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By Emily Paster
As a cook, I seek novelty. I am a sucker for a new dish, a new technique, a new ingredient. When I walk through a farmers' market or a nice grocery store and my eye falls on an unfamiliar vegetable or a strange condiment, I immediately get excited: "What's that? Goat butter? I have to have it." It is only once I bring something home that I set about figuring out how to use it. That's what the Internet if for, right? (The goat butter, by the way, I used to make Sea Salt Caramels for holiday gifts. I'm not sure you can taste a difference but it's just cool to say I made goat butter caramels.)
One Saturday morning this past summer, I was shopping at the Oak Park Farmers' Market when I noticed that one of the meat vendors, Heartland Meats, had oxtail for sale. My fingers started to tingle: "Oxtail? What's that? I have to have it." I had certainly heard of people cooking with oxtail and even seen it on the menu of those kind of restaurants that bill themselves as "snout to tail" places. (I guess cows don't have snouts, but you know what I mean.) But I had never tried to make oxtail myself so it was inevitable that I would be drawn to the possibility of a new challenge. I immediately plunked down my money. Luckily, oxtail, while hard to find, remains a fairly inexpensive cut of meat so I didn't have to plunk down that much money.
Oxtail is a cut of meat from the tail of a castrated steer. It is usually sold skinned and cut into cross-sections. When you see it in the store, it looks round with a bone in the center. It is traditional in many different cuisines from Europe to Africa to east Asia, although the Jamaican version of Oxtail Stew served with rice or butter beans may be the most well-known. What makes oxtail special is the gelatin in the meat and bones. When cooked slowly, this gelatin dissolves into the dish, creating a rich mouth-feel. It's also probably very good for your nails.
The oxtail sat in my freezer until recently. Oxtail is plainly the type of meat that calls for long, slow cooking. In other words, a stew or a braise. Stews and braises are winter cooking: hearty, stick-to-your-ribs fare that can feel too heavy in summer or fall but is perfect on a dark, cold December night. When the temperatures started dropping in Chicago a few weeks ago, I pulled the oxtail out of the freezer, knowing that its moment had come.
I chose to season my oxtail stew much as I would a French-inspired beef stew, with red wine and herbes de Provence. But you would not be wrong to pair it with West Indian or Asian spices. The key is the long, slow cooking, which brings out the best in this humble cut of meat. I used my slow-cooker for convenience, but please don't think that you can't cook oxtail without a slow cooker. It would work just fine stewed for several hours in a Dutch oven on the stove top. Because I put potatoes in my oxtail stew, I didn't serve it over pasta or rice. But a version without potatoes in it would be delicious over polenta, rice — especially if you went with Asian or Caribbean spices — egg noodles or even mashed potatoes. I just hope I can find more oxtail in the grocery stores because I want to cook this cut of meat and play with different flavorings all winter long.
French-style Oxtail Stew
1 lb. oxtail
2 TB olive oil
1/2 cup flour
1 yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
6 shallots, peeled and trimmed
3 ribs celery, diced
1 bunch carrots, cut into bite-sized pieces
8 small waxy potatoes, like Yukon Gold or Red Bliss, cut into chunks
1 28 oz. can whole tomatoes with juice
1 cup red wine
2 tsp. herbs de Provence
2-3 bay leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
Flat-leaf parsley, chopped (optional)
Place flour on a clean plate and season well with salt and pepper. Dredge oxtail pieces in flour until coated on all sides. Shake off excess flour. Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or, if using slow-cooker, set stovetop setting to high and heat oil. Place oxtail in heated pot or slow cooker and brown meat on all sides. Remove oxtail and set aside. Add onion, celery and garlic to the same pot and toss to coat with oil. Scrape up any brown bits on bottom of pot. Saute aromatics until tender but not browned, adjusting heat if necessary. Season well with salt and pepper and herbs de Provence. Saute a few additional minutes. Return meat to pan adding any juices that have accumulated. Add carrots, shallots and potatoes, tossing to combine. Add red wine. Crush tomatoes slightly and add them to the pot with the juice. Add bay leaves and bring mixture to a boil. If using slow cooker, turn slow cooker setting to low, cover and cook for 6-8 hours. If using Dutch oven, turn heat on stove to low and cover. Cook stirring occasionally for 2-3 hours. When done, the meat should be fork tender and literally fall away from the bones. Remove the bones and bay leaves and garnish with chopped parsley before serving. If stew is too liquid, remove cover and increase heat. Cook for 15-30 minutes until the sauce is thickened. If stew is too thick, add a little more wine or broth. Taste and adjusting seasoning before serving.
Have you ever had oxtail? Would you eat it or is it a little too weird?