Stifatho or Stifado: However You Spell It, This Greek Beef Stew is F-A-B!

Call them stews or braises or, as New York Times food editor Sam Sifton termed this class of long-simmered, pot-cooked bellywarmers, "balms against winter’s bite," there's nothing in a cook's repertoire more satisfying on a cold night. Whether cooked on a stovetop or in the oven, the house starts to feel warmer almost immediately, and as the meat is browned and the vegetables are sautéed, the aromas begin to make stomachs growl in anticipation.

My first introduction to this particular stew was waaaaaaay back in high school when I became friends with a young woman who lived in our suburban neighborhood with its cookie-cutter ranch houses and striving white-collar families. Exotic in my stolidly middle-class experience, their house was littered with Balinese art and South Asian throws. Shelves of books rather than American colonial furniture were the focus of their decor, and when I was lucky enough to be invited for dinner they made curries and ethnic stews rather than noodle casseroles.

In other words, I was enthralled.

This all came back to me when friends—who've traveled extensively in Greece and are exotic in their own way—served us a Greek stew called stifatho that uses vinegar instead of wine or tomatoes to braise the meat, and calls for an equivalent weight of onions and beef. When I got home I dug through my trusty tin recipe box and found the original recipe from that family's home in high school—yes, I collected them even back then—and tinkered with it until it tasted just as I remembered.

Stifatho (Greek Beef Stew)

3 Tbsp. olive oil
3 lbs. beef chuck, cut in 1 1/2" cubes
1/2-1 c. flour
3 lbs. pearl onions (approx. 3 14-oz. packages frozen) or 3 large yellow onions, cut in 1/2" dice
2 c. canned or roasted tomatoes
1/2 c. red wine vinegar
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. oregano
3 bay leaves
1 Tbsp. fish sauce
1 stick cinnamon (optional)
2 Tbsp. brown sugar or to taste
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350°.

Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat.

Put flour in a 1 gallon zip-lock bag with a generous amount of salt and pepper and shake to combine. Add 8-10 cubes meat to the bag and shake to cover them with flour, working in batches to do all of the meat. You only want a dusting on each piece, so shake them off to make sure they're not clumped with flour.

Heat oil in a large Dutch oven. When oil is hot, add floured cubes to the pan, making sure not to crowd them. Brown them well on at least two sides. This will require several batches, so as they brown remove them to a plate or bowl. When all the cubes are browned, put them back in the Dutch oven and add onions, tomatoes, vinegar, garlic, oregano and bay leaves. Place in oven for 90 minutes.

Remove from oven. At this point you can either serve it later or finish seasoning the stew. If you're making it ahead you can cool it and either keep it in the refrigerator or transfer it to containers and freeze it. When you're ready to heat it for serving, thaw it or pull it out of the refrigerator and remove the fat that has solidified and proceed as below.

To finish the stew, stir in the fish sauce and cinnamon stick and heat on the stovetop. Taste, adding salt as needed, and when you can just detect the cinnamon flavor, remove the stick or it will dominate the stew. If it's overly vinegary for you, start adding brown sugar a tablespoon at a time, stirring it in and letting the stew sit for a few minutes before tasting again, since the vinegar flavor will get milder as it rests. The thing you want to avoid is a baked-bean sweetness, so add a splash of additional vinegar if that happens.

Serve with rice—I made my turmeric rice with tangerine peels and it was fantastic—polenta or roasted potatoes.

Winter Warmer: Lentils with Ground Pork and Radicchio

"I’m duty-bound to eat lentils on San Silvestro (New Year’s Eve). Why? Because each tiny legume represents another coin added to my treasure chest in the year ahead and if I don’t consume lentils, well, poverty inevitably will loom."

Writer and author Nancy Harmon Jenkins, who lives part-time in her hometown of Camden on Maine's charming coast and a portion of every year among her beloved olive trees in a tiny Tuscan village, lives my dream life. She is completely at home in both places, speaking both Downeast-ese and Italian, and is fluent in the cuisines of both, as well.

Her recent ode to the tradition of eating legumes at the turn of the year to assure prosperity in the year ahead captured me, so much so that when I saw lentils in the bulk bin at the store, I had to buy a pound to try them out.

For me, lentils always meant the brown lentils ubiquitous in every natural foods cookbook and on every hippie café menu during my young adulthood. Hearty, for sure, and marvelous when paired with a beefy stock and roasted tomatoes, I loved the flavor but wished they had a sturdier texture since, when cooked, they tended to moosh up into a dal-like consistency (not that there's anything wrong with that, as the saying goes…).

So when Nancy wrote that these lentils "are incomparably sweet and hold up well, not disintegrating when they’re simmered for 30 to 40 minutes," I was all in. I had a vision of a meaty, slightly brothy stew with tomatoes (see above), but also featuring some hefty, simmered greens for color and texture. Having just processed a half pig, I used a pork stock to simmer the lentils and ground pork for the meat, but having no kale or chard in the fridge (!) I decided to use a small head of treviso in a nod to Nancy's Tuscan side.

The resulting hearty winter stew was a rich counterpoint to the blustery cold winter weather outside, and I'd recommend it for your table any time you have a need to feel prosperous, indeed.

Lentilles de Puy with Ground Pork and Radicchio

1 lb. Lentilles de Puy
1 qt. stock (chicken, pork, vegetable, whey or simply water)
2 bay leaves
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. ground pork
1 onion, chopped in 1/2" dice
1 tsp. fennel pollen
1 Tbsp. dried oregano
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 c. (16 oz.) whole roasted tomatoes
1 head treviso radicchio, sliced crosswise into 1"strips
2 Tbsp. fermented cayenne peppers or other chopped, roasted red peppers
1/8 tsp. ground cayenne (optional)
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
2 tsp. salt or to taste

Bring the stock to a boil and add the lentils and bay leaves. When the stock returns to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until lentils are tender, about 30-40 min. When lentils are done, strain and cool, reserving stock in a separate bowl.

While lentils cook, heat olive oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers, add ground pork and brown. Add onion to the pork and sauté until tender, then add garlic, fennel pollen and oregano and heat briefly. Add tomatoes, radicchio, peppers and vinegar and sauté briefly. Simmer over low heat, adding enough of the reserved stock to keep the stew from drying out  too much (I used it all), at least a half hour and preferably an hour in order for the flavors to meld. Also terrific reheated the next day. Serve with a loaf of artisan bread and good red wine—preferably Italian, right, Nancy?