I reckon my father would have to be one of the main influences that led me to an early love of cooking. He wasn’t a particularly great cook, and he didn’t even cook all that often – perhaps twice a week or so. But when he did cook, he paid attention, he took care, and he went about the task with a whacking sense of pride.
He had a few favourite dishes; beef Stroganoff, spaghetti Bolognese and chicken Marengo among them. Sure, it was hardly revolutionary fare, but all classics none the less. He also loved to cook oxtail. I remember it as always a rather lengthy affair, and the preparation seemed to be a little more dedicated than his usual cooking forays. Herbs would be assembled, special ingredients would be brought in and decent bottles of wine opened – just to go into the pot.
So to us, oxtail seemed no more unusual than a special occasion dish. However, looking back, I can see now that many cooks who have never enjoyed such an early introduction to oxtail may see it as at best an odd, and at worst a downright frightening ingredient. Don’t let unfamiliarity put you off, as this is one of the most economical and tasty cuts of meat you can buy. Lets remove the mystique and learn how to cook this oft-neglected meat.
Oxtail is only slightly a misnomer – it is indeed the tail of beef cattle, but not exclusively of oxen. Any cattle that is graded as beef is the usual source, with younger grades – like veal and yearling possessing tails too small to provide a practical amount of meat. Unlike the quick-cooking prime cuts such as fillet, cube roll and sirloin; oxtail requires long and slow cooking to reach succulent tenderness. On the upside, most of the cheaper cuts, oxtail not the least among them, possess a sensationally deep flavour that those so called prime cuts sorely lack. In addition, oxtail is high in gelatin, leaving the finished dish simply laden with an unctuous mouth feel and lip-smacking richness that is just perfect for a cold weather meal.
Most butchers should be able to procure fresh oxtail if you give them a day or two notice, but if not, frozen oxtail will do just as well. Just place it on a plate, covered in the refrigerator and allow it to slowly thaw over 24 hours. Always make sure to ask the butcher to cut the oxtail into joints. Aside from the fact that chopping an oxtail at home can prove to be a rugged business, the logistics of carrying home a whole cow’s tail in a shopping bag are best left to the imagination.
Oxtail can be used in a range of dishes; there is the traditional Flemish hochepot, a stew made from various cheap cuts, including oxtail. English oxtail soup and the French consommé were also once popular menu items for the thrifty gourmet and the three star diner alike. Some traditional preparations even recommend grilled oxtail – but for me there is only one option – a rich braise, heady with red wine.
There is no getting around the fact that oxtail exudes a great deal of fat during cooking. Gladly, this is easily overcome by a little planning before you get started. If you allow yourself a little extra time, at least a few hours, but preferably a day in advance, you can strain the sauce and allow the fat to rise to the surface, which will then harden in the refrigerator. This can be easily scooped away, leaving you with a still rich, yet nearly fat-less dish.
The following recipe is one of the more popular starters at our restaurant. It is a classic oxtail braise matched to the silkiness of pappardelle, or fresh ribbon pasta. The richness is offset by a scattering of tangy preserved lemon and the fresh flavour of chopped parsley. If you have the time and kitchen patience, I urge you to make the full deal - pasta included, as it really is just a sensational combination. However, the braised oxtail itself is a great recipe and would be a treat served simply with mashed potatoes or polenta, along with some crisply steamed green vegetables.
Cabernet braised oxtail with pappardelle and preserved lemon
- 3 x 60 gm eggs
- 300 gm (11 oz) continental flour, fine semolina, pasta flour, or “doppio zero” flour.
- 2 teaspoons fine cooking salt
- - Alternatively, 400 gm dried wide ribbon pasta
Start a day ahead with the oxtail. Preheat your oven to 160 °C (325 °F). Heat the olive oil in a large frypan to a medium heat and brown the oxtail on all sides. Add the wine, letting it bubble, then remove the pan from the heat. Pour the oxtail, wine and any sediment from the frypan into a large roasting dish. Add all the remaining braise ingredients and stir to combine. Cover the roasting dish with aluminium foil and place in the pre-heated oven.
Remove after 2 hours and test a piece of the oxtail with a fork. It should pull easily away from the bone when done. If not, cover and return to the oven for another half an hour before checking again. Repeat until the oxtail is seriously soft and tender. It really should come away with just a gentle pull of the fork.
When cooked, lift the oxtail onto a plate, then strain the vegetables through a sieve, catching all the flavoursome liquid in a bowl. Discard the solids and place the sauce in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours, but overnight is better. When cool enough to handle, pull away the oxtail meat, discarding any fat, gristle or bones and place in a bowl.
In the meantime, make the pappardelle pasta following the directions in my pasta and how to roll out fresh pasta writeups. When the pasta is fully rolled out, cut with a sharp knife into long ribbons the width of a stick of gum (2.5 cm or 1 in). Toss lightly with extra flour, place onto a plate, then cover and set in the refrigerator until ready to serve. Of course, you could simply use packet pasta – just try and get the widest ribbons you can spy.
To make the Gremolata, combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well, and then set aside.
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Take the sauce from the refrigerator and scoop away all the fat that has risen to the surface and discard. Place the sauce and oxtail meat into a large frypan and bring to a gentle simmer.
When the water is boiling, add the pappardelle and cook for 1 1/2 - 2 minutes, no longer. Or cook the dried pasta following the directions on the pack. Drain the pasta well and add to the sauce in the frypan. Toss to combine and divide amongst 4 plates. Scatter each with a little of the Gremolata, placing the rest on the table. Grind over some more black pepper and serve forth.
Pasta this rich needs no cheese whatsoever, which would only muddy the already rich flavours. Simply serve with some good bakery bread, a green salad and a robust red wine – perhaps a cabernet sauvignon.