Pastitsio vs Stifado

“You can’t beat a good stifado” he said, pointing at me and grinning mischievously.  Years later, surrounded by the aroma of tomato and beef infused with cinnamon, I’m tempted to say that the maths teacher was right.

At high school, I had a perfectly friendly maths teacher who did his best to get his pupils to where they should be, but every now and again, a colleague of his would stride into the classroom and on his way in or out, would strike up some friendly banter with me about the merits of various Greek dishes.  His opening line was always the same: “Had any stifado recently?”

Having guessed that my origins were Greek from my name, this chirpy maths teacher (Mr. J) enjoyed sharing his memories of beef stifado and seemed to like hearing about my own affections for pastitsio: a dish that my mum made and that I still make now with a mixture of love and utter glee.  Note to self: must update the recipe to include my own bechamel sauce which has been perfected recently.

The maths teacher and I would continue our faux argument over which dish was champion until it was time for him to let the lesson continue and for me to focus once more on things more likely to help me gain qualifications.  I wished that the stifado enthusiast was my teacher, but he wasn’t and so our conversations rarely moved beyond sauce and seasoning.

Stifado is essentially pieces of meat cooked slowly in tomatoes and red wine with baby onions.  I like beef stifado, but it can also be made with rabbit.  It’s a wonderfully warming dish with a rich sauce and satisfying flavour.  I wonder what Mr. J would make of my version of the classic Greek dish?  I dare say he’d prefer it to my first attempts at high school maths.

Beef stifado

500g best braising beef

500g baby onions

1 glass red wine

2 tins chopped tomatoes

half cup olive oil

4 cloves garlic

2 tspoons ground cinnamon

1 tblspoon dried oregano

If you want to marinate the beef in red wine and garlic overnight, be my guest.  It does help.  If you don’t have that kinda time or forethought, then begin by shallow frying the peeled baby onions until golden.  Remove from the oil and set aside.

Next, brown the beef in the onion oil and add the cinnamon and oregano.  Pour in the chopped tomatoes and bring to the boil.  Add the red wine and boil for a minute or so to burn off the alcohol.  Drop some cloves of garlic into the pot.  I usually give them a quick bash with the back of my knife so that they release their flavour during cooking.

Simmer with the lid on for an hour.  Keep the heat low enough not to burn everything in the pot, but just high enough to keep everything on a gentle simmer.

After an hour, add as much black pepper as you dare and plenty of salt to taste.  Tip the onions in and cook uncovered for at least another hour until the beef is very tender and the sauce thick.  If the sauce reduces too much, just top up with water or stock.  Eventually, you’ll end up with a nice thick sauce, melt-in-your-mouth beef and beautifully flavoured baby onions.

Stifado goes well with potatoes and I sometimes have a fresh cabbage salad on the side because it has quite a rich sauce.  You’ll certainly need plenty of your favourite bread to mop it all up!

The Queen of Salads.

Perhaps you’ve noticed the online scramble to get as many tomato recipes posted as possible before summer comes to an end.  I know what you’re thinking: Dimitri, you’ve been pouring Cherry Coke on pork, hardly seasonal!  Yeah, I know, but it was great, wasn’t it?  I mean Cherry Coke and pork; Escoffier would love it, I’m sure.  Well, my summers are usually dominated by pizza and anything with plenty of colour.  I love tomatoes and will do my best to eat them as often as possible because they’re just so good for you.  In the salad I ate tonight, however, they were the least exciting ingredient and that doesn’t happen too often.

My wife, N, is of French descent and as such, her love of salad is not a secret.  She loves nothing more than a plate of fresh salad to accompany her meals. Her appreciation of a well dressed or carefully prepared salad is something that must be earned.  When N compliments me on one of my salads, I feel like I’ve truly achieved something (although I’ve never really achieved anything, so I’m only guessing that it feels that way).  The pick of the bunch is, of course, a good ol’ Nicoise.  We both love it because of the tasty balance of flavours.

The summer is beginning to fade, but that doesn’t mean we should start on the road to stews and soups just yet.  Grab a bunch of ingredients and take some time preparing perhaps the greatest salad of them all.

Nicoise pittas (adapted from the French…all of them)

4 wholemeal pittas

4 ripe tomatoes (quartered)

6 anchovies

handful Kalamata olives

2 eggs (hard-boiled and quartered)

1 tin tuna in sunflower oil (drained)

1 onion (finely chopped)

4 tblspoons extra virgin olive oil

1 tspoon Dijon mustard

1 lemon

a handful of lettuce leaves (I used iceberg this time)

Begin by chopping the onion and placing it in a small bowl of water.  Set this aside.  The water makes the flavour of the onion milder which is a real boon when eating it raw as in this salad.  Chop the lettuce leaves and place in a medium bowl.  Make a dressing by whisking together the olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice and the Dijon mustard.  Add the tomatoes to the lettuce, pour over the dressing and toss together.  Add the anchovies, tuna, olives and a little black pepper.  Drain the water from the onion and sprinkle over the salad.  It’s unlikely that you’ll need to add salt because the anchovies act as your seasoning.  Toss the salad gently and then place the eggs on top.

You could serve the salad as it is, but tonight, we went for the handheld option.  I grilled some pitta bread and filled each with the salad.  A delightful meal for a summer evening.  Take it from someone who is not a big fan of salads, this one is worth the effort.