Friday, December 9, 2011

A bowl of stew and a good book

In Italy, stew is always an occasion. That’s because, if you want to eat a good stew, there are no shortcuts – barring the lazy option, a visit to the local trattoria. Personally, when I get a hankering for stew – which I often do on a cold winter’s day – I make my own. There really is no substitute and although it may be time consuming, it’s hardly arduous. It’s a great Saturday afternoon dish. Brown a little meat, soften a few vegetables, add wine and stock and put your feet up with a good book and a glass of whatever’s left in the bottle. I got through the best part of a Lee Child novel the last time I made a stew.

Italians can be pedantic, particularly when it comes to matters of the stomach. Stracotto, brasato, umido, stufato, spezzatino, salmì, not to mention a very long list of regional and provincial variations, are just a few of the more common names given to describe what in the UK would simply be labelled ‘stew’ – i.e., a piece of meat, sometimes whole, sometimes cut into pieces and slow cooked for hours with various spices in a stock or wine or a mix of the two.

Stew in Italy is always specific. Spezzatino is arguably the term that most closely resembles what in the UK is commonly labelled ‘stew’. That is, meat cut into small pieces, browned and stewed with the addition of vegetables in a stock. This differs from a stufato, where the meat is marinated first in wine, garlic and various herbs and then slow cooked without browning for up to 8 hours. Game meats are often cooked this way. Alternatively, with a brasato, the meat is browned first and then cooked slowly in wine. A piece of meat which is rich in fat is most suited to the method. It’s most popular in Lombardy and Piedmont, the brasato al Barolo being the obvious example.

Umido refers to a slow cooking method where the lid is kept on, the desired result being a sauce that is still quite liquid, perfect for pouring over a heap of polenta or mashed potatoes. It’s a method commonly used for rabbit, hare and chicken. Alternatively, a stracotto - which is highly popular throughout central and northern Italy - is made with an uncut piece of meat, usually beef, but sometimes horse or game. The meat is browned before being cooked with tomatoes and stock. Cooking time can be anything from 4 to 8 hours to 2 days. Here in parts of Emilia a specialty is fresh egg pasta stuffed with stracotto. Not a dish to be making every day of the week, naturally, it’s generally reserved for special occasions.

Salmì is one of the oldest methods for cooking stews in Italy. It’s especially suited to game. The meat is marinated in wine along with vegetables and spices and cooked slowly in the marinade with the lid kept on. The method, they say, dates back to the 700s.

I got hooked on stew during my childhood in Belfast. The aroma of an Irish stew, cooked slowly in stout (or Guinness), has stayed with me all these years. Occasionally, when I’m hit with a bout of nostalgia, I’ll take a trip to the supermarket and buy a few bottles of Guinness, some neck of lamb and take to the kitchen. It always takes me back. Today though, it’s a spezzatino – beef, slow cooked in stock and tomatoes, with loads of potatoes added in the last hour to soak up the juices. I’ve got another Lee Child novel I’ve been meaning to read. All that’s left is to open a bottle of wine and get stewing!

Beef stew with potatoes
Spezzatino di manzo con patate

Serves 4

750g shoulder of beef (boned and cut into pieces with some of the fat trimmed off)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 clove garlic
1kg potatoes, peeled and cut into pieces
2x 400g tinned tomatoes
150ml beef stock
1 bay leaf
A handful fresh chopped flat leafed parsley
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put the chopped onion and garlic into a heavy large casserole dish with the oil and sauté gently until starting to brown ever so slightly. Remove the onions from the dish and set aside. Turn up the heat, add the meat and brown evenly. Return the onions to the pan along with the tomatoes, stock and bay leaf. Add the sugar and stir well. Bring to a very gentle simmer, season well with salt and pepper and cover the pot. Adjust the heat so that it is just simmering. Continue to cook for 2.5 hours, stirring occasionally. After this time, add the potatoes and give the stew a stir. Check to see there is still sufficient liquid. It should just cover the potatoes. If not, add a little extra stock. Continue cooking for another 40 to 45 minutes with the lid off. By this time the meat should be tender and the potatoes cooked through and beginning to break apart slightly. Allow to rest for 5 minutes, sprinkle over the chopped parsley and serve with plenty of crusty bread.

1 comment:

  1. Looks good Mario. Nothing like a stew during the winter months to warm you up. I hope you enjoy the Lee Child book.