Tag Archives: Slow Food

oaxacan mole verde: a springtime stew

Everywhere I turn- on Facebook and Twitter and even *gasp* real-life conversations (remember those?)- people are, to put it gently, lamenting spring’s tardy appearance this year. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to ditch the scarf and gloves, and temps in the 60s would feel balmy right about now, but I try not to dwell on that which I cannot change. Instead, I’m trying to transition as best I can, by cooking foods which satisfy both the craving for something warm and hearty, and the desperate longing for something green.

When I prepared my prosciutto leg in January, I had a fair amount of meat (and bone; see above) left over from the trimmings. I took some out of the freezer a couple weeks ago to make a Oaxacan pork stew.  I’m sure the very word “stew” conjures rib-sticking, squarely winter food, but bear with me. The dish incorporates plenty of green things like tomatillos and squash and an herb purée that gives it a lively perk and, when stirred in, turns the color from olive-drab to a brilliant emerald.  The stew’s heat (both temperature and spice-wise) will fend off these last bouts of winter chill, while the vegetables and herbs will prime your palate for green things to come.

I served this one night to my friend Amanda, wh0 has visited Oaxaca with her Mexican beau, and she said it was very similar to something she had tried there. I wouldn’t expect anything less of a Rick Bayless recipe- this one comes from his book  Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen. The only change I made was to use zucchini in place of the chayote because the market was out of it that day, but I think it’s a fine (if less authentic) substitution. I also used frozen green beans because I prefer them over the somewhat large, tough specimens that are found in stores this time of year.

If you still think that stew is too much of a winter dish, I would humbly remind you that in Mexico it is MUCH warmer than it is in most parts of North America, and they eat stews like this all the time! I won’t preach to you about not being deterred by the long ingredients list or prep time; this is unapologetically a recipe for those who may actually enjoy spending an afternoon in the kitchen. Might as well, since it’s still too cold to go outdoors.

Oaxacan Pork Stew with Vegetables & Herbs /Mole Verde Oaxaqueño (adapted slightly from Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen)
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2 lbs boneless pork shoulder, cut into 1 ½-inch pieces
1 lb pork bones, cut into 2-inch pieces
2/3 cup dried navy beans
4 garlic cloves, whole and unpeeled
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 medium white onion, diced
1 lb medium tomatillos. husked and rinsed
fresh green chiles to taste- about 2 jalapeños or 3 serranos
½ tsp cumin, preferably toasted and freshly ground
½ tsp black pepper, preferably fresh ground
pinch of ground cloves
1 ½ Tbx lard or vegetable oil
2 medium (1 lb total) chayotes, peeled, seeded and cut into ¾-inch chunks, or substitute 1 lb zucchini (do not peel)
1 ½ cups (about 6 oz) tender young green beans, trimmed and cut in half, or substitute frozen if no good fresh beans are available
2/3 cup fresh masa, or  generous ½ cup masa harina mixed with 6 Tbs hot water
about 2 tsp salt
4 large sprigs flat-leaf parsley, plus additional for garnish
2 small sprigs epazote (or 5-6 sprigs of cilantro if unavailable)
2 leaves hoja santa (or 1 cup roughly chopped fennel fronds)

Place the meat and bones in a large Dutch oven or cazuela and cover with 3 quarts water. Bring to a boil, skimming the gray foam that rises to the surface. When no more foam surfaces, add the beans, minced garlic and onion. Partially cover and cook at a gentle simmer until the beans are cooked and the meat is tender, 1 ½- 2 hours. Add any water as needed during cooking to keep the beans and meat covered.

Meanwhile, roast the tomatillos on a baking sheet 4 inches below a very hot broiler until soft and blackened on one side, about 3-5 minutes; turn them over and blacken the other side. Transfer tomatillos along with any juices to a blender or food processor. Heat a cast iron skillet or heavy griddle over medium heat. Roast the chiles and unpeeled garlic in the dry skillet, turning frequently, until soft and blackened in spots. (Note: I found it helpful to keep the garlic on the outer edge of the pan to avoid burning.) Peel the garlic and roughly chop it with the chiles. Add to blender along with the cumin, cloves and pepper, and purée until smooth.

