While dining in Rio de Janeiro at Giuseppe Grill, a well known New York Times recommended restaurant, Kevin asked if he should try the oxtails which are the specialty of the house. He had never had them and always likes to try new dishes. I described them in the classic braised preparation and he ordered. But what arrived was nothing like what I had described, but rather what appeared to be more like German sauerbraten; large but thin slices of what seemed to be pickled then roasted beef.
Although we confirmed with the waiter it was the dish he had ordered, we were never quite certain there wasn't a language barrier. So when at the meat market this week I saw oxtails, I selected them for our weekend dinner so that I could show him what I consider the classic preparation.
Most people I know haven't tried (or perhaps heard of) braised oxtail, which is really quite a shame as they have a wonderful, rich beef flavor even better than braised beef short ribs but with less meat. Oxtails come from the tail of beef cattle (in earlier times it referred only to the tail of an ox or steer, a castrated male.) The segments are vertebrae so they have lots of iron-rich marrow, contain well exercised muscle, and are marbled with fat. You don't often see them in your meat case and some say that is because they are not popular. I'm not convinced, since each steer has only one tail, that the butcher isn't keeping this flavorful meat for himself.
In addition to the classic braised oxtails, there is also the popular oxtail soup with barley. Oxtail stew is also popular, and somewhat similar to my braised version. I typically don't make oxtail into stew with vegetables, as the oxtails are fatty and I prefer to be able to remove the meat, strain off the fat and make a gravy while serving separate vegetables that have not been cooked in the fatty broth. There is also a similar stew recipe that's popular in the Caribbean and you can view the Caribbean Pot food blog for her Stewed Oxtail with Butter Beans recipe which I'm still wanting to try. Oxtails are also used in a Vietnamese noodle soup and there is a Chinese version of braised oxtails served with rice. The preparation is similar to my braised oxtails but with flavors of Asia. Coda alla Vaccinara is a Roman version of oxtail stew usually prepared with a sweet-and-sour taste often with raisins and candied fruit in addition to celery, garlic, prosciutto, pancetta and other vegetables. If you're in the mood for something a bit different, give it a try.
My Aunt Rose used to tell us that the 'sweetest meat is closest to the bone'. If you follow this line of thinking, then oxtails certainly are some of the sweetest meat you'll find. But the smaller pieces do require picking up with fingers to get all of the meat from between the bones, so this is a meal you probably won't want to serve to guests.
I typically serve oxtails with mashed potatoes, as it makes a wonderful gravy, along with a green vegetable.
3 pounds of oxtail cut into approx. 2-inch pieces
2 tbsp. flour
2 tbsp. oil
1 large yellow/Spanish onions, roughly chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1/2 c. chopped celery
3 cloves garlice, chopped
1/2 bottle red wine
2 cups chicken broth or water
7 ounces, or about 1 cup, crushed tomatoes
3 bay leaves
3 whole cloves
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Preheat oven to 350F degrees. Rinse and dry the oxtail pieces. Dredge lightly in flour. Heat oil over medium-high heat in a Dutch oven and brown oxtail pieces 3-4 at a time, not crowding the pan. Remove meat and wipe up any burned flour using tongs and a paper towel. Increase heat to high and add a little more oil if needed. Saute the onion for 3-4 minutes stirring frequently. Add carrots and celery, and sprinkle with salt and pepper, then cook stirring frequently for another 5 minutes or until beginning to brown . Deglaze pan with red wine and cook until reduced by about half. Add tomatoes, chicken broth, bay leaves and cloves and return meat to pan. Liquid should be sufficient to cover most if not all of the oxtail pieces. If not, add additional water. Cover and place the pot in oven and cook until very tender, about 3-4 hours. Check periodically and additional water if needed to keep meat nearly covered.
Remove Dutch oven to stove top and move oxtails onto a platter and cover to keep warm. Strain the pan juices into a bowl, using a spoon or spatula to squeeze broth from vegetables. Discard crushed vegetables. Pour the strained broth (in batches) into a gravy strainer to separate the fat. Return the broth to a sauce pan and discard the fat. Heat the broth until it is just beginning to boil. If it is thick enough to act as a gravy for the oxtails, add the meat to reheat. If not, make a slurry (stir together a tablespoon of cornstarch and 3 tablespoons of water) and whisk into the hot broth to thicken.
Remove the oxtails from the gravy and garnish on plates or platter. Serve with mashed potatoes and the thickened gravy.