Even though our San Diego winters are nothing like those we experienced while living in New York City, they are nonetheless chillier and darker than our only other season “spring-summer-fall” and we find ourselves gravitating to hibernal fare like braises and stews. So with the arrival of daylight-saving time this weekend, I thought we’d have our last hurrah for winter cooking: a long braise of beef with loads of onions, anchovies, and green olives along with tomatoes and a full bottle of red wine.
“Not with a Bang but a Whimper” might well be an apt title for this post on Jamie Oliver’s “Bangin’ Beef Stew,” from his 5 Ingredients cookbook, which promised much bang but delivered little. Don’t get me wrong, the stew was not a disaster, but rather a rough disappointment.
Once again, I have to attribute the origin of yet another blog post to my better half. A couple of weekends ago, we were watching an episode of “Lidia’s Kitchen” on our local PBS channel. As she was cooking, I remarked that my only disappointment with Lidia Bastianich’s show is her neglecting to provide exact measurements for key ingredients to a dish.
While I continue to maintain she does it to promote sales of the cookbooks on which her shows are based, Andrew more forgivingly attributes it to Lidia’s being a “q.b.,” or “quanto basta,” chef, an expression found in Italian cookbooks that means “just enough” or “as much as you think you need.” However, when he recently surprised me with a copy of Lidia’s Commonsense Italian Cooking, which he “happened” to order after watching the aforementioned episode, I’m sticking to my “profit-motivated” position.
Sunflowers brought home by husband from our local farmers market evoked intimations of Tuscany that motivated me to prepare the subject of today’s post, peposo, a peppery Tuscan beef stew with a long history.
Looking through a number of recently acquired cookbooks, I came across a recipe for a Tuscan beef stew called peposo (peppery) owing to its liberal use (up to 6 tablespoons) of black pepper. As I researched the recipe both in my books and online, my mouth started to water. But the more I read, the more it appeared that this tasty dish was better suited for winter than early summer. So, I placed peposo on the back burner and began to search for a more seasonal recipe, which eventually led me to Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca’s insightful collection of authentic recipes, The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen.
It’s been pretty wintry here in San Diego these past few weeks. Jeans have taken the place of shorts, and sweatshirts, the place of polos. The chilly temps have similarly impacted our menus, with hardier dishes taking precedence over lighter fare. A case in point was last night’s entree, punti e fagioli, or spare ribs with beans: thick, center-cut country-style pork ribs simmered slowly in tomato sauce with cannellini beans. The perfect comfort food for a winter night.
“Serve immediately. . .” When I read these words at the end of Lidia Bastianich’s recipe “Lamb Chunks with Olives” in Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy, I had second thoughts about preparing this dish—especially since it was for a first-time dinner guest. I didn’t want to be cooking after our guest arrived or while cocktails were being served, and now I wasn’t sure if this stew-like dish could be prepared ahead.
Moreover, an online review claiming that, although tasty, “the lamb was not tender,” gave me additional pause. While other recipes for stewing lamb shoulder called for up to 90 minutes of cooking time after browning the meat, Lidia’s recipe appeared to require only 45 to 50 minutes in total.
Over the past holiday week, it’s been chilly here in San Diego and the cool weather made me long for a hardy winter dish. Looking through my cookbooks, I came upon a recipe from Lidia Bastianich’s Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy for a pork ragù with farro Potenza style. The combination of pork shoulder simmered low and slow in a spicy tomato sauce and then combined with nutty farro sounded most appealing.
Fortunately, our local grocery store was having a great half-price sale on fresh bone-in pork shoulder roasts, which added even more appeal to the recipe. Even though I only needed two pounds of meat, I picked up a six-pound roast that would allow me to practice my butchering skills and provide me enough meat for a couple of meals.
Keeping with my seasonal-cooking bent, I chose on Sunday to make a stew of beef short ribs, mushrooms, and potatoes from Jacques Pepin’s Fast Food My Way. I selected this particular recipe for two reasons: 1) it’s fall, the perfect time for short ribs; 2) the shortened cooking time made possible by the pressure cooker.
Fortunately, I was able to find some beautiful, thick, and relatively lean bone-in short ribs at my local market. The recipe called for 2 pounds of meat (4 ribs) “as lean and meaty as possible.” Mine weighed about 2.4 pounds. The other ingredients were similarly easy to find, even the dried shiitake mushrooms, which were surprisingly small. I was off to a good start.
The prep was also straightforward: trimming the meat, chopping the onion and the parsley, breaking the mushrooms in half and removing the stems, washing the potatoes, etc. Next was browning the meat, a simple task in an electric pressure cooker. All that was left was to add the remaining ingredients to the pot, lock the lid, set the cooker to high-pressure for 30 minutes.
Of course, as with any pressure-cooker recipe, there’s the wait time for the cooker to reach full pressure. So altogether the cooking time was 45 or 50 minutes, during which time the aroma from the stew whetted our appetites. Because I was craving carbs, I also prepared some whole-wheat couscous as a side even though the stew had plenty of potatoes.
The timer went off; I released the pressure, carefully lifted the lid, and wow everything looked perfect.
The mushrooms, which as directed by the recipe had not been soaked, were wonderfully chewy and packed with flavor; the potatoes were smooth and silky and had absorbed the cooking juices; the ribs. . .Well, that’s another story.
After taking his first bite of the meat, my husband shot me a glance that immediately let me know something wasn’t right. So I took a bite and yep; something was definitely wrong. The flavor was exceptional, beefy and woodsy from the mushrooms; but the texture was tough, far from tender.
