Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sofigado, the Greek sweet and sour beef stew

There are some fruits that have an instant allure, a certain something that attracts your senses either by the way they smell, the way they look or even by the way they feel when you touch them. Strawberries, cherries and persimmons are such fruit.

And then there are other fruits, the "ugly" ones, those that don't have much going for them at first glance. You need to get to know them in order to appreciate what they can really do for you or for one of your dishes. Such fruits are quinces.

Unassuming, rather unappealing fruit that can become so much more just by adding some sugar to them and boiling them, thus creating the amazing quince paste, or by sautéing them in lots of butter to accompany a steak, or caramelizing them and serving them with a winter ice cream. But where they actually shine is in dishes like this one, a traditional Greek island dish called Sofigado.

This dish comes from the beautiful, green island of Lefkada located in the Ionian Sea, off the west coast of Greece. Sofigado is a rich, sweet and sour beef stew with quinces and petimezi (grape-must syrup) and its history, much like Pastitsada's, is rooted in the times of Venetian occupation.

It's a pretty straightforward winter stew but with extraordinary flavors and some unique ingredients. As it always happens in Greek cooking, it all starts with olive oil and onions. Lots of onions which, after the meat has been browned in the oil, are sautéed until soft and translucent. Then the meat goes back in the pan and garlic, tomato paste, red wine vinegar and fresh rosemary are introduced to the mix.

The beef is stewed until succulent and then the quinces are added, as well as the petimezi. I have my friend Kiki to thank for a bottle of fresh petimezi that she sent me a couple of months ago (as she did last year, which back then gave me the chance to make Greek moustokouloura cookies). Thanks Kiki!

After twenty minutes or so, when the quinces have softened but still retain their crunch, when the petimezi has permeated the meat and a rich sauce has been created, the stew is ready. Ready to be savored. You'll rarely find such a combination of sweet and sour flavors in traditional Greek cooking, especially when it comes to beef dishes.

The experience of tasting Sofigado resembles that of a rollercoaster. The sweet flavor of the petimezi and quince, reminiscent of the spoon sweets that Greek grandmothers make, hits you first and then the sourness of the fruit becomes the prominent flavor. The umami-ness of the meat comes to balance out all the flavors and the ride goes on and on until you suddenly end up with an empty plate, asking for more.

Sofigado Lefkaditiko (Greek Beef Stew with Quinces and Grape-Must Syrup from Lefkada)

Greeks always choose veal over beef, we don’t particularly enjoy the mature flavor of beef, but you can use either.

Sofigado can be enjoyed by the whole family as an everyday meal but is also elegant enough to become part of a festive holiday meal or a dinner party.

You can accompany it with rice or mashed potatoes for a festive or special meal, and with French fries or a big green salad for an everyday meal.
You can either use beef or veal in this dish.
For those of you living in The Netherlands, the meat you should use is runderriblap.

In traditional Greek cuisine, onions are usually grated in a box grater rather than chopped. This gives a different texture to the resulting sauces, making them thicker and richer. If you can't bother grating the onions in this recipe, you can whiz them in the food processor until they are almost puréed.

The beauty of this dish is in its sweet and sour flavors and contrasting textures of tender, succulent beef in a rich sauce and juicy, soft yet firm quinces.
The more ripe and fragrant the quinces, the better they are for this dish. If they're not ripe, their taste will be too sour, but don't worry, you can rectify that by adding extra petimezi at the end.

You can find petimezi (grape-must syrup / grape molasses) in Greek or Middle Eastern stores.

Yield: 4-6 main-course servings

1 - 1.2 kg boneless beef or veal stewing steak like chuck steak
120 ml good quality olive oil
2 medium-sized red onions (about 250 g), grated
40 ml red-wine vinegar
7 medium-sized garlic cloves, peeled
1 Tbsp tomato paste
Freshly ground black pepper
2 fresh sprigs of rosemary
Pinch of sugar
330-350 ml hot water
3 large quinces (1 - 1.1 kg), peeled and cut into wedges
100 ml petimezi (grape-must syrup / grape molasses)

Special equipment: pan or Dutch oven with a 5 - 5.5 liter capacity, box grater or food processor

Take the meat and cut with a knife the large pieces of fat off, leaving a fair amount of fat on in order to flavor the dish. Cut the meat into pieces, about 6x6 cm each. Place them on paper towels and pat them dry. This is an important step because the meat will not brown properly if it's damp.

In a large, deep, heavy-bottomed pan or preferably in a Dutch oven, add the olive oil and heat over medium-high heat. When it starts to shimmer, add enough beef pieces to cover 2/3 of the bottom of the pan (do not overcrowd the pan because the beef will boil rather than brown) and brown the pieces on both sides. Remove pieces from the pan and place them in a bowl. Brown the rest of the beef pieces in the same manner and place them in the bowl.

