Jamaican Oxtail Stew
Tell me if this sounds familiar: you had heard of a dish before but you never actually tried it. The first time that you ate it in a restaurant or at someone’s house, maybe you were thrilled or maybe not so much. But the good news is: at least you tried it so you knew what to expect the next time. And then at some point in the future you try said dish again somewhere else, either with salivation or trepidation, and what you get is….something completely different. The next time? Also completely different. Such is my tail (hahahaha! Sorry) of oxtail stew.
The first time that I had oxtail stew was at Caribana, an annual Caribbean festival that shuts down the streets of Toronto for a day (or more) in the summer time. It was awful. The stew, not the festival. And I mean, it was really truly and despicably foul. My theory is that the vendor ran out of oxtail and instead boiled the straps from his grandfather’s sandals, smothered them in oil and served it lukewarm as a final salute. Well, at least I knew: I did NOT like oxtail stew.
But, well, what can I say? Hope springs eternal. That, and I’m like a goldfish – it’s amazing that I can remember my own name for more than 10 minutes at a time. The next time that I had oxtail stew it was on Valentine’s Day several years ago, when a close friend of mine and her husband came to town for a conference. It was the kind of February day which is so cold that you can feel the snot freezing in your nose and each time you cough it comes out like hail. A plow went by and buried my car in a snowdrift that we barely managed to dig out of before coming dangerously close to losing a minimum of 12 toes between us. We went to the closest place we could find, a rather dingy looking Jamaican restaurant in a part of town that was less ‘hip clubs’ and more ‘hijacked vehicles’. However, let me just say: the food? Oh god, the food. Hot diggity, my faith in oxtail was renewed. The stew had a rich, dark gravy. It was sweet and smoky, fiery hot. I was in love.
Since that point, I’ve had oxtail stew that was mild and stew that took a strip out of my stomach lining. It’s been rich and dark or light and golden. Big chunks of vegetables, no vegetables, served on rice, served on a tin plate with crackers…what I’ve realized is that oxtail stew, like most traditional favorites, varies enormously on both a regional and home-cook basis. Consider this a good thing, however, because if anyone criticizes your version of oxtail, you can just sniff disdainfully and mutter something prefaced by ‘Yo Mama’. It doesn’t matter what. Confuse the bastards enough and they’ll leave you alone for a while.
Oh, and the oxtail? Don’t be afraid of it…although that’s easier to say after it’s cut up into chunks than when you’re staring down a bony, skinned, broken animal tail. I understand. Being the tail, there is a lot of cartilage and connective tissue. The meat is string, tough, and surprisingly expensive considering how little you manage to pry from the bones. But the FLAVOR! Phenomenal. Also, with long slow cooking to break down all of the connective tissue in the meat, the texture becomes meltingly soft and almost buttery – very similar to short ribs, and they aren’t scary, are they? And you should know that throughout this post I have managed to stop myself from making horrible jokes that included the words ‘Stewbeans-Oxley’, ‘re-tail-iation’ and ‘ass-tounding’. You’re welcome. I’ll save my good material for later.
Jamaican Oxtail Stew
- 2.5 lb oxtail *
- 2 tbsp cornstarch
- 4 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 lg onion
- 6 cloves garlic
- 2 – 3 scotch bonnet peppers **
- 2 large, ripe tomatoes
- 2 fat carrots
- 2 big white potatoes
- 3 stalks of celery
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tbsp whole allspice berries
- 1/4 cup Blackstrap molasses
- 1.5 tbsp dried thyme
- 4 – 5 cups beef stock
- 1 can (19 oz) lima beans ***
* I feel that it’s prudent for me to doubt my abilities of bone-crushing cleaver wielding. Why not leave these to the experts? Your butcher will cut the oxtail up into chunks, each one about 1.5 – 2 inches big, including the base of the tail where the piece is wider and the tail has to be sliced vertically in half as well. Oh, and you get to see The Butchering Electric Bone Saw in action, which totally delights me. Creepy, yes, but oddly compelling….
