a tartness to it as well. You’ll often find it used as a condiment on the table, like salt and pepper. The actual heat is in the serrano pepper range, so less than cayenne or tabasco.
If you can’t find Aleppo pepper for this recipe, use 2½ teaspoons of sweet paprika, ½ teaspoon cayenne, and ½ teaspoon of cumin. It’s not quite the same but it’s in the right neighborhood.
You can usually find both of these in spice stores (like Penzeys marjoram, Aleppo pepper, and Turkish bay leaves), specialty grocers (even World Market sometimes), other on-line sources, or a local Mediterranean grocery. Some Mediterranean restaurants also have a little grocery tucked inside.
Once the meat is browned, add the tomatoes, garlic, vinegar, and spices. And don’t worry about that garlic, it will slowly melt into the sauce.
Then add the onions to the pot. (It doesn’t require a separate picture, but just look how pretty that is.)
Then cover everything with water. The onions float so only add enough water to cover the one you’re holding down.
Bring it to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to low so it’s just a slow simmer with a few small bubbles. Come back in 2 hours. (You don’t need to stir it occasionally, but I almost always end up doing just that because it draws you back with the incredible smell. If you don’t believe me, after an hour or so, go outside for a few minutes and then come back in. )
If it dries out, lower the heat a tad and add some more water if needed. This (the picture below) is more-or-less what you’re aiming for.
I served it with orzo with diced apricots, a simple Persian cucumber tomato salad, some flat bread and tzatziki, and a few olives.
But you could just as easily serve it with mashed potatoes and green beans and you’d still be a hero with the people gathered around your supper table. I promise.
Stifado (Mediterranean Beef and Onion Stew)
Stifado is a centuries-old Greek beef and onion stew, singing with deep and spicy flavors, that slow-cooks into a dish that is tender, comforting, and wonderful. Visit suppertimeblues.com to learn more.
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt, sprinkled over cubed meat
- 2 pounds chuck roast (2-3 pounds)
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 pounds small onions
- 6 cloves garlic
- 3 tomatoes (about 1½ - 2 cups)
- 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 2 teaspoons dried marjoram
- 1 tablespoon Aleppo pepper
- 2 bay leaves
- salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Trim and cut the meat into cubes, sprinkle with a tablespoon of salt, and let sit at room temperature for half-an-hour.
Trim and peel the onions, trying not to cut them deeply.
Wash and dice the tomatoes.
Brown the meat in the olive oil over medium-high heat.
Add the vinegar, tomatoes, garlic, spices, and onions to the pot. (Remember to add some salt and pepper.)
Cover with water.
Bring to a boil then reduce heat to a gentle simmer.
Occasionally stir and taste / adjust the seasonings if needed.
Cook, uncovered, for about 2 hours. When done, the meat should be as tender as it can be while still not falling apart and most of the water should be gone leaving a thick stew.