Add the grated onions to the pan and sauté them on medium heat for about 4 minutes until they soften and become translucent. Return the browned beef pieces to the pan, along with the juices accumulated in the bowl you kept them in, and add the red-wine vinegar. Stir well with a spatula or spoon and add the garlic cloves, tomato paste, freshly ground black pepper, rosemary sprigs and a pinch of sugar and stir well. Add the hot water (hot so the cooking process won't stop) and stir well. Put the lid on and let it come to the boil. Then turn the heat down to the lowest setting and let the meat stew for 1 - 1 ½ hours or until it is tender (keep in mind though that it'll cook for a further 25 minutes when you add the quinces). Check the meat every 20 minutes or so, stirring it around a bit.

Then, remove the rosemary sprigs (the leaves would have fallen in the sauce) and add salt. The reason you're adding the salt now is because if you add it at the beginning of the cooking process, the beef will become tough and chewy. Add the quinces and the petimezi to the pan and stir well with a spatula or spoon. The quinces must be almost covered with liquid in order to cook, so if there's not enough liquid in your pan, add a bit of hot water. Put the lid back on and allow beef and quinces to simmer for about 25 minutes, stirring every now and then (not with a spatula or spoon, but by holding the pan by its handles and moving it around in circular motions so that everything gets stirred. You're doing that so that you don't break up the quinces. You don't want them to disintegrate into the sauce. They must remain in whole wedges and not become mushy).
Check the quinces after 15 minutes. It's good to taste them at this point and if they're too sour, you can add a little more petimezi to the pan.

You should end up with tender beef in a rich sauce and soft but not mushy quinces. They should hold their form and add texture to the dish.

Serve hot with your favorite accompaniment and make sure to have lots of bread on the table for dipping it in that delicious sauce.

Sofigado tastes even better the second day.


  1. What a lovely stew~ I will think of it next time I get a hold of some grape molasses from the organic farmers market Souk el Tayeb, it is so much better than the store bought ones! ad of course we get our own quinces in the orchard. Perfect dish!

  2. This sounds wonderful! Can you think of a substitute for the petimezi in case we can't find it he in Tucson? I know we can get the quinces. (My first order of business is to call the Greek church!).

    Also, do you know of any Greek beef stews that use cinnamon? Mark used to go to a Greek restaurant run by a woman named Rosa - and she served "Rosa's Greek Stew" with cinnamon and he loved it! Thanks for a beautiful post! David

  3. Joumana — my grape-must syrup always comes from Greece, courtesy of friends :) Thank you!

    David — hmmm, there is no actual substitute for petimezi but you can try honey, or dark molasses.
    Yes, this Greek beef stew, which I posted last year has cinnamon in it. Thanks!

  4. This stew looks great. I think I know the right shop where to buy all the ingredients. I could cook it for tonight...

  5. What a wonderful looking stew! Love the sequence of photos showing the progression of it cooking. Unfortunately I don't think I can find quinces anymore locally (though I was lucky enough to acquire membrillo and quince jelly), so I'll have to bookmark this recipe for next winter.

  6. You can really see how full of flavour and what a soft texture this has from the pictures! :D

  7. I see you made your DIY distressed wood :)!!!!
    This dish looks so amazing, Magda! What a rich food heritage Greece has. I paid a short visit there in 2006 and I certainly hope I can return and travel more extensively one day.

  8. PolaM — I hope you enjoy it!

    athena — can't find quinces? But they're in season right now! By the way, when I saw your name I thought you were Greek. Did you get your name because you were born in Athens?

    Nicole — no, I didn't make the distressed wood :)
    I too hope you get the chance to travel more in Greece. You'll love it.

  9. Wow ! I have never seen sofiago like this.. love it with kidoni!!

  10. Well, I haven't been to a FM lately so maybe they're still around here in Cali! Yes, my parents named me Athena because I was born in Athens but I'm actually Filipina :)

  11. I love quinces, but have never seen them cooked this way. I love this earhty dish, perfect for the holidays. I must track down somel petimezi!! thank you for sharing!

  12. This looks so beautiful... even in the heat of the Australian summer, slow cooked, rich comfort food can't be beat!

    So happy to have stumbled across your lovely blog!

    Catherine @ The Spring (in Brisbane)

  13. I have been craving beef stew lately. It is so comforting on a cold winter day. I also love quince. My grandmother had a quince tree/bush when I was little and she made jam. I have never eaten quince any other way but this combination sounds perfectly perfect. Thank you.

  14. I love meat stew with quince added. It brings such an element of fruitiness :)

  15. Hi Magda--I ate my first quinces a couple of months ago--such a mysterious, marvelous fruit. I had never thought about how delicious it would be paired with beef---but, on reading your post, and looking at your pictures, I can imagine it well. Brilliant!

  16. Oh my! I absolutely love this dish Magda!
    Your pictures are lovely once again!

  17. What a sumptuous-looking dish! The photos are mouthwatering. I love quince and rosemary both so I think I am going to give this a try. Am I right in assuming that petimezi is the same as Turkish pekmez (very thick brown grape syrup)? I'm pretty sure I can get that at the Turkish store I go to.

  18. That is one bowl of comforting and delicious food! We don't eat beef, but I can easily sub it with lamb :)

  19. Crazy Radishes — yes you're absolutely right, petimezi and pekmez is the same thing!

  20. Thanks for the reply :) I already have some quince so I will get some pekmez/petimezi this weekend and try my hand at this stew! I'd never considered cooking with pekmez. In Turkey we eat it straight up, simply mixed with tahini (it's sort of the "energy bar" of Turkey :D) Do you do that in Greece too?