When the meat and beans are tender, pour them into a colander set over a large bowl or stockpot. Remove the bones, picking them clean of any remaining meat and adding it back to the colander. Set colander aside. Skim the fat from the top of the broth.  Wash and dry your Dutch oven or  cazuela, set over medium heat, and add the lard or oil. When hot, add the tomatillo purée- it should sizzle sharply (test a drop first). Stir constantly for about 5 minutes to thicken. Add 4 cups of the pork broth, partially cover, and simmer over medium-low heat for 15 minutes, stirring regularly. Add the chayote or zucchini and green beans and cook 5 minutes longer.

In a small bowl, whisk 2/3 cup broth with the masa mixture, mixing well to remove lumps, then whisk into the stew base until thickened. Return the meat and beans to the stew pot. Season with salt to taste, usually about 2 teaspoons. Let the stew simmer gently while you prepare the herb mixture.

Purée the herbs with 1/3 cup broth in a blender until smooth. (If you are short of broth, you can use water.) Stir the puréed herbs into the stew. Add broth or water as needed to achieve a medium-thick consistency. Ladle into wide soup bowls, garnish with additional parsley, and serve immediately with warm corn tortillas. If not eating all of the stew immediately, stir a spoonful of herb mixture into each individual serving rather than the whole pot, reserving the remaining mixture to add to the stew when reheating it.

when life hands you a tough hen…

…make des nouilles «coq au vin»!

It’s always a goal of mine to try to source the most authentic ingredients possible when making food from other countries.  Partly for this reason, I had never attempted one of the most classic of all French dishes, Coq au Vin.  In the U.S., our chickens are sold young and bred for their plumpness and would fall apart in a recipe that called for long, slow stewing.  Coq au Vin is a recipe designed to make the best of a lean, sinewy old rooster rather than a hen barely past pubescence.

So imagine my delight when I saw for sale at the farmers’ market, from one of my favorite farmers, stewing hens for sale!  Ok, so it was a hen, not a rooster, but I figured it was as close as I was going to get.  They were frozen solid and had a layer of frost on them, but I optimistically bought one anyway, along with some cippolini onions and button mushrooms.

Once I thawed the old girl out, I held her up for inspection.  She was the scrawniest bird I had ever seen.  In the schoolyard, she would’ve garnered taunts of “flat as a board” while her double-D supermarket cousins pranced past. Her legs and thighs were similarly spare; I wasn’t going to get much meat out of her.  But I wasn’t overly concerned; I was looking at this as somewhat of an experiment anyway, so I forged ahead.

I followed the recipe’s initial steps, marinating the bird in wine and aromatics for a day and then braising it in the marinade and stock until the liquid had reduced by about half.  Despite the low, slow braise, the chicken appeared tough as shoe leather- what had I done wrong?  I decided to chuck the whole thing in the fridge and resume the next day; perhaps it needed a longer braise to break down the collagen?  Any bird I’ve ever dealt with, when cooked properly, you can move the joint freely between the drumstick and thigh.  This bird’s joints were completely stiff and unyielding.  However, the sauce tasted absolutely phenomenal, so I figured all was not lost.

The next day I decided to take the dish over to Marvin’s and finish it there, but fate would intervene.  As I was loading the car, walking down my wooden porch steps, unable to hold the railing because I needed both hands to carry my insanely heavy Le Creuset Dutch oven, I slipped on a wet leaf.  The lid went flying, as did all the lovely sauce.  Somehow I managed to keep the pot itself upright, but my hands were scraped, and the pot handle was broken. And that sauce!  I think I was more upset about it than anything.

That night we ended up getting carry-out, but I wasn’t giving up so easily; I still had the uncooked mushrooms and onions, the meat, and a tiny bit of sauce left.  I began to hatch a plan. I reheated the meat with a couple more cups of wine and stock, some fresh aromatics, and let it simmer for another hour or so.  It wasn’t as spectacular as the original sauce, but it sure wasn’t bad. I added the onions to the sauce, fried the bacon and mushrooms as per the original recipe and added them.  At this point it was more than clear that the meat was inedible, but at least it had rendered some body  and flavor to my sauce.  I boiled up a package of wide egg noodles, and we had a delicious meal of noodles with wine sauce and mushrooms (hence des nouilles «coq au vin»).

