Oxtail in vogue

February 16, 2011 

Although the rain has cleared and Punxsutawney Phil has said spring will arrive early, it’s still a bit cold outside, in my opinion. There’s still time to make one of my favorite stews.

My grandmother made one of the best beef stews I can remember. And while I occasionally still make hers with regular cubed stew beef, I’ve become a bit adventurous as time goes by and substitute the stew beef with oxtail.

Yes, oxtail.

It is exactly what you think it is...the cut-up tail of a cow.

It used to be one of the cheapest cuts of beef you could find. Now with “head-to-tail” eating coming back into vogue, oxtails aren’t as inexpensive as they used to be. I found some at the social Pig at about $5 per pound. That sounds like a lot to spend, but the richness of flavor that you get from a little bit of oxtail goes a long way.

The center of the oxtail is bone and marrow (very rich) and it is surrounded by a marbled layer of meat and a thin layer of fat. The meat tends to be a bit on the tough side since the tail of the animal is muscular and gets worked repeatedly day in and out (swatting flies and such), so it is perfect for slow cooking or braising.

I’m sure if you went online that there are many variations of oxtail stew and soup. My concoction falls somewhere in between ... I don’t use a thickener or a roux because I like the natural thickness that my stock produces. Besides, this gives me an excuse to serve the final product with a nice chunk of fresh sourdough bread to soak up the juices.

Here’s how I do oxtail soup: Keep in mind that this is probably going to be a two-day affair (I can’t help tasting and adjusting the soup while I’m cooking, but it’s actually much better the second day) or an all-day crock pot adventure.

Prepare your vegetables first so that you’re organized and everything comes together easily (the French call it “mise en place”).

For a package of two pounds of oxtail, I used half of one green pepper, half of a large red onion, four cloves of garlic and two medium sized carrots. Chop all of this up and have it waiting to one side.

Also round up one 14-ounce can of chopped tomatoes, one tablespoon of coriander and a teaspoon (more or less, depending on your taste) of cayenne pepper. And two cups of a good red wine (I used a cabernet sauvignon).

Get a stew or soup pot that is wide enough on the bottom to hold the oxtail pieces in one layer. Heat one tablespoon of oil in the pan over high heat. Place the oxtail pieces in the pan, fat side down. The idea here is to sear the oxtail and render a bit of the fat out for sauteing the veggies.

Once the meat is lightly browned on all sides, take it out of the pan.

Add about one tablespoon of butter to the pan and add the chopped onion, garlic, pepper and carrots. Keep stirring the vegetables, pulling up any meaty or fatty bits that are stuck on the bottom of the pan and making sure that the garlic doesn’t burn, until the onions are just beginning to melt (about three to five minutes).

Now put the oxtail back into the pot with the vegetables and add the coriander, cayenne, tomatoes and wine. Stir it all around, put a lid on it and turn the heat down to a simmer.

After an hour, check the soup for flavor. You may want to add some salt or pepper. Put the lid back on and walk away for another hour.

At two hours, the soup is beginning to come together. Taste again and recover and simmer.

I didn’t touch my pot of soup again until the four-hour mark, when the aroma of beefiness and tomato became too hard to resist. At this point, the meat was falling away from the center bone and I knew it was ready to go.

I did dish up a small bowl right then, but let the rest of the pot cool off before putting it the refrigerator overnight.

The next day, take the oxtail soup out of the fridge and reheat. Don’t forget to scoop out the marrow from the center bone, it’s the richest tasting part of the meal. Serve with warm bread or mashed potatoes (or your favorite root vegetable... parsnips or turnips, maybe?) and a salad. This recipe will feed at least four people.

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