Saturday, 27 February 2010

The oxtail, the oxtail

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I am in a slight state of hysteria after performing what I can only call an oxtail triumph. (There is no call for false modesty on such a banner day.)

I decided today was the day for the oxtails. As usual, I searched through my recipe books and the online cookery sites for the perfect recipe. As usual, I could not find quite what I wanted (although I was rather tempted by the idea of basil dumplings). As usual, I ended up making it up as I went along.

There appear to be as many oxtail recipes as there are cows. Interestingly, it is a big thing in Jamaica and China, which I would not have expected at all. I had always thought it confined to these rainy British islands, and hardly even here any more. It is one of the great dishes of my childhood, but now quite out of fashion. I was also quite surprised that Escoffier gives a recipe for it. I would have thought it far too humble for his refined sensibilities. So those were some cheap assumptions shattered.

The common thread appears to be a good long browning of the meat to start the thing, although then everyone degenerates into arguments over whether to use red wine or Guinness, to cook in the oven or on top of the stove, and how best to thicken the sauce. There are also differences over which vegetables are best.

My top priorities were flavour (obviously), but, above all, texture (I wanted it soft and melting and sticky).

Here is what I did:

First, I caught my oxtails. (Sorry; I can never resist my little Mrs Beeton joke.) I dredged them in flour and cooked them in a big frying pan with olive oil, until they were nice and brown all over. Sadly I had no chicken or beef stock, which would have been ideal, so instead I brought to the boil a big heavy pot of water, with some Marigold bouillon added for flavour. Into this I put nice chunks of carrot, celery and red onion. Once it was at a good simmer, I added the oxtails.

Then I went about my day, letting the thing cook and cook and cook. I kept it at 2 on my stove, which produced a perfect steady simmer. As with all stews, the heat must be kept low, or the meat will toughen. All the recipes say three hours, but I let it go for seven. This might seem theatrically excessive, but I found it achieved two vital things: it magically turned the stew beautifully thick and unctuous, and it brought utter tenderness to the oxtail.

In the last hour, I put in some thickly chopped leeks, some white wine for flavour, and two tablespoons of tomato passata. This last was not because I wanted any taste of tomato, but because it softens and very slightly sweetens the stew, which can veer towards the bitter with all that red meat. And then, I can hardly bear to write it, I added my excessively naughty secret ingredient: a tablespoon of Bisto granules. I know. Please do not faint away in horror. I hardly believe I have even admitted that in public. But it performed the excellent function of thickening and darkening, and I am not going to apologise for that.

If I were to be a perfectionist, next time I might remove all the ingredients with a slotted spoon, turn up the heat, and reduce the sauce so that it is thick enough to stand a spoon in, but today I could not wait another moment. A scattering of Maldon Salt and a je ne sais quoi of chopped parsley and the thing was done. It was so delicious I exclaimed out loud. It was tender and comforting and reminiscent of another age. I cannot recommend it more for a cold winter's day.

Next time, I might even go mad and try to do the dumplings.

Sadly, I have no photograph, because I can't find my camera, but I must admit it is not exactly a thing of beauty anyway. I leave it to your vivid imaginations.

Instead, the picture of the day is a cautionary tale from the front row of the Burberry show in New York. Whoever said fashion was not fun?

Front row of Burberry show

If ever there was a bunch of women in need of a good oxtail stew, this is it. And, it's the coldest winter in twenty years, should someone not tell them it's all right to put on a pair of tights? Who decided bare legs were a good idea in February? I want to wrap them in blankets and feed them up. I'm not at all certain that the price of fame is worth paying if it involves uncomfortable shoes and goosebump thighs, but then I'm a little old-fashioned like that.


  1. Oh this brings back such lovely memories of my grandmother who made oxtails for us when I would stay with her. She would serve it with mashed potatoes and freshly podded peas as I lay in front of a roaring fire. Wrapped in blankets with my hair still damp from her washing and rinsing it with a diluted beer concoction which she was adamant was good for getting a good shine. xxx

  2. You're right, the Burberry posse do look like they need warming up a bit - but I'm vegetarian so I'd like to suggest a big bowl of minestrone.

  3. So Lovely: what a marvellous word picture of your grandmother. She sounds like a dream.

    That's not my age: did think as I was writing that recipe of the poor vegetarians. I am such a carnivore that I sometimes forget the non-meat-eaters among us. Thank you for sticking with it.


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