The first time I came across stifado was a young teenager on holiday in Corfu, from the first taste I was hooked. Strangely enough though until yesterday I had never cooked the dish at home. I don’t really recall much else from that trip to Corfu, other than a great many hillwalking trips, but the hearty dishes of stifado have stayed lodged in my memory bank; maybe it’s a deep-rooted feeling I might fail at recreating that ‘perfection’ that has put me off trying stifado for so long.
For me cold winter weather demands comfort food in the form of hearty stews and braises, so with the last few days being bitterly cold and frosty what, more excuse could be needed than to make stifado? Stifado are rich and sustaining stews, headily spiced with cumin, cloves, cinnamon and bay leaves, making them perfect winter warmers. Most commonly a stifado is made with rabbit but beef, chicken and pork also work very well.
A stifado is also a great dish for economy cooking (providing your spice rack is already well filled of course) as you need to use the ‘cheaper’ cuts of beef such as chuck steak, shin of beef or cubed beef cheek as they contain a lot of connective tissue including collagen, the collagen melts during the cooking of the meat, making the flavour intensely stronger and giving ultra-tender, cut with a fork meat.
The key to getting the characteristic, rich, sweet sauce is to use lots of onions. Most of the recipes I’ve looked at contain either shallots or boiling onions left whole but I didn’t have any, so I made do with four large onions which I finely sliced and allowed to caramelise before returning them to the pan to cook with the other ingredients. Whilst large chunks of shallot or onion would have been nice, the caramelisation of the sliced onions did give the sauce the correct body and sweetness. Next time I will be sure to have ordered shallots from my organic vegetable box scheme.
In a strange twist of culinary country identities I decided to serve the stifado not with the traditional rice or boiled pasta but with colcannon; a dish traditional of Ireland. Why colcannon I hear you ask. Well because it is my favourite side dish of all time, and, because I’d a bag of kale and some cream that needed to be eaten fairly soon. Colcannon is such a simple dish to make, simply mashed potatoes with some sauteed scallions and kale (or cabbage) mixed through. There are, however, a few rules to follow to get good results – cook the potatoes in their skins in just enough water to half cover them so they almost steam, peel them and return to the pot to ‘dry’ before mashing them, always add hot milk to prevent lumps.
The iron richness of the kale worked well against the sweetness of the stifado sauce, giving a lovely contrast in flavour and texture.
Although I didn’t see a mention for it in any of the cookbooks or websites I consulted in my search for the ultimate stifado, I have memories of a hard cheese being grated over the stifado in Corfu; so in keeping with my fond food memory, I served some grated kefalotyri cheese with the dish.
Very few ingredients are used in stifado so make sure you use the freshest and best quality ingredients you can; take your time over the preparation and cooking, give it some love and you will be transported in mind to a Greek taverna; all you need to complete the experience is a good glass of red wine such as Xinomavro.