I’m still not sure what happened with the meat.  I had a similar experience with a braised rabbit recipe- it had a few similarities (the meat was frozen, the recipe called for marinating in wine ahead of time, and used the same cooking technique) and I also ended up with meat so dry it practically crumbled.  If anyone out there reading this has any insights, please let me know!  Meanwhile, I hope this goes to show that even if a recipe goes awry, many times it can still be salvaged into something delicious and worthwhile.

P. S. I didn’t manage to get any photos for this post (it was 9:30 and after a long day, my hard-working better half needed his supper, stat!), but take my word for it that the mushrooms, onions and bits of bacon looked absolutely gorgeous glazed with the rich reddish-brown wine sauce atop a tangle of noodles, with a sprinkling of freshly chopped parsley.  Actually, that description probably does the dish justice better than a photo could have!

book review: “families of the vine” by michael sanders

It’s always a happy occurrence to come across a book that covers overlapping topics of interest to me- in this case, wine and France, and more specifically, malbec (a favorite grape of mine) and southwestern France (where I lived for a year).  I’m not quite sure why Families of the Vine sat on my shelf unread for as long as it did- it came out in 2006- but I’m very glad I finally got to it.  Reading it was a little bittersweet, as I regretted not having visited any of these vineyards when I last was in France, but I now have an itinerary for my next visit!

Over the course of two years, Michael Sanders (author of From Here, You Can’t See Paris, about a French village restaurant and also on my reading list) spent time with three winemaking families in the Lot valley near Cahors, the city which lends its name to the wine’s appellation.  In Families of the Vine, we are introduced to Yves & Martine Jouffreau-Hermann of Clos de Gamot, a vineyard dating from 1610 and whose signature wine is considered the quintessential expression of red Cahors;  Jean-Luc Baldès of Clos Triguedina, the prodigal son who returned to the family vineyard after studying in Bordeaux; and Philippe Bernède of Clos la Coutale, who favors fast cars and producing a more international (read: softer, fruitier) style of red wine.

Le vin de Cahors has, in recent centuries at least, always played second fiddle to its cousins from Bordeaux and Burgundy.  Sanders gives a bit of history explaining that due to geography and political power, Bordeaux gained the upper hand that it still enjoys to this day, in spite of the fact that the “black wine of Cahors” was once preferred by the English over the lighter claret (the Brits’ name for Bordeaux).  Cahors wine, by law a minimum of 70% malbec with merlot and tannat making up the remainder, received appellation status in 1971 thanks to native son Georges Pompidou.

The book takes place in 2002 and 2003, with Sanders writing about the 2003 growing season and the 2002 vinification process, in that order.  The 2003 growing season was unusually hot and dry, causing much stress on the part of the winemakers.  In some cases, hot dry weather can be a boon to the grapes, but in this case it wreaked havoc on them, causing the winemakers to have yields that were  50% or less of their normal harvest.  Coincidentally, I was visiting France at the exact time of the harvest Sanders writes about, and I well remember la canicule– the devastating heat wave in which hundreds of elderly people across France died.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book for me was reading about vinification, and the struggle between old and new ideas among France’s winemakers.  This is a subject that has been on my mind lately, as some of my more winesavvy friends have been talking about natural wine and what it means.  The crux of the problem is that, although in an ideal world many French winemakers would love to make a more traditional product, the market demands wines that can be consumed just a few years after being bottled.  Many winemakers simply don’t have the resources to cellar the wine for the requisite time, which requires not only the space to do so, but the capital to be able to tie up their money for years on end.  Some, like Bernède, are embracing the more fruit-forward, “Parkerized” styles of wine, which are easier to sell internationally and don’t require as much investment.  Others, like the Jouffreau family and Jean-Luc Baldès, are trying to hang on to the more traditional style of Cahors wine, which typically requires at least 10 years in the bottle to reach its full potential.  Yves Jouffreau-Hermann has even gone to the extreme of planting a difficult hillside vineyard, Clos St-Jean, whose grapes he hopes will yield a truly outstanding wine in years to come.

The main thing I am taking away from this book (apart from a burning desire to return to southwestern France to sample some of the wines of the region) is the importance of supporting producers who are dedicated to making quality wine in the traditional manner, even if it means sacrificing easier profits.  Like any artisanal tradition, when these winemakers are forced to cut corners to survive, we will all suffer for the lack of variety and quality.  I admit that until now, I have never cellared any wines, instead just buying them as I needed them.  But after reading the personal stories of these families and how much work they do for relatively little profit, I think it’s time to start endorsing that by choosing more “challenging” wines; wines that require a bit of commitment.

