“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.
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!