This, I hasten to say, is my personal version of stifado, to which several of my Greek friends gently object. For one thing, I brown the beef first to deepen the flavor, something most Greek cooks donÃt do. For another, I make my stew a day ahead to allow the flavors to mellow completely. This also gives me time to remove the bones, cut the meat into smaller pieces, and remove all the fat from the sauce.
Serve the stew hot along with chunks of feta cheese and plenty of crusty bread.
PREFERRED CLAY POT:
A 5-quart glazed or unglazed earthenware or flameware casserole
A 10- or 12-inch earthenware baking dish or Spanish cazuela
If using an electric or ceramic stovetop, be sure to use a heat diffuser with the clay pots.
1. Set the casserole over medium-low heat. Add the chopped onion, half the olive oil, and ¼ cup water. Cook until the water has evaporated and the onion is soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and tomatoes and cook, stirring, until the tomato sauce is thick, about 20 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, quickly rinse the beef, drain, and pat dry. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Heat the remaining olive oil in a large, heavy conventional skillet until hot. Working in batches, brown the beef chunks on all sides over high heat, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to the earthenware casserole. Pour off all the fat in the skillet. Add the red wine and bring to a boil, scraping up any brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the peeled onions and sugar and cook over medium-high heat, stirring, until the wine is reduced to a glaze and the onions are lightly browned all over, 5 minutes. Add 3 tablespoons of the vinegar and bring to a boil, stirring. Add the cheesecloth packet of spices to the beef and tomato sauce in the casserole along with the small white onions and the skillet juices. Cover with a sheet of parchment and a lid and cook over low heat for 2 to 2½ hours without disturbing.
3. Transfer the hot casserole to a wooden surface or folded kitchen towel to prevent cracking. Uncover and let stand until cooled. Skim the fat off the surface. Discard the packet of spices. When the meat is cool enough to handle, remove all bones and gristle. Cut the meat into 1-inch pieces and place in a large bowl. Use a slotted spoon to remove the onions from the sauce and add them to the meat. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Strain the tomato and cooking liquid into a second bowl. Let cool; then cover and refrigerate separately.
4. The following day, about 2 hours before serving, scrape any fat off the meat and onions and the sauce. Combine them in the baking dish and reheat in a 300°F oven or over low heat on top of the stove. Season with salt and pepper to taste. If you think the sauce needs it, stir in the last tablespoon of vinegar. Sprinkle with parsley and serve hot along with bite-sized portions of feta cheese and plenty of crusty bread.
Note to the Cook: To make small onions easier to peel, drop them into simmering water, soak for 1 minute, and drain. Use a small knife to remove the root end; peel off the outer skin.
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