The only thing this book sorely lacks is a map showing the region and locations of the vineyards and châteaux, but other than that, it’s a wonderful introduction to anyone unfamiliar with winemaking, and a great resource for anyone interested in Cahors wine or the lives and struggles of the people behind the grapes.

Note: The photographs from this post were borrowed from the internet. Clicking on the photos will take you to the websites where they were found.

a locavore meal: steak & mushroom pudding (daring bakers)

The April 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Esther of The Lilac Kitchen. She challenged everyone to make a traditional British pudding using, if possible, a very traditional British ingredient: suet.

I’ve never been one f0r deadlines.  I was always the kid who was up all night with a pot of coffee the night before a big exam, or mysteriously sick the day a term paper was due.  While I love the idea of Daring Bakers and have participated in several (most even on time!), the posting date always sneaks up on me and I usually find myself scrambling. I’ve missed the last couple DB challenges (shh, don’t tell the blogroll moderator) and thought I would miss this one as well, but I got a last-minute burst of inspiration.

Our hostess gave us a choice between a sweet or savory pudding (note: in Britspeak, “pudding” has a much more general meaning than in the U.S.), and gave total free reign with the fillings/ flavorings.  The dessert puddings looked much more foolproof, but the savory ones appealed to me more.  Besides, I was fascinated by the idea that you could steam a pastry crust and it would come out browned and/ or flaky.  I decided to go with a fairly simple steak & mushroom filling;  I used the hostess’s dough recipe and then made up my own filling based on looking at a few other recipes.  I went to Western Market in Ferndale for the ingredients because they recently started carrying local beef (from C. Roy Meats in Yale, MI).  I was also able to pick up organic lettuce and MI asparagus and mushrooms there.  (The mushrooms were Aunt Mid’s, which I know is a local brand- not sure if they’re grown here or just packaged here.)  Last but not least, I used Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout both in the recipe and to quaff along with dinner.  Cheers!

The main part of the challenge was to make a pastry dough using suet.  When I asked for suet at the butcher counter, they gave me (for free) several hunks of beef fat; however, I’m not really sure if it qualified as suet based on the description given in the challenge.  The challenge hostess made it sound as if you could just crumble it up as-is; however, what I had needed to be rendered to be usable, as it still contained a lot of connective tissue and even a bit of meat.  But I just set it over low heat and filtered the liquid fat through cheesecloth, then stuck it in the freezer to chill.  The pastry “recipe” was really loose, with specific amounts given for the fat and flour but not for the water.  I think I added too much water because I ended up with a pretty sticky dough which I had to flour quite a bit in order to roll out.

For the filling, I just used cubed chuck steak, mushrooms, a yellow onion, salt, pepper, some fresh thyme, a few dashes Worcestershire sauce, and a bit of stout to moisten it all.  I tossed the meat in a couple Tbs of flour so that a gravy would be produced when the meat & veg released their juices, and it worked perfectly.  Fortunately the quantities I used were also just the right amount to fit perfectly into my 2-quart bowl!

For my steaming apparatus I just used a stockpot with a pasta insert- this worked great because I could easily monitor the water level and lift the insert (with the pudding in it) in and out of the water.  The directions said to steam the pudding for anywhere from 2 ½ hours to 5 hours… I steamed it for about 3 ½ but by then it was getting late and we needed to eat before it got ridiculously late.  Unfortunately my crust didn’t get fully cooked, I’m not sure if a longer cooking time would have helped, or if it was simply because I had used too much water in the dough.  It had the consistency of a dumpling more than a flaky crust.  Still, the filling was so good that we just picked around the dough and mostly ate the meat and sauce. I have a little leftover dough that I may use to make some other small pie, but I may try baking it instead and see how that turns out.  Cheers to Esther for a great challenge!

