It could be a bazillion degrees outside, but once the sun starts setting earlier in the evenings as autumn gets into full swing, my taste buds undergo a subtle but distinct shift to craving warm and filling comfort foods. I gladly surrender to this change.
Many traditional Greek dishes epitomize seasonal eating, and of course, for good reason. When you don’t have freezers and vacuum sealers and other modern gadgets, you eat what’s available at that moment. Though we think of tomatoes as a summer harvest staple, many of the heirloom varieties don’t really come in until the end of summer and beginning of fall. It just so happens that this coincides with the long awaited harvest of onions.
Typically stifado (stee-FAH-thoh) is made with whole, fresh pearl onions that are gently cooked in a spiced tomato sauce with a meat of choice. Keeping the little onions whole keeps the onion flavor from becoming overbearing in the dish, and then you have these flavorful morsels to pop in your mouth. Unfortunately, they are not common in many markets here, so thick cut chunks of regular onions are a frequent (and quite acceptable!) substitute.
Once this dish comes off of the stove, you’ll have seasoned and tender chicken, and a tomato sauce richly flavored with warming cinnamon and coriander, in addition to the onion. It can be eaten as a stew, or use as a perfect topping for a side of rice. Either way, you have yourself a complete meal!
Some quick notes before you begin:
As I mentioned earlier, traditional stifado is made with whole pearl onions. If you don’t find those, use yellow onion cut into large chunks and try to keep the layers together as much as possible.
You will want to lightly crush the coriander and cloves but don’t grind them to a powder. This allows more flavor to escape from the spices, without it being overwhelming or having large chunks to chew on.
Go slow with cooking the chicken. This allows for flavors to blend perfectly and penetrate every bite of the chicken.
Chicken Stifado (Greek Chicken and Onion Stew) Recipe
- 4 lb. chicken pieces, bone in, skin on (save any leftover bones in the freezer for making broth!)
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 3 lbs. pearl onions, peeled and trimmed, or yellow onion cut into large chunks
- 1/2 cup red wine (I usually use a cheap burgundy)
- 2 15-ounce cans diced tomatoes
- 4 to 5 garlic cloves, sliced into thin pieces
- 1 tsp. whole coriander seeds
- 3 to 4 whole cloves
- 2 to 3 bay leaves
- 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
- salt and pepper to taste
Put the olive oil in a large pan. If you don’t have a pan large enough to accommodate all the chicken at once, use a stock pot instead. Heat the oil on high just until it starts to “shimmer”, then lower the heat to medium. Add the chicken pieces and brown them on all sides. Do a few at a time, if needed, so that all can be in a single layer. Remove the chicken and set aside on a plate.
Add the onions to the pan or pot and lightly sauté them. If you are using onion chunks rather than pearl onions, try not to break them apart too much. Add in the garlic and continue to sauté for about a minute.
Add the tomatoes, wine, and spices and gently stir all together. Add the chicken back to the pan, along with any juices that may have come out, and nestle the pieces into the sauce. Cover and reduce the heat to low to keep a gentle simmer.
Continue to simmer until the chicken is cooked through, checking occasionally and spooning the sauce over the chicken. Juices should run clear when it is done, and there shouldn’t be any raw-pink areas. This should take about 30 minutes or so. If your chicken didn’t all fit in a single layer, switch the pieces on the bottom with those on the top mid-way through cooking.
Once done, remove the pan from the heat and leave covered. Allow the chicken to rest for about 10 minutes. When I was growing up, this dish was typically served with a side of rice for pouring the sauce over. You could also serve it like a stew. Either way, it will be good! Kali orexi! (Good appetite!)