Spezzatino di manzo con la polenta (Beef Stew with Polenta)

It’s hard to believe, but in all the years that I’ve been writing this blog, somehow I’ve managed to avoid writing a post about Italian beef stew. I suppose that’s a tribute to the vast variety of Italian cooking or perhaps a reflection of the somewhat secondary role that beef plays in Italian cuisine. Or perhaps it’s just a reflection of my own tastes.

Be that as it may, it is true that on a cold winter’s night a hearty beef stew, served over polenta, makes a delightful piatto unico. And it’s very simple to make: start (as always) with a soffrito, add your meat to brown lightly, then a splash of wine, then your braising liquid and, if you like, some fresh herbs. Cover and let it simmer very gently until tender. It sounds straightfoward—and it is. It is also economical, as stewing cuts are cheap and, if you serve the stew over polenta, just a little bit goes a very long way.

The Italian way with stew is very much like the stews of other cuisines. The main difference lies in the use of a soffritto of aromatic vegetables to start with, before you add the meat. Since you then add the meat to the already soft vegetables, they will not caramelize as much as in recipes where you begin by browning the meat directly in hot oil. Rather than forming a nice dark crust around the meat, the meat absorbs the sweetness of the aromatic vegetables. The result is sweeter and mellower than other beef stews you may have tried.

Ingredients (serves 4-6)

500-750g (1 to 1-1/2 lb.) of beef chuck, cut into cubes
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 medium carrot, finely diced
1 stalk of celery, finely diced
Olive oil and/or butter
Red wine
Beef or mixed meat broth (or water)
Salt and pepper

Optional:
1 tsp. cornstarch or potato starch
1 sprig of fresh rosemary, 1 bay leaf and/or 1 sprig of fresh marjoram

Directions

Pour a generous amount of olive oil (or a mixture of butter and oil) into a sauté or braising pan. Add the onion, carrot and celery and sauté very gently until the vegetables are very soft and the onion translucent. Adding a pinch of salt and a spoonful of water helps the vegetables cook and avoids browning.

Now add the beef cubes and turn them with a wooden spoon or spatula so they are nicely coated with the vegetables and flavored oil. Season well with salt and pepper. Raise the heat a bit and let the beef brown very lightly, turning constantly to avoid burning.

Now add a splash of wine and let it evaporate. Then add enough broth to almost cover the meat and, if using, nestle your fresh herbs among the beef cubes. (NB: Most Italian recipes call for much less broth than this, but this way will give you abundant sauce for pouring your polenta: see Notes below.)

Cover, turn down the flame as low as it will go, and let the beef simmer very gently until fork-tender. Most recipes say an hour and a half, but I find two to three hours is more like it.

When the meat is tender, uncover and check the consistency of the sauce. If it is rather thin, you can either raise the heat and let it evaporate and/or add a spoonful of corn or potato starch, dissolved in an equal amount of water, to thicken the sauce. If, on the other hand, you want more sauce, then just add more broth or water and let it simmer, uncovered, for a few minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning.

Remove the fresh herbs, if used, and serve over a nice, hot bed of freshly made polenta (see recipe here).

NOTES: To my taste, chuck is the ideal cut of beef for making spezzatino. It has good flavor and enough marbling to stay juicy after a long braise. The unidentified ‘stew meat’ you find in supermarkets, on the other hand, can sometimes dry out. So, to be sure, I buy my own piece of chuck and cut it up myself into cubes.

As mentioned, the usual spezzatino recipe actually calls for much less broth (or water), just enough to moisten the meat. More broth can be added if needed during the braise. This produces an intensely flavored but rather skimpy sauce at the end. So when serving the spezzatino over polenta as pictured here, I like to add a generous amount of broth so I have ample sauce at the end, in which case it is usually best to thicken the sauce at the end with some starch.

The braising liquid is usually meat broth, either beef broth or a broth made from a mixture of chicken and beef. You can use plain old water as well in a pinch, in which case be extra-generous with your salt and pepper. (And I have been known to add beef base or even a bouillon cube to a stew—just don’t tell anyone!) If you have some extra wine around the house that has been open too long to drink, you can make a spezzatino di manzo al vino rosso—use wine not just to splash over the meat for some extra flavor and let evaporate (a process called sfumare in Italian) but enough to act as your braising liquid. And you can also make this dish in rosso, with tomato sauce, instead of or in combination with the broth. All of these variations are very good.

If you’re not in the mood for polenta, this stew is equally good with mashed potatoes or just a nice piece of crusty bread. And, though not very Italian, it would also go well with some buttered noodles.