Steak & Mushroom Pudding with Stout
printer-friendly version

a 2-quart bowl, at least as tall as it is wide
a stockpot with a pasta insert (barring this, you may have to improvise some sort of rack to keep the bowl off the bottom of the pan- an overturned plate, a trivet, etc.)
1 quantity suet pastry (you can get Esther’s recipe here, just scroll down)
1 lb cubed chuck (approx. 1-inch pieces are good)
8 oz button mushrooms, cleaned and quartered (if larger, cut them in sixths or eighths)
1 medium yellow onion, diced small
1 Tbs fresh thyme leaves
about 2 Tbs flour
a few dashes Worcestershire sauce
about ⅓ cup stout beer
salt & pepper

Notes:
I did have some difficulty getting the suet crust to turn out via the steaming method, but as I said, I’m not sure whether it needed to cook longer or whether I just used too much water in the dough.  You may want to read around some of the other Daring Bakers posts to get some clarification!  I can, however, fully vouch for the filling, which was delicious.

Directions:
Fill the stockpot with water enough to come about a third of the way up the sides of your bowl (put the insert with the bowl in while you’re filling it so you can check the level).  Remove the bowl and insert and set the pot of water to boil.

Put the mushrooms, onion, and thyme in a medium bowl.  In a separate bowl, sprinkle the flour over the steak until well-coated (I like to use a tea strainer so there are no lumps).  Add the steak to the mushroom mixture.  Sprinkle in the Worcestershire (I’d say a scant tablespoon).  Season generously with salt and pepper, tossing to mix.

Grease your bowl.  Set aside ¼ of the dough.  Roll out the remaining dough and line your pudding bowl with it (you will likely have extra if you use the recipe I did).  Place the filling in the bowl and pour the stout over the top. Roll out the remaining dough and place it over the top, sealing it around the edges.  Take a large square of foil or wax paper and place it over the top of the bowl; secure with string or a rubber band. Arrange it so that it “poufs” up and does not touch the dough (mine did touch, and tore the crust when I removed it. Boo!) .

Place the bowl in the pasta insert and lower it into the boiling water.  Put the lid on and steam until the crust is cooked, 3 to 5 hours (it will turn from a pasty white to a golden brown).  Check the water level a couple times and top off if necessary; it shouldn’t fall below the bottom of the bowl.  When done, invert the bowl onto a plate and serve.

lasagne of emilia-romagna (daring bakers)

This is the second month in a row that the Daring Bakers challenge has been a recipe I’ve already made, but it was certainly one I was happy to revisit!

lasagna-lead

The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

If you’ve only ever had Italian-American style lasagna, this version is quite different.  There is no ricotta and no mozzarella, and barely any tomato in the sauce.  Instead, a rich meat sauce is layered with béchamel and a small amount of parmesan.   I do like the gooey, cheesy tomatoey version, but I don’t think I exaggerate when I say this version is heavenly.  Rarely have I tasted anything with such an intense meatiness.  And the homemade spinach noodles added just a hint of vegetal flavor to keep the whole thing from being too one-dimensional.  As Kasper puts it, the dish should always be a “vivid expression of the ‘less is more’ philosophy of cooking. Mere films of béchamel sauce and meat ragu coat the sheerest spinach pasta. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese dusts each layer. There is nothing more; no ricotta, no piling on of meats, vegetables or cheese; little tomato, and no hot spice. Baking performs the final marriage of flavours. The results are splendid.”

The last time I made this recipe was about 3 years ago, and sadly, I think that is also the last time my pasta machine got used!  I can’t recall which sauce recipe I used that time, but I think I used half venison and half pork for the meats and it was delicious.  This time around, I stuck to the given recipe (veal, pork, beef, pancetta and prosciutto) with the exception of using pre-ground meat instead of grinding it myself.  This was partially due to time constraints, and partially due to economy- the ground meat was much less expensive.  (When I gave my shopping list to the butcher and told him what it was for, he said, “You’re going to grind these?” and steered me towards the already-ground meat.)  I was a little disappointed not to get to use my meat grinder, but as it was, I was short on time.  I had decided, since I was going to so much trouble, to have a few friends over for dinner to help me eat the lasagna.  And, as is typical for me, I was rushing to get things done at the last minute!

phil-noodleLast time I made the spinach pasta, it came off without a hitch.  This time, I used the food processor to mix the dough and I don’t know where I went wrong but it was a mess.  When I added the flour, it turned into a crumbly mixture about the texture of cornmeal.  I tried adding a little water and it still wasn’t coming together.  Then I thought maybe if I put it in the stand mixer and used the dough hook I would have better luck.  I added a smidgen of olive oil and then it turned pebbly but still wasn’t cohesive.  I added a little more water, kept mixing, and FINALLY it started to resemble pasta dough.  Luckily, my friend and former roommate Phil, who had stopped by to pick up some mail, offered to roll up his sleeves and help out by rolling out the pasta.  If he hadn’t been there, I probably would have had to resort to using boxed pasta because the sauces had taken longer than I expected and I was running short on time.  However, with his help I was able to have everything on the table just when I wanted to.