** How many scotch bonnets you use will depend on how much heat you can stomach. Goldilocks would probably be happy with 2 peppers, as the heat will be present but not unbearable. I like things a bit spicier, so left to my own devices I’d use three…but that’s just me.
*** What does a name matter, anyway? In different regions lima beans are referred to as Madagascar beans, butter beans, and civit beans. Note: it’s all the same bean. If you can’t find lima, fava beans are an awfully good substitute.
Coat the oxtail pieces with cornstarch. An easy way to do this is just to put the oxtail into a big freezer bag, sprinkle on half of the cornstarch and give it a shake to move the pieces around, sprinkle on the rest and shake again.
In a large Dutch oven or very heavy bottomed pot, heat up 1 tbsp of the vegetable oil over high heat. Brown the oxtail in batches, adding a second tablespoon of oil about halfway through. It only takes a few minutes to brown each batch of meat because you won’t be cooking it through, just getting some nice caramelization on the outside of each piece. Remove the meat from the heat as it cooks and just place it off to the side. The Dutch oven (or pot) will have some time to cool down, off the heat, as the vegetables and aromatics get prepared.
Finely chop the onion and mince the garlic and Scotch bonnet peppers.
Slice the celery into 1/4 inch slices, chop the carrots slightly larger (about 1/3 – 1/2 inch) and cube the potatoes fairly large so that they don’t disintegrate with the long cooking time.
Since we’re in the chopping mood, give the tomatoes a 1/4 inch dice as well.
Add the remaining 2 tbsp of oil to the Dutch oven and warm it over medium low heat. Add the onions, garlic and pepper, and let them sweat down for 5-10 minutes until the onions are translucent and softened.
Add the meat and vegetables to the pot along with the thyme, bay leaf, allspice berries and molasses.
Add about 4 cups of beef stock to the mixture – just enough to cover the other ingredients, but not so much that they’re swimming.
Leave the pot uncovered and let this simmer away on medium low heat for two and a half to three hours. The slow, gentle heat will work some magic on the tough oxtail meat, leaving it meltingly tender and falling off the bone.
Check on things from time to time to give it a quick stir (it’s okay to satisfy those Nosy Nelly tendencies) and see how things are progressing. If you notice that a lot of the liquid has reduced after only an hour and a half, turn the heat down slightly and put a tight fitting lid on to the pot. Let it continue to simmer slowly over the low heat. After all, good things take time.
After a few hours, pierce a chunk of meat to check for tenderness. It should be moist, juicy, and easy to pull away from the bone. At this point, take the pot off the heat and let it cool enough to go into the fridge over night. Before it does, however, fish out all of the oxtail chunks and refrigerate these (without liquid) in a separate bowl. I…uh….well, sometimes I can be forgetful. It’s fine to leave the oxtail in there, it’s just inconvenient to go fishing through cold and gelatinous stew the next day trying to get them all out.
Now then, the fat will rise to the top as it cools, forming a thick congealed layer of solid beige grease. Using a soup spoon to scoop this all off is not exactly glamorous, but look on the bright side – at least you won’t be eating it, right? Get rid of as much of the fat as you can.
Separate the meat from the oxtail bones and add it on top of the cold (but now fat-skimmed!) stew. Discard the bones and any pieces of suspicious looking gristle as you go.
Drain the can of beans, rinse them under cold water to remove any residual starch, and add them to the pot. Give everything a nice stir and put it on medium low heat for 15-20 minutes until it’s warmed through.
Now that there’s no less pesky fat to worry about and everything is cooked through, season to taste with salt and pepper before serving.
The oxtail stew is thick and rich, perfect for eating on it’s own with a piece of crusty bread to sop up all of the flavorful juices. However, I can’t help being a purist from time to time – it’s all about the Jamaican rice and peas.
A bit of freshly diced tomato and some thinly sliced green onions are a simple, acidic and fresh garnish to cut through the richness of the stew.
Just another way to put meat on your bones – go for the tail.