Continuing on the theme of winter-worthy dishes, let us consider the oxtail. I just saw a tweet from the National Weather Service to the effect that starting tonight (writing this Friday, January 15), temperatures are expected to remain below zero for at least the next 80 hours. That’s three-plus days, folks, and that’s real Upper Midwest January weather. Booya! It could possibly be the coldest snap of what has otherwise been a fairly mild weather, and that makes it the perfect time to prepare the richest, most unctuous, rib-sticking, soul- and belly-warming dish that I know, and that is oxtail stew.
Actually, what I prefer to make is more of a braise than a stew, the difference being really not much more than how much liquid is used in the cooking and is left at the end: stew=lots of liquid; braise=not so much. I think that in a stew the liquid is most often water, while a braise uses a more flavorful liquid like beer, wine, cider, but that’s not written in stone, or in Escoffier, that I know of, and opinions may vary. What I’m looking for in the end result is oxtails cooked to absolute surrender, collapsing in a rich, savory, lip-smacking sauce, enough to bathe a mound of polenta or rice, or a tangle of noodles.
The term oxtail is an odd survivor from some earlier age when, presumably, people ate oxen. What we’re really talking about is the tail of a cow, the same beast that gives us T-bone steaks, chuck roast, and hamburger. Oxtails used to be pretty cheap, but in these days of nostalgic nose-to-tail cooking, they demand a premium, especially when you consider than most of what you pay for in a package of oxtails is inedible bone and cartilage. The oxtails from grass-fed animals I picked up at Seward Co-op cost $6.99 a pound, over $15 for the two-pound or so package; that will feed the two of us generously for dinner, with perhaps a lunch for one or two leftover. Eating low off the cow is not cheap these days. [We actually wound up getting two dinners for two out of these oxtails, plus a cup of soup each to round out another lunch. First time through, we ate our fill of the recipe as presented here. Second go, I removed all the meat from the leftover oxtails, added a little more broth and a splash of wine, some chopped cabbage, cooked chickpeas, simmered until the cabbage was tender-crisp. Served with leftover polenta, it was a wonderful mid-week dinner.]
I said the cartilage in oxtails is not edible, but that’s not quite true. There will be gelatinous or slightly crunchy bits of cartilage left even after long cooking, bits that will be our dogs’ delight. But in that extended braise, the cartilage and bone will exude collagen into the braising liquid, and really, that’s the whole point of a dish like oxtails. The meat is nice, for sure, but even more delicious is that unique, almost gluey, quality that imbues the sauce left at the end of cooking. It’s a flavor sensation you don’t get any other way, and the rare case where the word “gluey” is likely to be attached to food in a positive sense. Viscosity and specific gravity are other terms that come to mind, also rarities in the world of food writing. As with the puree of cabbage and potatoes that I wrote about last time, oxtails are not the sort of thing you’re likely to crave in the midst of a July heat wave.
No, this is apres-ski or post-wood-chopping food, to be washed down with a robust red wine (the Marietta Old Vine Red is one that pops immediately to mind, and is widely available; what we actually drank with the dish described below was an Italian barbera, cheap from Trader Joe’s, quite suitable).
When I’m making oxtails, I always think of my father, Albert William "Bill" Laidlaw, who died too young, at the age of 65, back in May of 1990. During by childhood, in the 1960s and early ‘70s, the term foodie had not been invented (O, happy days!), and if it had existed, you would never have applied it to my dad. But my father was, I think, a sort of secret gourmand, and as I think back on his brief catalog of favorite dishes, I realize that he specialized in what you might call difficult foods. He would take charge of the broiler when he was home for dinner (a traveling salesman for much of my childhood, my father was absent a lot), cooking up sizzling rib steaks or pork chops. Of course when we barbequed, he took the lead—his most important piece of equipment being a Bubble-Up bottle filled with water, with a sort of shower head stopper in the neck, essential for dousing the frequent flare-ups that threatened to incinerate the chicken.
But on the more esoteric side, he absolutely loved marrow bones, and seemed to relish extracting each, last, savory morsel from the hollow bones. For roast beef sandwiches he would mix up strong English mustard from the powder that came in those distinctive rectangular yellow metal containers, using a shot glass and a toothpick, stirring with the concentration of a medieval alchemist. I remember taking a whiff of it, and thinking that my nose would never be right again.
Perhaps the most exotic (and to me, at the time, oddly frightening) food he prepared was smoked Lake Winnipeg goldeye, a sort of whitefish. My parents were from Winnipeg, and on our yearly trips to the homeland he would sometimes bring back a smoked goldeye or two. The interesting thing about my father and the goldeye was this: he would eat them all by himself, and outside of regular mealtimes. He would heat them in foil in the oven, and the house would fill with that smell of warm smoked fish—a smell unlike anything else that ever issued from our kitchen on North Eden Drive in the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie.
Maybe my memory is selective, but I recall him then sitting alone at the kitchen table, with the foil packet of warm, fragrant fish open before him, and with an air of utter, blissful satisfaction, going at the flesh, revealed by pulling back the reddish-gold skin, with his fingers alone. In this iconic memory the rest of the family stands at a respectful distance, beholding the ritual devouring of the goldeye with some mix of awe, delight, terror, and pride. I think now that my mom simply couldn’t stand the stuff, and it was assumed that my brother and I would be equally unappreciative. But there it is, the elemental power of food, that such memories (even if embroidered or dodgy) can survive decades, and help to define people, times, and relationships.
