Chili is a contentious dish. Each bit of regional and cultural minutiae that goes into making the Hometown Recipe turns friendly, generous individuals into zealots. Beans or no beans? Tomatoes or no tomatoes? Ground beef or roast? Small details, to be sure. But in the context of chili, any of these seemingly trivial details can force even the friendliest of neighbours into the battle royale of chili: the cook-off.

There’s no better antidote to chili chauvinism than learning an entirely new chili recipe. Among the lesser-known dishes on the global chili menu is Liftiyya. Hailing from Tunisia, this beef stew showcases the flavors of North Africa while maintaining the familiarity of the American Southwest. Easy but a little time consuming to prepare, Liftiyya is perfect for a Sunday spent cleaning or watching movies while the bubbling pot on the stove gradually fills the house with the warm, spicy atmosphere of a Tunisian market.

Harissa

The foundation of Liftiyya is harissa, a paste made of tomato, garlic, spices, and chilis. Warming and intense, a little harissa goes a long way. Harissa is straightforward to make, and recipes abound on the internet, but if it’s too intimidating or you don’t own a blender or food processor consider buying pre-made harissa from an ethnic grocery store or Whole Foods. If you can’t find harissa, you can substitute a teaspoon each of ground caraway, cumin, and coriander, three cloves of minced garlic, a heaping tablespoon of chili powder and a small can of tomato paste.

The Beef!

Aside from the harissa, beef is the star of this recipe. Chuck is a versatile cut from the shoulder of the cow. It’s rich in flavor and extremely forgiving to prepare. Cooking chuck roast on low heat over the course of several hours allows enough time for the connective tissue and tough muscle fibers of the roast to break down until the meat is tender enough to cut with a fork. Chuck roast works perfectly for this recipe because the grain of the muscle lends itself to cutting into bite-sized cubes.

Although forgiving once it’s in the pot, preparing chuck roast for stewing can be a pain. If you buy your roast intact you will have to cut it into cubes, salt and pepper it, and then fry the cubes in batches, browning every side of each cube without steaming the pieces (a result of crowding the pan) or burning the drippings (poor heat management). Searing can be a tricky balancing act that often results in either under-browning or a burned pan that must be cleaned before the recipe is resumed.

Instead of cubing the raw roast, cut it into four hand-sized pieces, about an inch thick. Searing these large pieces on both sides will allow the beef to develop plenty of that flavorful brown crust with significantly less work. After searing these pieces remove them from the pot, allow them to cool briefly, and then cube them as you would normally. When the soup base is finished, toss the beef back into the pot to finish cooking. This method removes the frustrating finesse work from frying and speeds up prep. Traditionalists will resist this method as it fails to “sear in the juices,” but it makes little difference. If the juices do “escape,” they’ll escape right into the stew.

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb stew meat, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 2 tablespoon tabil (mix ground coriander seed, caraway seed, garlic powder, and chili powder)
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 lb fresh tomato, chopped
  • 1.5 cups water
  • 2 teaspoon harissa
  • 1/2 cup canned chick-peas
  • 2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1.5 cups turnips, peeled and quartered
  • 2/3 cup parsley, finely chopped
  • 10 ounce spinach, cut into strips
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 lemon, juice of

Preparation:

  1. Begin by slicing the meat into cubes.
  2. Heat oil in a heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Test the oil with a corner of the meat. Once the oil sizzles loudly and spatters, it’s ready. Place each piece of chuck into the pot, being careful to space them apart by an inch or so. This will prevent steaming and aid in browning.
  3. Allow the meat to brown on all sides, adjusting the temperature to prevent the drippings from burning. In French these drippings are called “fond” (foundation) and form a cornerstone of the dish’s flavor. You want the meat that’s stuck to the pan to be deep brown, but never black.
  4. Once the meat is browned, remove it from the pot and allow it to cool on a cutting board while you prepare the rest of the dish. Turn down the heat or remove the pan to prevent scorching.
  5. Working quickly to prevent the drippings from burning, add a little more cooking oil if the pan is dry, followed by the chopped onion and tomato. Sauté over medium heat until the onion is soft and translucent and begins to brown at the edges–about five minutes. Next, add the harissa paste. Coat the onions in the harissa, stirring constantly until the paste takes on the color of red brick. This will make the tomato paste sweeter and more complex. If you can’t find harissa, you can substitute a mix of ground caraway, cumin, and coriander as well as chili powder, garlic, and tomato paste.
  6. Pour in the water, deglazing the pan and scraping up the brown bits from the bottom. This will add even more beefy depth to the stew. Bring the stew to a light boil and then reduce to a simmer. Add the cubed meat, turnips and cover, cooking just at a simmer until the meat and turnips can be cut easily with a fork. This could take up to two hours. Come back to stir the stew occasionally, ensuring that it isn’t at a rolling boil or cooling off too much.
  7. When the meat is tender, stir the strained chickpeas into the soup. Add spinach. Once the spinach has wilted, it’s ready to serve! Consider topping the stew with raw chopped onion and parsley, or even mint. Serve over rice or with warm pita bread.