Our first night in Florence, we ate at a steakhouse. We called that afternoon and were lucky to secure reservations. To our amusement, the restaurant was apologetic about the fact that they would need for us to clear the table by 2 hours. We did not yet understand the leisurely pace of dining in Italy – 2 hours in Tuscany is not rushed by any means, but 3 would be more comfortable.
All of our meals were great, but Jim’s beef stew dish was explosive. Peposo is a rich tomato-beef stew studded with peppercorns that have been slowly braised to a point of crisp tenderness. I didn’t know peppercorns could be like that – tiny dots of heat punctuating a hearty, luscious stew of tender beef chunks.
I set out to recreate this stew, and I read several recipes on line that just didn’t seem quite right. The best one I found was simple to the point of not even including measures. This is Tuscan soul food we’re after here, and the recipe needs to be more about how than how much.
My version was a success, served with a simple polenta enhanced with olive oil, a few twists of the pepper grinder, and a handful of good grated parmesan.
I bought around two and a half pounds of chuck roast and cut it into chunks the size of walnuts, trimming out the large pieces of fat but not being too Puritanical. Straight into the pot – no browning, and I mixed in a box of diced Italian tomatoes – I think that unless you’ve grown your own, canned tomatoes are better than fresh ones these days. I added a half dozen whole cloves of peeled garlic and a bay leaf, and eyeballed “enough” peppercorns. I didn’t measure, but I’d guess it was a little less than a quarter cup, maybe a jigger in volume. About half a bottle of decent but inexpensive chianti wine covered it all.
I brought the mix to a boil on the stove top, but I think that might have toughened the beef slightly. Next time, I will try a more traditional braise. After the brief boil, I lowered it to a simmer with the lid ajar. After a couple hours, I smashed the garlic cloves with a fork and wooden spoon, and added a touch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. I simmered it for a total of 5 hours, until it was thick and lovely. When I served it over the polenta, the peppercorns gave me the tender but still crunchy bursts I was seeking in a warm, rich beef stew. I had learned something of value in Italy.