Oh, and my dad loved oxtails, so this recipe, though somewhat fancier in preparation than what we used to make, is one I’m sure he would have enjoyed, and so is dedicated to his memory. There are lots of comfort food sorts of dishes—braises, stews, warming soups—that, when you take the first, long-anticipated bite, fill you with a sense of: “You know, everything’s going to be okay…”. Well prepared oxtails have that quality, and more. The first unctuous, melting bite of really good oxtails brings a sense of: “Everything’s going to be fabulous, and tomorrow’s going to be grand, and we shall live in joy from here ever after…”.
You think I’m exaggerating? Then go ahead, give it a try.
I rendered some home-salted pork fat to use in browning the oxtails and vegetables, simply because I had it on hand. The rendered pork fat has a high smoke point, little flavor of its own, and does a lovely job of browning things without burning. But you can certainly use vegetable oil in its place; if everything else is in place, don't let the lack of salt pork stop you from making this wonderful dish.
Also, re the garnish: I browned up some small shallots and button mushrooms, which you'll recognize as the traditional garnish for coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon. This is also strictly optional, though delightful. You could also add fresh vegetables toward the end, to make it more of a stew--perhaps peas, blanched pieces of carrot, parsnip, rutabaga, or celery root, that sort of thing. Put them in for the last 30 minutes of gentle cooking.
Oxtails Braised in White Wine
Serves two generously, with leftovers
2 pounds oxtails
2 ounces salt pork in ½-inch dice, divided, optional or
3 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil, divided
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut in 5 or 6 pieces
1 small leek, white and green, cleaned, cut in 2-inch pieces
1 medium or ½ a large onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 ounce dried tomatoes, chopped in small pieces
2 pinches dried thyme, or a couple sprigs fresh
12 black peppercorns
2 whole cloves
¼ teaspoon whole hua jiao (Sichuan peppercorns)
1 ½ cups dry white wine, such as sauvignon blanc
¾ cup chicken or beef stock, optional
About 20 small button mushrooms, white or crimini
A dozen very small shallots, or pearl onions
Heat your oven to 325.
In an oven-proof dutch oven with a lid—enameled cast iron, like Le Creuset, is ideal—begin to render half the salt pork with a little bit of oil—the other half of the salt pork will be used the next day, so refrigerate it. If not using salt pork, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in the dutch oven. Salt the oxtails, then brown them over medium-high heat in the oil or salt pork renderings. Turn them often to brown all sides; take your time with this step, as the browning develops a lot of flavor. It will probably take a good 15 minutes. If the salt pork cubes start to burn, remove them from the pan and set aside.
When the oxtails are well browned, remove them from the pan and add the carrot, onion, leek, and garlic, along with a couple pinches of salt. Cook the vegetables, stirring often, until they wilt and start to take on a bit of color. Add the wine, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden scraper to dislodge any browned bits. Then add 1 ½ cups water, the dried tomatoes, thyme, peppercorns, cloves, and hua jiao.
Return the oxtails and salt pork cubes to the pan, bring to a boil, then remove from the heat. Cover, and bake for 3 to 4 hours at 325, turning the oxtails over every 30 minutes or so. Add water as needed to keep the liquid about halfway up the oxtails. You want the liquid to be bubbling gently, so adjust your oven temp accordingly (some ovens run hot, others cold, etc.; mine, of course, is perfect…for this recipe, anyway).
After the 3 to 4 hours of baking, test the oxtails to see if the meat will come easily away from the bones. If they’re properly done you should see the meat starting to pull away from the bones. You want the meat to be utterly yielding; chewy oxtails are a travesty, and such a sad waste of all the time you’ve spent on them. Provided that you don’t cook them to hot—i.e., furiously boiling, or so that the liquid all evaporates, and they burn—it’s really not possible to cook them too long.
When you are satisfied that the oxtails are tender, remove the pot from the oven, allow it to cool, then refrigerate the whole thing until a couple of hours before you are ready to serve. The dish can be made up to this point several days ahead.
A couple of hours before serving, remove the oxtails from the fridge. You will find that a good amount of fat has solidified on the surface of the liquid—which will now actually be more like gelatin. Remove as much of the fat as you care to. Start to heat the oxtails on medium heat, and add more water and/or the optional stock to keep the liquid at half-oxtail level. Taste for salt; it shouldn’t need much, if any, as so much flavor will have developed in the long cooking of the meat and vegetables; as you taste the liquid, close your eyes and smack your lips a little—there, now you know what umami means.
For the shallot and mushroom garnish: start to render the remaining diced salt pork in a bit of oil, or just heat 1 tablespoon olive oil, then add the shallots. Cook, stirring often, until they begin to brown a bit, then add the mushrooms and a good pinch of salt and a grind of pepper. Toss these around in the fat, and cook gently until they are quite brown, soft, and fragrant, 10 to 12 minutes. Add the mushrooms and shallots to the oxtails.
Now we’re just about ready to serve: open a bottle of hearty red wine. Warm some crusty bread, and put a dish of butter on the table—I would go for salted butter here. I like to serve oxtails with polenta, which ups the warm and fuzzy comfort food quotient considerably. We do polenta at a 4:1 water to coarse cornmeal ratio, cooking it gently for 25 to 30 minutes, adding a little additional water as needed to keep it creamy, stirring in a good knob of butter at the end, seasoning well with salt.
So: spoon a mound of polenta onto each plate—a shallow bowl sort of plate works well here—making a shallow depression in the polenta to catch the sauce. Nestle a couple sections of oxtail beside the polenta, and spoon sauce and vegetables generously over all. Drink a toast to beauty of winter cooking, and then get in there and enjoy.