cheers

The dinner party went off without a hitch- everyone loved the lasagna and my friend Ian even said it was the best he’s ever had.  It was a lot of work, but I was glad to be able to share it.  For our first course, I made a carrot and avocado salad, and for dessert a blood orange sorbet, both of which I’ll post soon.  For now though, I’ll share a “photo essay” of the making of the sauce and lasagna assembly.

To make the sauce, you start off by browning a mirepoix (the “holy trinity” of diced carrots, celery and onion) with some diced pancetta:

mirepoix-prep

mirepoix-chopped1

mirepoix-prosciutto-in-pan

The next step is to brown the ground meats.  It’s funny because even though I’ve smelled meat and onions browning hundreds of times, it still almost takes me aback how great it smells each time.

meat-cooking

After the meat is browned, the recipe instructs to put it in a strainer and drain the excess fat.  I did do this; however, nothing really drained off.  Anyway, you have to remove the meats from the pan in order to deglaze the pan with the wine:

wine-reduction

The recipe instructs to transfer everything to a saucepan at this point before the next step of adding the remaining ingredients.

sauce-ingredients

First you add stock in 1/2 cup increments, cooking it off as you go.  Next, you add 2 cups milk.  I didn’t take any photos of this stage because frankly, it looked really unappetizing.  Before the milk reduces, it gets kind of curdly and the color of the sauce looks… well, not like something you’d want to consume.  After cooking for an hour, you add three plum tomatoes and cook for another 45 minutes.  Fortunately at this point, everything looks much more appealing.  I forgot to get a shot of the finished sauce, but you can kind of see it in the photo of the lasagna being assembled.

As for the pasta, I should have taken more photos but was discouraged and distracted by the fact that it took so much effort to get it to the right consistency.  The way the pasta machine works is that you start by rolling it through on a fairly wide setting and then once it goes through that setting smoothly, you go up a setting and continue the process until the noodles are the desired thinness (we went up to setting 6; I think the machine goes up to 12).

pastabike-dough

pastabike-noodle

In the photo above, you can see the dough tearing as it goes through the machine; you just have to keep putting it through until it goes easily before ratcheting it up to the next level.  The photo of Phil holding the pasta shows what it looks like as it gets to the right thinness.  Phil trimmed the noodles to fit into the 9 x 13 pan I was using, but we forgot to take into account the expansion of the noodles when cooking so they were a little long and I had to trim them when assembling.

noelle-lasagna-assembly

lasagna-mid-assembly

The only deviation from the instructions on the assembly was accidental- the final layer was supposed to only be béchamel and parmesan, but I hadn’t paced it out right and still had a little meat sauce, so that went onto the top layer too.  I think the main difference was aesthetic more than anything.

The only other slight deviation was that when serving the lasagna, I passed chopped fresh parsley at the table in addition to parmesan.  I’m a firm believer in the addition of a little parsley to brighten such a rich, heavy dish; not alot, but just enough to perk up your palate.

lasagna-side-view

I’ll finish things off with another photo of the happy diners (who, incidentally, supplied some very nice wine to complement the meal).  Can’t wait til the next one, guys!

happy-diners2

 

oxtravaganza

oxtails-platedFor those of you who read my post last week about our Valentine’s day near-disaster, you know that we had originally planned on having oxtails. I’m happy to report that I was able to make them the next day without any problems, although we did still eat late, around 9PM. This really is a dish to make the day before, or to start first thing in the morning!

I wanted to make oxtails for many reasons- because I’d never had them before; because I’d read recipes in 2 of my favorite cookbooks saying how great they were; and, OK, just because it’s a cut of meat with a cool-sounding name!

