Tastes and smells have the same effects as a time machine; for me the preparation of certain dishes carry me to different times, places and invariably, other kitchens.The classic casserole ‘Kounéli Stifádo’ does this every time.
‘Kounéli Stifádo’ lamely translates as ‘rabbit stew’- completely failing to convey the rich, velvety sauce, fragrant with bay and cinnamon, the sweet rabbit meat and soft baby onions. Bizarrely, this was the first Greek dish I ever cooked.
The romantic in me envisaged a trip to a mediterranean market, returning with my rustic basket brimming with amazing fresh produce – elongated parchment-skinned shallots, perfectly ripe, shiny tomatoes and,of course,the star of the show,a plump,jointed, pink rabbit.
The reality,in 1976, was a more mundane bus journey to Sheffield’s Castle Market – the home of whelks, cockles and rather unappealing ‘greasy spoon‘ cafés. However, there were plenty of fresh rabbits and pickling onions.
At home,the preparation began. The rabbit pieces were marinaded in red wine with chopped onions and bay leaves.
Later, the rabbit pieces,now transformed from pale pink to vivid violet by the marinade,were patted dry and browned in olive oil. The peeled and blanched shallots were added to the pan, along with a good dollop of tomato purée – a passable substitute for those shiny tomatoes of my imagination – next a stick of cinnamon.The kitchen soon filled with the fragrant steam from the simmering pan.
Of course,I had no idea if the fruits of my endeavour resembled the real ‘Kouneli Stifado’.But convinced that anything tasting, smelling and looking so good could possibly be dismissed, I served it to my guests. My efforts were, thank goodness, successful.
A year or so later, during my very first visit to Greece, I ate ‘Kounéli Stifádo’ for real. It is blistering, high summer – we are driving across the Peloponese with friends, in a little Citroën 2CV. We stop for lunch at a roadside taverna. Speaking no Greek, I join our group in admiring a cage of frisky, live rabbits. I am sure you can see where this is going…
Some hours later, after mezedes and copious amounts of cold beer, we were served with plates of beautifully tender casseroled rabbit in thick fresh tomato sauce. My English sensitivities are soon overcome by this glorious and supremely tasty food. Crusty village bread and chips,fried in olive oil were the only accompaniments needed.
Some thirty years later,we are again on holiday, but this time we are renting an apartment in Paris. In the intervening years my erstwhile Greek boyfriend has morphed into my husband. We shop for dinner and the local ‘supermarché‘ has ‘lapin‘ – rabbit. The greengrocer, ‘Le Primeur du Marais’, has the perfect tomatoes, shallots and fresh ‘bouquet garni’ – little string-swaddled bundles of fresh thyme and bay. Soon the familiar fragrance of ‘kounéli stifádo’ fills our little Parisian kitchen.
So this is it, the time-travelling recipe itself. If rabbit isn’t to your taste this recipe works just as well with beef or chicken.
1 kg of either stewing beef, jointed rabbit or jointed chicken
1 red onion, cut into chunks
1 large carrot, cut into chunks
A few sprigs of fresh rosemary, fresh thyme and a few parsley stalks
200ml red wine
1 tsp whole peppercorns
5 tabs olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tabs good tomato pureé
125 ml red wine
300 ml water
1 small stick of cinnamon
2 bay leaves – or real ‘bouquet garni’ if you prefer
Ground black pepper
First make the marinade. In a large ceramic or glass dish put the chunky onions, carrots, red wine and whole peppercorns. Take the fresh rosemary, thyme and parsley stalks, bruise them slightly with a rolling pin or other heavy implement – add them to the marinade along with the pieces of meat, rabbit or chicken. Mix well, cover and leave to marinade for at least a couple of hours in the fridge, stirring occasionally . If you can, it’s good to leave it overnight.
When you are ready to cook the casserole, take the meat pieces from the marinade and pat dry with some kitchen paper. Keep the chunky vegetables but discard the rest of the marinade and herbs.
Heat 3 tabs of olive oil in a frying pan and brown the meat pieces, taking care not to over-crowd them. Set to one side.
In an ovenproof casserole, heat 1 tablespoonful of oil and brown the chunky onions and carrots and then the crushed garlic. Stir in the tomato pureé and heat through, stirring all the time. Add the red wine and then the water, the cinnamon stick and the bay leaves, salt and pepper.
Now add the pieces of meat, bring everything to a simmer. It is possible to cook the stifádo on the hob but I prefer to cook it in the oven. So either leave to simmer for 30 minutes or put in the oven at 180 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes.
While that is cooking, prepare the shallots. The easiest way to do this is to leave them with the skins on and blanch them for a couple of minutes in boiling water. Drain them, run them under some cold water, so that they are cool enough to handle. You will find that if you trim off the stalk end, the skins just slip off – and you don’t end up with streaming eyes!
Now, heat the remaining olive oil in the frying pan that you browned the meat and gently brown the shallots, taking care that they don’t burn or over cook. Add them to the casserole and cook for a further 15- 20 minutes.
Serve with chips, rice or mashed potato.