Greek cuisine has many comfort foods, but stifado or in a more original spelling stifatho, is probably the most widely cooked dish which has its own, local versions throughout the whole country.
It is so rich in flavors and textures that one time is surely not enough to get a complete idea about the real potential of this delicious stew. Its biggest advantage lies in its ingredients, which are available and in season during the whole year. The preparation is very easy, then all you need is your patience as it has to be cooked slowly, so all the flavors dissolve into the gravy.
If a dish can be called ancient, then this is the one. Stifado is rooted from the Middle Ages of Italy, where it was originally named stufato which means stew, then brought to Greece by Venetian people. There, it has reached its more or less final form, after receiving various influences from the Turkish and farther Middle-Eastern cuisines.
As an Italian dish, it was really simple in the old times, based on some kind of meat (mostly beef) and onions, often the same amount of both.
Then it became quite diverse in Greece, where it is often made from rabbit. Poultry, seafood and game are also popular choices, the latter often consumed by people living in the mountains. Onion is important, as a staple ingredient in this dish. The stifado recipe can be cooked with medium onions, cut into chunky pieces, but pearl onions and shallots are more suitable for an appetizing dish, as they hold their shapes much better. Apart from their aroma and eye catching appearance, onions have an important role in cooking, as these versatile vegetables contain an agent called pectine (same can be found in apples) which thickens the stew while being cooked and it results in a full-bodied, thick gravy.
Stifado has a well defined seasoning by the usage of several sweet spices, such as cinnamon, clove and allspice, but cumin and bay leaves are also common. You can change their quantities if you feel so. This is a constantly evolving dish and every Greek family has their own perfect version of this hearty meal, so you cannot really go wrong with some minor changes.
There are some versions made with nuts, even dried fruits brought by the Middle-Eastern influence. Tomato is a newer addition to the dish, as it was brought to Europe only in the 16th century by the Spanish. However, it became an important ingredient in stifado for providing sweetness, a tad of acidity and richness with its fibrous flesh.
It is traditionally cooked on the stovetop, preferably in a cast iron dish, which is more suitable for the long hours of slow cooking. This technique makes it a fuss free dish because all you need is to put together the base with the ingredients, then leave it to simmer on a low temperature. Cooking in the oven is the other option; all you need to make sure is that there is enough moisture for the slow steaming. Some root vegetables can be also included, like carrots in different colors or a few spears of green asparagus which should be steamed only in the last minutes, on top of the stew.
As a side, you can cook some new potatoes in the stew itself in the last 20 minutes, in the early summer when they are in season. In the rest of the year, you can always go for some quickly cooked orzo, rice or pasta (ziti, for example) or just keep it simple and buy the most crusty sourdough bread you can get, and then dunk it in the rich gravy.
- 2 lb beef stew meat , cut into large cubes (e.g. chuck or scoter)
- 5 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 lb pearl onions , peeled
- 3 cloves garlic , cut in half lengthwise
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground clove
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon ground allspice
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 3 cups full-bodied red wine
- 1 orange (grated zest and juice)
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 small bunch flat parsley , chopped
- Heat the olive oil in a glazed terracotta or cast iron pot over medium heat. Brown the pearl onions for 3 minutes. Add the garlic and brown for 2 minutes.
- Add the cubes of meat and brown on all sides, stirring often. Add the cinnamon, cumin, allspice, cloves and tomato paste. Season with salt.
- Cover with red wine and mix well. Add a little water if necessary so that the meat is immersed.
- Add the orange zest and the juice, as well as the bay leaves. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes over high heat.
- Lower the heat and simmer covered, over very low heat for 1h45.
- Remove the lid and continue cooking for 1 hour, still on very low heat.
- Stir a few times while cooking.
- Sprinkle with parsley and serve hot with cooked potatoes, rice or ziti or macaroni pasta.