My husband and I journeyed to Greece 12 years ago for a last childless fling and wound up having a glorious, play-it-by-ear excursion.
With no reservations beyond the first night, we toured Athens and Delphi, and ferry-hopped between the islands of Crete, Mykonos and Santorini, staying and eating wherever we could find space.
We’re both fairly adventurous diners, and were eager to go beyond gyros, which in Greece, we learned, often come with french fries tucked inside. We sampled meat pies from Athenian fast-food-type joints, yogurt with honey at a tree-shaded village cafe, raw sea urchin (inadvertently, due to the language barrier) at a portside restaurant and bougatsa, a famed Cretan dessert, in Iraklion’s Lions Square.
We drank retsina and ouzo and the inexplicably popular, ubiquitous Nescafe.
But the item that really entranced us was beef stifado, also spelled stefato, which we’d never had in the Greek restaurants back home but which seemed to be available on the menu of every little restaurant in every little island town we visited.
It was a simple and hearty beef stew and, though always slightly different, consistently delicious.
I’ve since made stifado countless times. We usually serve it over rice, with walnuts and feta cheese for sprinkling, accompanied by a Greek salad and red wine.
Almost all our friends and relatives have had it, and people often ask for the recipe.
This recipe doubles easily. To flavor the dish, it calls for the use of a sachet d’epice (similar to a bouquet garni) of herbs, spices and vegetables held together; I put mine in a tea ball and add the cinnamon stick straight to the pot.
Stifado (Greek beef stew)
For the sachet d’epice:
2bay leaves, crumbled
8whole black peppercorns
1garlic clove, mashed
12-inch-long cinnamon stick
For the stew:
1tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil (may substitute vegetable oil)
2pounds lean beef, excess fat trimmed, cut in 1-inch cubes
2tablespoons unsalted butter
215-ounce jars small onions (such as Holland-style), drained
1teaspoon sugar, or more as necessary
1/2cup dry red wine
11/2cups water, plus more as necessary
1tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
1tablespoon brown sugar
2tablespoons cornstarch (optional)
1/2cup coarsely chopped walnuts, for garnish
4ounces crumbled feta cheese, for garnish
For the sachet d’epice: Place the bay leaves, peppercorns and garlic in a tea ball and set aside with the cinnamon stick, or put all ingredients in a small tied-up piece of cheesecloth and set aside.
For the stew: In a large pot over medium-high heat, heat the olive oil until it is smoking. Add as much beef as will fit in a single layer. Stir until the meat has browned on all sides, about 4 minutes for each batch. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with paper towels and set aside; repeat with the remaining beef.
When the meat is done, reduce the heat to medium and melt the butter in the same pot. Add the drained onions. Sprinkle with sugar to caramelize and cook until the onions are a light-golden color, 5 to 10 minutes. Lift them out with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Return the meat to the same pot and add the wine, water, vinegar, tomato paste, brown sugar, salt to taste, the sachet and cinnamon stick. The liquid should barely cover the meat; add as much water as necessary to maintain the liquid level during cooking. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, so that bubbles just begin to break the surface, for 1 to 11/2 hours or until the meat is tender when pierced with a fork.
Remove the sachet and cinnamon stick and adjust seasonings as necessary. Spoon the reserved onions into the stifado and mix to combine. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
For a thicker consistency, make a slurry in a small separate bowl with the cornstarch and 3 tablespoons cold water, stirring until smooth. Add to the stew, increase the heat to medium-high and boil for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Serve hot, and pass the chopped walnuts and feta cheese at the table.
Makes 6 servings. Per serving: 458 calories, 26g protein, 14g carbohydrates, 32g fat, 99mg cholesterol, 13g saturated fat, 535mg sodium, 3g dietary fiber
Adapted from “The Complete Book of Soups and Stews,” by Bernard Clayton Jr.