In Italian, pepe means pepper, and a stew flavored with a lot of pepper is a peposo.
Such a stew originated in the area of Impruneta, in southern Tuscany, where it is said that local workers would cook the stew in a kiln all day while they fired the terra cotta for which the town is famous. I bet they worked all the harder just to get to taste a luscious smelling simmering peposo!
This dish of tender beef chunks, cooked in a base of red wine and black pepper, is one of my favorite cold weather treats. The flavor is bold, intense, and spicy. Peposo is most often served alongside polenta, which provides the perfect creamy complement to the spicy flavor of the stew.
I first tasted peposo at Trattoria Gigi in Lucca. It warmed me from the inside out on a very cold day - for me it was love at first bite. I enjoy recreating tasty restaurant dishes at home, so I’ve been searching for recipes and waiting for a cool fall day to try my hand at making a peposo.
The peposo at Trattoria Gigi is quite simple - meat, red wine, pepper and some spices. Other recipes that I found were more involved. Some started with a soffritto of onion, carrot, and celery, sautéed in olive oil. Another recipe said emphatically that olive oil is never used in an authentic peposo! Other versions added tomato paste, tomato sauce, chopped tomatoes, or beef broth along with red wine. Some recipes called for cooking the stew on the stovetop, while others called for slow simmering in the forno (oven), as the original terra cotta workers in Impruneta would have done.
As for spices - I’ve found recipes with garlic, thyme, bay leaves, whole black peppercorns, crushed black peppercorns, sage, rosemary. The use of wine, preferably a good Chianti, was consistent - but when to add it? At the end? The beginning? Half at the beginning and the rest at the end? Even the beef used varied - beef chunks for stew, short ribs, beef shank, cheap cuts, better cuts, trim the fat, leave the fat. Cook covered, cook uncovered, cover early and then finish without a cover. Mamma mia - where to start?
In the end, I let my kitchen intuition and general taste preferences, guide me. I started with some finely chopped onion and carrot (but I left out celery, which I don’t much care for, so this wasn’t a true soffritto). I sautéed the veggies in a little olive oil and used medium-size chunks of beef spezzatino (stew meat), which I browned well in a bit more olive oil. It surprised me that most of the recipes I found did not brown the beef, but simply poured wine over the unbrowned meat and let it simmer. I find that browning adds flavor and seals in the juices - my gut told me to brown the beef before adding the wine and spices, and so I did.
Instead of Chianti, I wanted to use up an opened bottle of red wine that I had on hand, a nice French red. I’ll use Chianti next time, but this wine, a gift from a friend who had recently traveled in France, worked wonderfully. For seasonings, I kept it pretty simple: garlic, coarse ground tellicherry pepper (my favorite, from Penzey’s), a little double concentrated tomato paste, and some salt. All in all it took me about 40 minutes to put this dish together. I then cooked it on the stovetop over low heat for about three hours, refrigerated it overnight, and heated and served it the next day. Holding it overnight really let the flavors develop and made dinner the next night much easier - all I had to do was cook the polenta and roast some cauliflower as a contorno (side dish). Luckily for me, Judy (who co-writes this blog) now lives here in Lucca and doesn’t mind participating in my culinary experiments. Better still, I can count on her for honest feedback.
I served the peposo on a bed of soft and creamy polenta (made with just a couple of tablespoons of butter and about a 1/4 cup of grated Parmesan). The peposo was rich, flavorful, and spicy with just the right amount of pepper. Served with a side vegetable and a very simple dessert, it made a nice dinner for one of our first cool evenings of the fall season. Judy gave it her blessing too.
If you try this recipe, have fun adding your own twists - change up the spices, the wine, and the cooking methods. Try serving with mashed potatoes if polenta isn’t available or doesn’t appeal to you. And let us know how it turns out! -post by Joanne
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 medium onion; diced small
1 carrot, diced small
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
1.25 pounds beef stew meat, in medium-size cubes
2 - 2.5 cups red wine (use only wine good enough to drink, preferably a Chianti)
1 tablespoon coarsely ground tellicherry black pepper
1 tablespoon double concentrated tomato paste
Salt to taste
In a heavy soup pot, saute onion and carrot in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until the onions are translucent. Remove to a bowl.
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in the same pot and brown the beef cubes well. Add garlic near end of browning so that it doesn’t burn.
Add to the pot with the browned meat: red wine, black pepper, tomato paste, salt.
Bring to a simmer, reduce heat, cover (leaving the lid just a bit ajar) and cook over a very low flame for about 3 hours until tender. Add up to 3/4 cup of water if the juices get too low (but don’t let the juices evaporative entirely - that’s where the flavor is!).
Serve in bowls with a soft polenta.