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18 Responses to “Spezzatino di manzo con la polenta (Beef Stew with Polenta)”

  1. 21 January 2014 at 11:39 #

    Hi frank,
    Just came across your marvelous site. I was born in The Veneto and grew up in Canada. One of the mainstays of our Sunday dinners was spezzetino with polenta poured on a board. Thanks for evoking the memories of smells and tastes.
    Diana

  2. 30 November 2012 at 11:10 #

    I hope this lets me comment this time!! Third time’s the charm? Anyway, I have had a powerful hankering for beef stew of late and this photo and description is seriously talking to my craving. Also I adore polenta. Looks soooo yummy.

    • 1 December 2012 at 09:47 #

      Sorry you’re having so much trouble, Trix!

      Anyway, notwithstanding your troubles, this actually is the second time you’ve been able to leave a comment, so you must be doing something right. Anyway, thanks for the comment!

  3. 28 November 2011 at 17:16 #

    @Arturo: Sounds like I need to check out chenche… now where to find goat meat where I live?

    @Sophia Rental: I'm sure you'd have no trouble at all. It really is no more complicated than using a mix!

    @GrapplingMadrid: Glad you enjoyed it! I'm sure the cut you used is also very good for the purpose. You know what they say, meat close to the bone is the tastiest.

    And as for tomatoes and bay leaf, as mentioned in the post, they are perfectly 'DOC'variations on the basic recipe!

  4. 24 November 2011 at 10:03 #

    Just enjoyed the recipe but instead chuck, I used morcillo (that's the word that goes for osso bucco in Spain, cheaper but thakes more time to be cooked) and I evetually also couldn't resist using tomatoes and adding a couple of bay leaves (a “must” when we talk about stews in Spain) at the very begining and the last basil leaves of this year at the end.

    Southern spanish cooking ways (or maybe it's just me) are a little more barocque than the italian ones.

    P.S: manzo in Italian means the same that “manso” means in Spanish. After all, we're relatives.

  5. 22 November 2011 at 08:24 #

    Mmm, I can't wait to taste it although I am not sure such a beginner at cooking will be able to make such a masterpiece!

  6. 22 November 2011 at 00:47 #

    I can almost smell this dish cooking! It looks GREAT!!

  7. 21 November 2011 at 08:48 #

    Looks great! Congrats! It also looks very similar to “chenchen” (a Dominican southern corn based dish) that's usually served in this same way, although the meat is usually lightly hot goat meat. Thanks for your always delicious and inspiring dishes!

  8. 21 November 2011 at 07:17 #

    Thanks for your comments, friends!

    Giulia: One of my favorites, too!

    @Drick: Sounds like another dish I need to try!

    @Ciao Chow Linda: Thanks!

    @Greg: Beef in Guinness is one of my favorite ways to make beef stew! Even if it's not Italian, I'd like to feature it one day!

    @Claudia: Wow, very kind of you to say. :)

    @Daniele: Great minds think a like, as they say! And, yes, it is the season… :)

    @PolaM: Couldn't agree more!

    @Chiara: Good week to you, too!

    @Stelio: Yes, this is a good dish for hard times. Like so many traditional dishes, it takes on new life when times are tough. Hope all is well—I am reading about the difficult period Greece is going through.

  9. 21 November 2011 at 02:12 #

    Hi Frank! Glad you are going along with world economy, especially us here in Greece where we probably have to buy cheap cuts of meat if we want to eat meat at all and the only way to eat it is by stewing it. I love your idea of sauteing the herbs with the carrots, celery, etc. before adding meat. I never did this before. Thank you Frank .

  10. 21 November 2011 at 00:42 #

    What a lovely recipe Frank, thanks for sharing! have a good week, a hug from Italy

  11. 20 November 2011 at 20:17 #

    Nothing better for a cold day! And then you can close your eyes and pretend you are on the alps

  12. 20 November 2011 at 17:23 #

    As usual, tonight I cooked this stew (with minor variations) and *then* discovered your recipe here. It must be the season…

  13. 20 November 2011 at 15:54 #

    Never did stew look more welcoming. There's a beauty in that deep, brown richness.

  14. 20 November 2011 at 10:18 #

    I just returned from Ireland where I had Guinness Stew, Beef Stew and Lamb Stew. I thought I had reached my stew saturation point and now I am going to have to try spezzatino. I may just have to turn my blog into a salute to stews of the world this winter.

  15. 20 November 2011 at 09:54 #

    Two of my favorite winter comfort foods – beef stew and polenta. As always, I love those plates/bowls, Frank.

  16. 20 November 2011 at 09:26 #

    Splendid Frank, as you say 'other cuisines', this is so like like our grillades over grits and ever so satisfying on any given night.. we enjoy for brunch as well as after a Mardi Gras ball midnight gathering

  17. 20 November 2011 at 09:16 #

    As a Trevigian, this is one of my favourite dishes ever!

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