  21. Quinces are so underrated, but they taste absolutely amazing! If I do find them (I'll try at the ethnic shop, together with the petimezi) I must try this. I get some amazing beef here, and I'm trying every possible stew recipe I can get my hands on.

  22. Crazy Radishes — sometimes we eat it straight up as you say, but mostly we add it in cookies, desserts and savory dishes.

    lacaffettierarosa — I'm sure you're going to love this dish. Do try it!

  23. Dear My Little Expat Kitchen,

    I want to thank you for this awesome blog from the bottom of my heart.

    I adore Greece(no, I'm just crazy about the country) and Greek kitchen and that's how I came across this wonderful blog.

    I've already cooked sofigado, briam and spetzofai using your accurate and detailed instructions. The dishes are superb!!! And I will try more and more!!!

    Moreover, when I read your posts, I just feel that we are kind of soulmates: the same attitude towards the food, some aspects of life (especially "Promises" ;) ) and so forth. I'm your fan, absolutely))

    I wish you the best of luck in life in general and in our risky kitchen business :)

    Waiting for new recipes,

    Kindest regards,



  24. P.S. All Greek kitchen's connoisseurs will really appreciate if some day you find time to teach us how to cook "pugia glika" (please forgive me if my spelling is wrong) and gouvetsi (you mentioned it once :) ) And of course, mousakas and pastitsio. We can't do without your master-class :)

    Thank you in advance! :)


    1. Hi Xenia! Thank you so much for your sweet comment. It really means a lot to me. I'm thrilled that you have tried and loved some of my recipes, especially the Greek ones :)
      I have been wanting for quite some time now to post about giouvetsi and mousaka and pastitsio, I hope soon. Stay tuned!

  25. Dear Magda,

    Actually, I forgot to mention the gemista that I also cooked with the help of your recipe :) It was exquisitely delicious!!! Thank you once more!!!

    Also, I adore tiropsomo and have already baked it for 2 times for the last 3 months. The dough is just like in your recipe but I bake it in some different manner, because I had found that variant before I came across this wonderful blog :)

    The dolmades is another dish which I am crazy about... I also like Ladenia and prasopsomo. Honey pie from Sifnos is my addiction...

    Sfugato is marvellous.

    But what really makes me melt is home-made bougatsa... And tiropita, and baklavas, ummm...

    Greek kitchen is heavenly... Love it with all my heart... And... How wonderful it is that there are people who understand the greatness of home-cooking... The pleasure of the process itself and final taste which is no match to any restaurant's one. House and home which is inestimable. Oh, I'd better stop: all the same, I will never be able to write as beautifully as you can! Your writing style is beyond any words...

    I'm really glad I'm not alone in this world when it comes to attitude towards cooking...

    1. Wow Xenia, you know a lot of Greek dishes. Where are you from?
      Cooking is one of my passions and I'm happy because I get to share it here on my blog. What makes me even more happy is when others appreciate it so thank you once more for your sweet words!

  26. Dear Magda,

    I'm from Moscow :)


  27. I've decided to post links to some photos. They were taken on the 1st of December, 2012 and resemble yours in style. Sorry, I couldn't help trying to achieve the same beauty because when I saw photos in this post it was like: "Oh, God, I wish I could be just as great!" :)

    I couldn’t find Petimezi, though, and may be it explains a paler color of the dish. All in all, it was so delicious that I couldn’t get enough))


    1. Xenia, you did a great job with the sofigado! The petimezi is such an important element to the dish both in flavor and appearance. Perhaps the next time you are in Greece you can get a bottle. Thanks for sharing your photos with me.

    2. Quince is ripe in my part of the world, so I am making this recipe right now :-) It's nice to use quince for something other than jelly or paste.

      @Xenia: You may can find petimezi at a Turkish or middle eastern shop if you have any in your area, but it will be called Pekmezi. That is how I get mine.

      Otherwise it should be very simple to make, people have been making it since at least Roman times. Its only ingredient is grape juice. You can boil fresh grape juice slowly without a lid for hours until most of the water evaporates and leaves a sweet dark syrup. I see recipes using wood ash to clarify the grape juice first, but I don't think it's necessary, it's really not going to make any difference to your Sofigado.

    3. I hope you enjoy it Brandon.

  28. Hi Magda!

    I'm an American expat living in Athens and am so glad to have found your blog! I've already made several of your dishes which were fantastic and you made it very easy with your recipe layouts, instructions, and photos. Thank you! I do have a question though; what is the cut of meat I should be asking for in Greek to make stews? I know it is called mosxari but is there a more specific cut I should ask for? Would love to know if you have a minute. Thank you!

    1. Hi Katie !So sorry for the late reply. You are living in my hometown!! Hope you are enjoying your stay in my country :) Glad to hear you've made some of my recipe. There are various cuts for meat stews in Greece. For this dish you should ask for μοσχαρίσια σπάλα.