One day I got stuck in a traffic jam next to a feedlot. For about an hour. Somewhere along I-5 in the San Joaquin valley. Was there a broken traffic light, or one of those four way stop signs where traffic just piles up? I don’t know… I just know the stench of that place. The bizarre sight of crowded cows standing on brown piles… of what? Not a blade of grass in sight, just a stinky mess.
I inquired around and learned that the steak on my plate came from such a place. I had no idea. I was born and raised in a city. I just did not know.
Now I know, now I buy grass finished beef from Joe Morris of San Juan Bautista, CA. It has totally changed purveying and cooking habits at my home. My husband and I got ourselves a freezer, ordered a split-half from Morris, and started a most fun journey in search of delicious ways to cooking obscure beef cuts. We added pastured lamb, pork and poultry to our adventures, and we are totally loving it. Really, so much fun!
The best of all? I’ve fallen head over heels in love with stews. Specially now, in the middle of winter –although I’ve been known to crave stew on a hot summer day. And particularly oxtail stew. Oxtails simmering for a long afternoon in red wine… nothing better in the way of beef stews… well… short ribs maybe… yes, short ribs are excellent too. They both get cooked the same way so, ok, you can like short ribs better, I love oxtail stew. This is how I do it.
First off, I’ve known for a long time that it is quite alright to be a messy cook when it comes to stews. Just be yourself in the kitchen, no need for exact anything, for organized this or that, nope. You just need time and patience. Preparing this post I discovered that furthermore, it is even alright to be a messy cook with a camera, if you don’t get a good picture, you will still get a good stew.
Ingredients for 6 to 8 servings:
- 2 oxtails
- 1medium onion
- 1 carrot
- a couple celery stalks
- 1 cup chopped tomato, canned or fresh
- 6 cloves of garlic
- 2 cups red wine
- 2 cups beef stock, or chicken stock. If you don’t have good stock, better use water.
- some herbs: parsley, thyme, bay leave…
24 to 48 hours ahead: Cut and salt the oxtails. Refrigerate.
- Try to cut even pieces, I mean, relatively even: oxtails are much wider at one end than at the other.
- Use 1/2 to 3/4 tsp. of salt per pound of meat
About 5 or 6 hours before you want to eat it, at a minimum. Sometimes it is better to cook it the day before you want to eat it.
- Preheat oven to 300°.
- Brown the oxtail chunks. Swirl a little oil into a heavy covered casserole or Dutch oven on a medium to medium high fire. Place them in the pan so it is not too crowded (if needed, do several batches) and turn them so all sides gain a medium brown color. Do not let them get dark brown or black! Take them out of the pan and set aside.
- While the oxtails are browning, wash, peel and roughly chop the carrot, celery, onion, and tomatoes. Wash herbs. Peel garlic and leave the cloves whole or roughly chop them.
- Deglaze the pan with the wine and reduce it by half. Pour wine into the pan and with a spatula help dissolve all caramelized bits from browning the meat and then boil off the wine until it is half its original volume.
- Return the oxtails to the pan and place the vegetables and herbs around the meat pieces.
- Pour stock into pan. Do not submerge the contents, keep the liquid lower than the top of the meat.
- Bring to a simmer on the stove top.
- Cover the pot with a layer of parchment paper and the pot’s lid.
- Place covered pot in preheated oven and wait. Wait for a long time: 3 to 4 hours.
The oxtail stew will be done when the meat is really tender. It is possible to overcook it so start start checking for doneness after 2 1/2 hours. Check again every 30 minutes. When the meat is tender but not collapsing take it out of the oven, it will continue cooking from residual heat. Incline the pot slightly so the liquid all pools to one end and after it has cooled down a bit skim off the fat that raises to the top. Taste the liquid and adjust the seasoning.
Serve this oxtail stew over rice, polenta, noodles or any favorite starch that will soak the juices nicely.
- For an excellent discussion on salting meat in advance see Judy Rodgers’ The Zuni Cafe Book. While she recommends a ratio of 3/4 tsp salt per pound of meat I actually find it a bit too much for some things so now I use a more flexible 1/2 to 3/4 tsp salt per pound of meat. For instance, if I am planning to use water instead of stock, I’ll salt the meat a little heavier.
- Oven temperature. You need whatever temperature will keep your pot stable at a low simmer. In my oven this turns out to be 275°. Start by having the oven at 300°, check after 10 minutes and adjust the temperature up or down as needed in 25 degrees increments.
- Browning the meat. If your meat releases a lot of water it won’t brown until it is all evaporated, so wait or increase the fire to medium high.
- You can brown the aromatic vegetables after browning the meat, before deglazing. I don’t find it worth it, but try it out and see what you think.
- Layered pot covering. Adding a layer of parchment paper between the pot lid and the stew keeps the contents of the pot moister, thus allowing to basically ignore the pot while in the oven. I didn’t use to do this and I would find myself adding water to the stew at regular intervals else it would dry out. Too much bother, use the paper layer.
- This is a nice dish to make in excess and keep for subsequent meals. Reheat the stew in a sauce pan on the stove for about 10 minutes. Add some water or stock if needed, taste and adjust seasonings.