Pairing Italy and Portugal with Food and Wine
As summer draws to a close, I crave tender, slow-cooked casseroles with rich wine-infused gravy and meltingly tender meat. Dishes like this Italian Beef Casserole. While I love French style boeuf bourguignon and British (or is it Irish) beef in Guinness, ale or stout, I wanted to make a dish with softer, fruitier notes that would be perfect for early autumn. Italian spicing seemed to fit the bill, with handfuls of fresh rosemary from the garden and a few crushed juniper berries to add an aromatic note and make this delicious Italian Beef Casserole.
I wanted to make a rich beef casserole or ragu that had all the flavours of Tuscany in autumn. For that, instead of classic herbs, I used just rosemary, juniper and garlic. And, to enrich the red wine sauce, I added a couple of slices of smoked bacon (if I’d had any in the fridge, it would have been pancetta – but, in true Cucina Povera fashion, I used up what was there!)
For the best results when making slow-cooked beef recipes, you should use a cut that is richly laced with fat and has plenty of connective tissue. It’s generally the cheaper meat from a good butcher which will work well – rather than a beef fillet or sirloin. The diced beef that I was sent by Lake District Farmers is a great example – and actually a good option for a lazy cook because it’s been butchered to remove any tendons and sinews that won’t break down while leaving plenty of marbling, then carefully diced. So there’s absolutely no waste.
This casserole starts by browning the meat in olive oil, ideally in the same cooking pan that you plan using to slow cook the dish over a medium to high heat. Work in batches so that the pan doesn’t ever get overcrowded. The aim is to caramelise the surface of the meat bringing out the surface sugars. That adds colour and flavour to the final dish. I tossed my meat in a little seasoned flour just to help thicken the final sauce.
Once, all the meat is browned, you add the classic trio of vegetables to the pan with more oil if necessary. This mixture, called mirepoix in French dishes and soffritto in Italian one should be cooked very slowly so that the onions soften and turn translucent. If I’m honest, I was being a little lazy and didn’t quite chop the vegetables finely enough…but the long slow cooking was a great foil for my sins!
The juniper and rosemary goes into the soffrito along with salt and pepper. The whole lot is topped up with about half a bottle of wine and brought to a gentle simmer on the stovetop before being popped into a low oven for at least two hours.
That’s it. This neurotic cook tends to check and stir every hour or so. And I will usually cook mine for three or four hours. If I’m pushed for time, I use my fast-slow cooker (a bit like an Instant Pot) and pressure cook the meat for forty-five minutes before reducing on the simmer setting with the lid open for a further thirty minutes. Or, if I am going out and want to come home to a lovely slow-cooked casserole, I’ll cook the whole thing in the fast-slow, using the cooker to seal the meat and soften the veg in exactly the same way as on a hob, then adding the wine and setting a 6-hour slow cooker. But, I rather like the sweet, wine sauce scent that fills my kitchen when I cook the casserole in a conventional oven. And, as I work in the same room, it adds just a little residual heat and makes the place really cosy.
Want to try for yourself? here’s the recipe I used.
An easy recipe for beef in red wine, Italian style
- 800 g diced beef
- 100 g diced bacon or pancetta
- 1 medium onion peeled and finely diced
- 2 sticks celery finely diced
- 1 large carrot peeled and finely diced
- 2 large sprigs rosemary
- 4-6 juniper berries
- 1 tbsp flour
- 400 ml red wine more as necessary
- 1 tbsp olive oil more as necessary
Preheat the oven to 160C
Season the flour with freshly ground pepper and salt
sprinkle it over the beef
Heat the oil in a heavy casserole over a medium heat
Brown the beef and bacon in batches turning frequently until the surface of the meat is sealed and just starting to caramelise
Put the meat to one side and add the celery, onion and carrot with more oil if necessary. Reduce the heat and cook for 8 minutes or so till the vegetable start to soften.
Stir through the rosemary and juniper berries and cook for another minute
Put the meat in the casserole and mix well.
Season with pepper and a little salt.
Add the wine and bring to a gentle simmer before popping in the oven
Check the casserole every hour or so, stirring and adding more wine if necessary
Cook for at least 2 hours until the beef is meltingly tender. I like to cook mine for 3 to 4 hours.
Taste and adjust the seasoning as necessary.
Serve garnished with freshly chopped flat leaf parsley
What would you pair with this kind of dish? Obviously a robust red wine. But, perhaps not a New World wine which might overwhelm the rosemary and juniper. I might have turned to a good Chianti had there been one in the wine rack. Instead, I opened a 2017 Portuguese wine, Monte Velho from Herdade do Esporao in the Alentejo. While most of us are very familiar with the wines of the Douro, those of the more southerly Alentejo are not so popular in the UK. That’s partly because until fairly recently they were hard to find and in short supply. As I was told on many occasions…’we keep our wine to drink here in Portugal’. The winery itself is close to Lake Alequeva, the new reservoir which has in part been responsible for an upsurge both in production and in wine tourism.
This 2017 wine is a classic Alentejo made with a mix of Syrah and indigenous Portuguese grape varieties – Aragonez, Trinicadiera and Touriga Nacional. I’d call in Chianti with a kick – it has a bit more body and roundness than a typical Chianti – and it worked remarkably well paired with my Italian Beef Casserole. It’s fruity with light tannins and a good finish. Not bad at all. I was amused when I checked the winery’s own website to find that they were recommending pairing it with a boeuf bourguignon. I stand by my recommendation that this rosemary and juniper infused beef in red wine is a better match.
All that remains now is for you to give this Italian beef casserole a go yourself and let me know what you think.
I served my Italian beef casserole with new potatoes and spinach from the garden. If you want a more authentic dish, I’d recommend polenta or tagliatelle pasta, both of which would be an excellent foil for the delicious red wine sauce. Later in the year, I might just serve this up with mash. And of course plenty of red wine!
If you are looking for a good supplier of meat, Lake District Farmers, founded in 2009, provides quality meal from family-run fell farms in the Lake District. The business now works with over 50 Cumbrian farms. The result is that the meat they supply is full of flavour, properly aged and butchered and all-round delicious. made you hungry pop over to the Lake District Farmers site and put your own meal box together. They deliver their quality fresh meat across the country – and anything you can’t eat straight away is beautifully packaged to freeze.