First off, oxtail isn’t the tail of an ox. Let’s get this out of the way right now, lest you look ahead to the recipe, see that ingredient and retire to the burrow of the irrationally queasy.
Knowing that those odd-looking, roughly circular slices of bone and meat that you routinely pass by in the butcher’s case in fact come from the tail of a steer may not seem much better, but if you’re a meat eater, you have to trust me on this — there are few cuts of beef with more flavor.
That it comes from aft on the beast shouldn’t be of any concern. You love juicy rump roast; stir-fried strips of round steak; the same cut pounded thin, spread with a savory filling and rolled into a roulade; or more round, slow-cooked for your mom’s Swiss steak or dredged in flour for chicken-fried steak. Those cuts are only a little forward of the tail.
And because that ass gets a workout, they’re relatively lean, tough cuts. This means they’re especially well-suited for cooking low and slow, breaking down connective tissue and other gelatinous elements into pure added, lip-sticking flavor while filling your home with a scent that arouses the wild-eyed atavist in those with a nose.
With that, we’ve backed into the real topic — stew.
Man, I love me some stew. It’s pretty close to a meal in a bowl. Making it is leisurely, low-maintenance cooking, with that aroma premium. It’s pointless and wasteful to use expensive meat, so it almost demands the toughest, cheapest cuts. There are very few rules in making it, so you can improvise all you like, often with what you have on hand.
You really can’t cook too much of it, because it gets better each time it’s reheated, and it freezes just fine for another time.
Great results are assured if you remember a few things:
• Use a heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid. Heat the pot on medium-high until droplets of water vaporize within a few seconds of being sprinkled in, then add oil. Very quickly, the oil should shimmer and just start to smoke.
• Add the meat — thoroughly dried with paper towel — and brown on all sides until a thin, dark crust forms. (Don’t crowd the meat pieces, or they’ll steam instead of brown. Cook in batches if necessary.) Remove meat to a plate.
• Add diced onion and garlic to the pot and cook until translucent, scraping up the intensely flavored brown bits from the bottom of the pot as you go. Add a cup or two of liquid and bring to a boil, scraping up any remaining brown bits in the bottom of the pot.
• Put meat back into the pot, add remaining liquids and seasoning, return to the boil, then lower heat and cook uncovered for several hours at a very easy simmer, adding more liquid if necessary. Add chunked vegetables about an hour before serving, cover and finish cooking.
Don’t skip the browning step. It’s not only vital to the flavor you’re looking for, but also beautifully colors the stew.
For something a tad more exotic, try the following recipe, adapted from Real Stew (Harvard Common Press, $18.95), by the brilliant food historian and writer Clifford Wright.
Serves 4 to 6
1/4 cup olive oil
4 pounds oxtail pieces
1 tablespoon lard (it’s not much, but adds flavor; sub with shortening if you must)
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1 pound boiling potatoes, peeled and diced
2 cups beef broth, homemade or good quality store-bought
1 cup dry red wine (not “cooking wine” – contains sodium)
15 sprigs fresh thyme, 5 sprigs each fresh parsley and savory or tarragon, 1 bay leaf, all tied in a piece of clean cheesecloth
Zest of one orange cut in a single long spiral (don’t worry, smaller pieces are OK, just harder to fish out)
1 medium onion, peeled and stuck with 1 whole clove
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/4 cup imported pitted green olives, chopped
1/4 cup pitted black Nicoise olives, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Heat a large heavy pot or casserole over medium-high, add olive oil, heat almost to smoking, then add oxtail pieces, browning well on all sides. Remove meat from pot and set aside.
2. In the same pot, melt lard. Adding onions and potatoes and cook until onions are golden, about 8 minutes. Stir often, adding a little water if needed to scrape up the brown bits on the bottom.
3. Return meat to the pot. Add remaining ingredients. Bring quickly to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce thickens and meat falls off the bone, about 4 hours.
4. Remove herb bag and orange zest; discard. Remove whole onion, discard whole clove, and return onion to the stew, crushing it lightly with a spoon. Serve immediately.Ric Bohy is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]