Last week, during a rare break in the rain that has been falling nearly nonstop in Leonidion since late autumn, we took to the road to visit friends who live in Kyparissi, a seaside village down the coast from us. As the proverbial crow flies, the distance between our home and theirs is short, but the drive is long, following a road that snakes precipitously up and over the mountains that divide our communities, passing tiny mountain villages and hilltops crowned with crumbling windmills, past generations-old vineyards where the families that live here grow the grapes for their homemade wine, through flocks of goats and sheep, their bells clanging as they walk past our car, gazing in at us with curiosity.
The journey ends with a thin ribbon of potholed road that zig-zags down a cliffside that plunges to the sea. The drive is at times thrilling, always beautiful and, for me, beloved, in part because of the good friends who wait at the road’s end, but also because of the views the trip provides of the traditional ways of life our mountain neighbors lead.
Before we left Leonidion, our friends sent me a shopping list, for Kyparissi is not only distant from our own door. It is remote from everywhere, accessible only by boat or that skinny, pot-holed road.
To do most of their errands, Kyparissiots must wind their way up and out of the village and then drive south to their main town of Molai, 45 minutes away. There is no operating gas station in Kyparissi. No pharmacy and no bank. Not even an ATM. And so we carried cash, medicine, vegetables, and, last but not least, rabbit, to the village, for our friends planned to make stifado, a deliciously intense and rich rabbit stew, for us for lunch the following day.
Like many Greek dishes, stifado’s ingredients vary from family to family, season to season, and region to region. In part, this variety is due to what’s readily available to put in the stew. In the mountains of the Peloponnesos, for example, you’re unlikely to find a stifado made with octopus. You will, however, find it made with goat, rabbit or, on special occasions, wild hare. For octopus stifado, look to the islands and to fishing communities along the coastlines. In regions where wild mushrooms grow, you may find them serving as the stew’s “meat.” One recipe, from Crete, calls for snails. Another calls for tripe. Some cooks add such warming spices as cinnamon, allspice and cloves along with walnuts and currants. Others prefer the simplicity of the stew’s essential ingredients: onions (usually pearl onions or shallots), tomatoes and sometimes garlic. This endless variety on the stifado theme also provides a window into the region’s history. The use of exotic spices, such as cinnamon and cloves? These point east, to the Orient, which makes sense when we recall that the Turks occupied most of Greece for 400 years.
The name “stifado” has its origins in the Italian “stufato,” which simply means “stewed.” Like English “stew” and French “estouffade,” the Italian word “stufato” is a descendant of the Latin word “extufare,” which means, “to heat in steam.” Again, stifado’s name reveals the region’s history. Its Italian etymological roots are likely due to the Venetians’ rule of Greek territory during the Middle Ages.
No matter which ingredients you choose, with its rich, intense flavors, stifado is the perfect antidote to a cold winter’s day. This recipe, from the inimitable Diane Kochilas, is one of my favorites. But remember, you can play with the ingredients. Squeamish about rabbit? Use beef or chicken. If you’d prefer to avoid the sweetness of exotic spices and fruit, omit the allspice, cloves and orange. If you like garlic, add it.
When it’s done, serve your stifado with red wine and warm crusty bread. The combination–universally appreciated, in my opinion–will warm your day.
Κουνέλι-Στιφάδο or Rabbit Stew
One 3-pound rabbit, cut into serving pieces
For the marinade
2 cups red wine (if possible, use the delicious, slightly sweet Greek wine, Mavrodaphne)
2 bay leaves
6 to 10 allspice berries, to taste
1 cinnamon stick
For the stew
1 cup olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 pounds small onions, pearl or shallots, peeled
All-purpose flour for dredging
1 orange, washed and cut into 8 wedges
2 cups red wine
1 cup chopped tomatoes (peeled fresh or canned)
2 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick
Wash the rabbit and pat dry. Place in a large bowl with the wine and spices. Marinate overnight, covered, in the refrigerator, turning several times.
In a heavy stew pot, heat 1/2 of the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and reduce the heat to very low. Cook until lightly browned and translucent, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, remove the rabbit from the marinade, pat dry, and dredge lightly in flour, tapping off any excess. Discard the marinade. Remove the onions from the pot with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add the remaining 1/2 cup olive oil to the pot and heat over a medium-high flame. Place the rabbit pieces in the pot and sear to brown on all sides. Place the orange wedges over the rabbit. Pour in the wine and tomatoes and add the bay leaves, cinnamon stick, and salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low and cover. Simmer the rabbit until tender, about 1 and 1/2 hours. Remove from the heat, let cool slightly, and serve.