A winter's tail
Last week I woke up missing part of a back molar. One emergency trip to the dentist later and I popped into the shops to stock up on tinned soup, rice pudding and bananas. It is still a mystery how, 15 minutes later, I emerged with a whole oxtail. (What do dentists put in their anesthetic?)
After the initial shock of wondering how on earth I was going to find a pot big enough to fit it in (I was still feeling pretty foggy) I realised that this would be a great chance to hone my (nonexistent) butchery skills and make a lovely, rich wintery stew to celebrate these last dark days before Spring is finally sprung. For inspiration I started reading through a stack of cookery books and checking out some links I had been sent. I then set off into the kitchen, armed with various tips and advice, to attempt my own oxtail alchemy.
The first small matter was cutting the oxtail into the more manageable red and white discs you see lying in the butcher's window. I sharpened my biggest knife, unfurled the tail on my largest chopping board and got stuck in. Oxtail is comprised of a long, jointed piece of meat that, conveniently, divides itself into portions. Find the joint and the knife will slide through like butter, miss the joint and you will be hopelessly sawing through bone. After a few initial misses I managed to divide the tail into 12 pieces with remarkably little fuss.
Next I wanted to think about the flavours in my ragu. I started with a base of roughly chopped carrots, celery and onion for sweetness and flavour. I wanted to add some red wine to flavour and enrich the sauce and, as I only had a large glass left in the bottle, I also added a good slug of brandy and some beef stock. Finally, to really bring out the oxtail's meaty flavour, and to add a lovely spice, I added a few simple aromatics. Star anise, which works wonderfully with beef and has a deep licorice flavour, lots of salt and pepper, and finally the juice and zest of an orange. Again, the orange compliments the beef and the citrus helps brighten the dish and cut through the richness.
Originally I wasn't sure if I wanted a stew, with the meat served on the bone and vegetable pieces in a stock, or a ragu with just shreds of meat and a very thick, glossy sauce. In the end I went for the latter but this could also be served unstrained with the veg and meat left on the bone. (I would still make it the day before to let the flavour develop and so you can skim off any fat) Or, if you prefer, strain off the original veg and shred the oxtail from the bones. Then soften more carrot, celery and onion in a clean pan, add the shredded meat and stock and reduce until the sauce is thickened slightly.
To serve I choose wet polenta (quick cook is fine and easy after two days cooking the oxtail), flavoured with a lovely smoked cheddar I had in the fridge and a big glug of decent olive oil. Any leftovers can be poured onto a tray, chilled and then cut up and grilled the next day. You could also serve the ragu with pasta, tagliatelle is good, dumplings or a big pile of fluffy mash.
Oxtail Ragu with Smoked Cheddar Polenta
1 Oxtail (1.5 kg) Jointed
2 Sticks Celery
Large Glass of Red Wine
Small Glass of Brandy (optional)
2 Star Anise
Strip of Zest and Juice of 1 Orange
Salt and Pepper
1 Box of Quick Cook Polenta
100g Smoked Cheddar or Parmesan
Knob of Butter/Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper
Chopped Parsley to Serve
Take your pieces of oxtail, dredge in seasoned flour then brown in batches in a casserole with some olive oil. Take pieces out and drain.
Roughly chop the carrots, onions and celery and soften in the same casserole. The add brandy and wine and bring to the boil.
Add the browned meat, star anise, orange zest and juice and beef stock to cover.
Simmer, on a low heat for two to three hours or until the meat is soft and starting to fall off the bone.
Put pieces of oxtail in a bowl and allow to cool. Shred meat from bones and remove all excess fat and gristle.
Meanwhile strain stock into a clean dish and discard all vegetable pieces and spices.
Place meat in stock and refrigerate overnight.
Skim fat from the top of the stock and then heat stock and oxtail together, uncovered until the sauce is thick and glossy and coats the meat.
Cook polenta as per instructions on the box and then stir in cheese, salt and pepper and a knob of butter or a good glug of olive oil.
Serve the ragu on top of the polenta, sprinkled with some chopped parsley and extra olive oil.
It's certainly not fast food, but it's well worth the effort for a glorious, sticky, silky stew that really warms those winter cockles.