(I have to pause here and chuckle a bit at a couple friends who asked me, quite innocently, “What are oxtails?” It was as if they couldn’t quite believe it would actually be what it sounded like. I hope the photos give you a vivid understanding!) raw-oxtails

I’m going to be lazy and not post the whole recipe for the oxtails, since it runs a few pages long, and because I think you can probably get a good oxtail recipe several places on the internets. I read two different recipes before settling on one- one was from the Zuni Café Cookbook, and the other from All About Braising. I chose the latter, not for any reason in particular except that it seemed slightly simpler (that, and the fact that I don’t often have an excuse to use a whole bottle of wine in a recipe).

spice-bundleTo start, after trimming as much fat as I possibly could, I marinated the meat in a bottle of wine with a sachet of aromatics in cheesecloth: bay leaves, peppercorns & allspice. The allspice made it smell like mulled wine after it had sat for a day, and I was afraid its flavor was going to be too dominant, but it turned out fine. The instruction to marinate the meat for a day or so caused me to ponder: wouldn’t this cause the wine to oxidize and lose flavor? We used a pretty decent bottle of wine on this recipe since we were “splurging” for Valentine’s day, but I have to wonder if after being open to the air all that time, plus the 4-hour cooking time, would anyone be able to tell the slightest difference between that and something for $4 from Trader Joe’s?

marinating-oxtails

The recipe instructed me to broil the meat before braising, to get it browned. I liked this method; you just have to keep a careful eye because it can quickly go from browned to blackened. Meanwhile, I cooked onions, carrot, celery and garlic with diced pancetta. I have to say, I thought the pancetta was gilding the lily a bit given how much fat was in the oxtails, and I don’t know that I would have missed it had I used olive oil instead. (The Zuni Café recipe actually called for a pig’s foot to add “body” to the braising liquid!! Call me a philistine, and I do love my pork, but I think there’s plenty enough bones and fat in oxtails without having to pork it up.) After the veg was cooked and the bottom of the pan started to get brown, I added some tomato paste and dried porcini mushrooms that had been soaked in warm water, and then a couple tbs brandy to deglaze the pan. The next step was to add the wine, mushroom liquid and some stock in stages and reduce it on the stove. Then the meat went in the pot, nestled tightly so it was nearly covered by the braising liquid, and into a 300-degree oven it went.

The recipe I used suggested a 4-hour braise, but after 3 1/2 hours we were getting pretty hungry so I pulled the meat out to check it. It looked plenty tender, so I removed the meat from the braise with tongs and let it cool a bit. I’m glad I decided to take it off the bone before serving, because it was so incredibly fatty that we would have ended up eating big chunks of fat had I not separated the meat and thrown a lot of the fat away. Despite my best efforts, a good deal of fat still made it back into the dish because it was so marbled in with the meat. I probably skimmed about 1 1/2 cups of liquid fat from the braising liquid as well. I knew this wasn’t going to be diet food, but I had no idea it would be THAT fatty. I am pretty inexperienced with beef though!

cooked-oxtails-in-pot2

The meat and braising liquid (more of a compote at this stage) formed a thick, chunky ragu that we served over polenta. Chopped fresh parsley was an absolute must- I don’t know about you, but I need to taste a little something fresh and green on my palate when eating a rich meat dish. I didn’t completely shred the meat; I tried to leave it in bigger chunks, but once it was separated from the bone it pretty much fell apart. I hadn’t intended it to be a “sauce” necessarily, but then I had never made it before so didn’t know quite what to expect. I added a small amount of tomato juice and diced tomatoes (from a can) to loosen the sauce a bit and add a bright acidic note to counterbalance the richness. I think if I made it again, I would add a can of tomatoes to the braise instead of just tomato paste. That was what the Zuni recipe called for. But I think in the recipe I used, the wine was supposed to be the star ingredient; perhaps more tomato would have thrown off the balance.

oxtails-close1

We definitely enjoyed this dish immensely, and I’m glad I got to try my hand at something new, but I’m not sure if it will become part of my repertoire. For one thing, the cost of the dish was just about as much as a fancy dinner for two in a restaurant! In addition to the $13 bottle of wine we dumped in there, the cheapest oxtails we found were at the Honeybee Market for $3.50/lb, and it called for 5 lbs. I would guesstimate that we ended up with less than a pound of actual meat at the end of the cooking process. I do kind of want to try Judy Rodgers’ recipe at some point for comparison’s sake though- she salts the meat a day ahead rather than marinating it, and her recipe calls for less wine (1 3/4 cup) and more tomatoes. I also wouldn’t mind trying an oxtail recipe from a different part of the world- my cousin mentioned she’d had a Chinese-style oxtail dish with star anise and it intrigued me!