Agriturismo Il Ritorno in the Rosso Conero park maybe be fairly close to the main coast road, but it feels incredibly rural, particularly as the only way you’re going to find it easily is with a sat nav. We had lunch here recently and I was impressed with the beef casserole, or spezzatino, that was on the menu. The farm rears its own cattle, a brown and white breed called vitello brado del Conero, which is more docile and smaller than the better known white Marchigiano cow. The herd is both organic and free range and it shows in the meat, which was meltingly tender and sticky.
The word spezzatino is derived from the verb spezzattare – to cut up into small pieces; 2 or 3 centimetre cubes are fine. Usually this dish is al bianco – made without tomatoes or red wine – and the key to success is to cook the casserole slowly in the oven. Since I was experimenting, I didn’t begin with flour (I quite often don’t when making a casserole), but it was clear at the end, some flour was necessary to recreate what the Il Ritorno cook had made. So I used a beurre manie with great results though I am not sure she’d approve.If you’re in the habit of frying the beef and onions one after the other in the same pan, that’s fine; I like to soften the onion in a sauté pan or casserole while I fry the beef cubes at higher heat in a frying pan, and add them to the onions once they’ve browned.
Oil for frying (olive oil or other)
800g casserole or braising steak, cubed
1 onion, finely sliced
100g mushrooms, sliced
1 tablespoon allspice berries
1 teaspoon juniper berries
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
1 bay leaf
2 garlic cloves, minced
salt, black pepper
½ bottle white wine
200ml approximately water or beef stock
To finish: beurre manie
1 tablespoon all purpose flour
1 tablespoon room temperature butter
To serve: 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4.
Gently fry the onions in the casserole pan with a tablespoon of olive oil. While this is softening, heat a generous slug of oil (I prefer groundnut oil but olive oil is okay too) in a large frying pan over a medium to high heat and brown the beef cubes in batches. Don’t overcrowd the pan as the beef then steams. You want nice caramel coloured pieces; add these to the casserole.
Once the onions are soft, add the mushrooms. Crush the allspice and juniper berries together using a pestle and mortar. Stir these spices into the beef along with the thyme leaves, bay leaf and minced garlic. Season with salt and pepper and continue to sauté the mixture for another 2 minutes before adding the wine. Depending on the shape of your casserole, you may want to add a little water or stock; the beef should be submerged but not drowned.
Cover the casserole with its lid and leave it in the oven for a good one and half hours. To make a beurre manie, mush the flour and butter together with the back of a spoon or even your fingers; make sure it’s properly amalgamated. Place the casserole back on the hob and stir in half the flour mixture. Make sure it has dissolved completely and then let the sauce bubble gently for 5 minutes. Check the thickness: if it’s looking thin and gruel-like, add the remainder of the beurre manie and cook for another 5 minutes.
Just before serving, scatter over some chopped parsley.
This spezzatino is even better reheated the next day.