I’m not sure what went wrong; maybe the ribs were too thick; perhaps I should have extended the cooking time by another 15 minutes. Not being an expert with the pressure cooker, I’m not certain. Most of the cookbooks I checked afterwards seemed to agree with Pepin’s 30 minutes.
Thankfully, we had two ribs with loads of sauce, mushrooms, and potatoes left over. I was determined to get a better meal the next time around. So yesterday, Monday, I decided to reheat the stew in a small enameled cast-iron Dutch oven, covered and placed on a very low flame for an hour. To provide some moisture, I added a good splash of the same white wine I had used the night before.
I’m happy to report that this time the meat was perfectly tender and, as is often the case with left-over stew, even more richly flavored. I’ll definitely make this recipe again, but more than likely, I’ll forego the pressure cooker in favor of my dependable cast-iron Dutch oven—even if it takes 4 times as long to cook.
2 pounds beef short ribs (4 ribs) as lean and meaty as possible (I used about 2.4 pounds.)
1 tablespoon canola oil
8 dried shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, and caps broken in half
12 small Yukon Gold potatoes (about 1 pound total) peeled or unpeeled
8 dried shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and caps broken in half (Do not soak; becuase mine were so small, I used 12.)
1 1/2 cups chopped (1 inch) onions
3 garlic cloves, peeled
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1-Remove any surface fat and sinews from the short ribs. Place them in a pressure cooker with oil and brown over high heat for about 8 minutes, turning occasionally, until well browned on all sides. Remove from the heat and pour off any fat.
2-Add the mushrooms, then the remaining ingredients, except the parsley, and cover tightly with the pressure-cooker lid. Cook over high heat until the gauge indicates that the stew is cooking on high pressure. Reduce the heat to maintain the pressure and cook for 30 minutes.
3-Decompress the pressure cooker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Open the pressure cooker and taste for seasonings, adding additional salt and pepper if needed. Divide the stew among four warmed soup plates, sprinkle with parsley, and serve immediately.
As with any pressure-cooker recipe, be sure to follow the instructions of your cooker’s manufacturer.
Wine Pairing: Cotes du Rhone
Having now lived in San Diego for just over a year, I’ve come to accept as a given that we really don’t have the typical four seasons here. Sure there are some changes as the year goes by, but the variations in weather are never as dramatic as in New York. Recently, when our local weather reporter announced that fall had arrived, she claimed there was a “chill in the air.” “Chill!” I shouted back at the television, “It’s 69 degrees and sunny.”
Despite Mother Nature’s lack of cooperation here, I’m determined to keep seasonality in my kitchen throughout the year by cooking the same seasonal dishes here that I did in New York.
Such was the case last night, when I chose to prepare an Abruzzese lamb stew from a recipe I found in the “Fall” section of Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca’s The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. (The book is now available in a Kindle version on Amazon.)
Like many authentic Italian recipes, it uses only a few ingredients and requires minimal preparation. In fact, the only work I had to do was to slice some onion, chop some parsley, and toss it into a heavy-bottomed casserole together with a little olive oil, a few sage leaves, and a couple of pinches of salt and crushed red pepper flakes. Stir everything together, cover, and set over low heat for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. That was it.
I must admit, however, that the recipe caused me some concern. I read it several times. Where. I thought, was the cooking liquid? No wine? No stock? Not even water? No browning of the meat? The authors did say it was “close to effortless,” so I took them at their word. I decided that if things didn’t look right after the first 30 minutes of cooking, I’d add some wine to the pot.
But after the first half hour of cooking, I was happy to find that the lamb had started to exude what looked like an adequate amount of its juices and the thinly sliced onions had softened. To maintain a moist cooking environment, I limited my stirring to every 30 minutes. Each time I uncovered the pot, everything looked right; the meat was browner, the juices a little darker and more concentrated, and the aroma. . . ah . .We couldn’t wait to sit down to dinner.
I followed the recipe pretty closely; however, because I was unable to get bone-in stew meat or a peperoncino rosso, I settled for boneless lamb chunks and substituted crushed red pepper flakes. Moreover, since I was cooking only for two, I reduced the amount of meat from 3 pounds to 2; also given the size of my casserole, I added an extra tablespoon of oil. I also thought that the dish could use a little more salt than the recipe called for, but that’s always a matter of individual taste. Finally, I opted for polenta to capture the dish’s sauce rather than toasted bread.
Ultimately, this had to be one of the best lamb dishes I’ve ever made. With so few ingredients, the flavors of the lamb were robust and were nicely complemented by the sweetness of the onion and the heat of the red pepper. The rich sauce was deeply flavored and went perfectly with a simple polenta.
Abruzzese Lamb Stew (Adapted from The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen by Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca.)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 pounds boneless lamb stew meat (do not dry the meat; the stew needs its moisture.)
1 cup thinly sliced onion
4 large fresh sage leaves
3 tablespoons Italian flat-leaf parsley
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon salt
Place all the ingredients in a heavy bottomed casserole. Stir to coat the meat and the onions with the oil and evenly distribute the ingredients.
Set over low heat and cook for 2 hours, stirring about every 30 minutes.
When the lamb is tender, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and place on warmed plates or a platter. Optionally, skim off any excess fat from the sauce and pour it over the lamb. Serve with polenta or toasted country bread.
Wine Pairing: Sangiovese, or if like me you prefer well done lamb with a dry white, opt for an Abruzzese Pecorino or a Sauvignon Blanc.