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
Beef or mixed meat broth (or water)
Salt and pepper
1 tsp. cornstarch or potato starch
1 sprig of fresh rosemary, 1 bay leaf and/or 1 sprig of fresh marjoram
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.