Alsatian Oxtail Stew
I am developing yet another disturbing habit lately, and it concerns the purchasing of meat. I don’t know why, or what forces of nature compel me when I enter a butcher shop or walk by the fish and meat counters of the grocery store, but something in my spirit lights up. I abandon sense and reason, and by the time I arrive home I look like I’m courting entry to the Clan of the Cavebear. In the past three weeks, as a counter-intuitive supplement to my meal planning (yes, this is in addition to the meat I buy to use immediately), I bought an entire pork shoulder, a 4 pack of pork tenderloins, a family pack of chicken legs that were on sale, a bag of goat and a side of salmon. There are only two of us at home.
When I get home panting and keyed-up from yet another shopping spree that would please your average lioness or monstrous deep sea creature, I do what any rational person would do. I wait until my partner goes upstairs before unpacking the groceries, and then I hide the meat in the bottom of the cube freezer where I think he might not notice. I could potentially go on like this forever, spending and scheming, except that I’m at a bit of an impasse right now. The freezer is at capacity. There is simply nowhere else to go. It’s time….it’s time for me to actually COOK some of the meat that I buy.
I dug deep, guys. I remember the day that I saw this oxtail. It was June or July and as I walked past the butcher a special caught my eye. It was a big 5 lb bag for $7.99 (C’MON!! $7.99!!! It would be criminal for me NOT to buy it!) but I didn’t have time to slow cook oxtail that week so it went into the freezer where it was eventually forgotten. This was the meat that set me on my nefarious course, but it’s hard to look stern and point fingers at something as delicious as oxtail. I should just be saying my thanks.
If this is your first time buying oxtail (wheeee!) there is one key point that you need to keep in mind. You are buying the tail of a cow….usually. Why is this important? Well, a cow’s tail starts thick and full of muscle, and tapers down to a spindly little point. Those wee little skinny bits are great for adding depth of flavor to a stock or a soup, but it’s a heartbreaking waste of time to try to eat them in a stew. There simply isn’t enough meat to make it worth your while. The big, thick hunks which are taken from the bottom of the tail are really your wheel house when it comes to oxtail, so look for big, beefy, juicy looking flats.
One last quick note before I climb into the pot: I know that this looks like a long list of ingredients, but don’t be daunted. Most of these are staples that you already have at home, and the rest are readily available in your local market. If not, use an easy substitution. The rich, warm and hearty flavors of this simple French peasant dish are enough to elevate a simple Sunday stew into the realm of the sublime. It’s hardly worth resisting the siren song of oxtail just because you may have to buy allspice berries. Trust me. I only lie to you on Tuesdays.
Alsatian Oxtail Stew
Serves 6-8, but isn’t stew always better as a leftover?
- 1 medium yellow onion
- 6 cloves garlic
- small handful parsley
- 2 large sprigs of rosemary (or 1.5 tsp dried)
- 6 sprigs of thyme (or 2 tsp dried)
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 1/2 tsp allspice berries
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 250 g (~1/2 lb) pancetta *
- 1 kg (2.2 lb) oxtail, sliced 1.5 – 2 inches thick **
- 1/3 cup flour
- 2 hefty carrots (~400g/1 lb)
- 2 medium parsnips (~400g/1 lb)
- 2 boiling potatoes (~600g/1.25 lb)
- 1 cup white pearl onions
- 1 bottle red wine ***
- 4 cups beef stock
- water to cover
- salt and pepper to taste
* If you don’t have pancetta feel free to use thickly cut slab bacon instead.
**Not a big fan of oxtail? This stew would be just as delicious made with lamb, however you would want to be sure to buy lamb cubes on the bone because you need those bones and that delightful marrow to add thickness and rich flavor to the broth.
*** A robust and peppery red is ideal. A classic way to determine what wine to use when you’re cooking is to think of the region that the dish is from. For example, a Pinot Noir from Alsace would be perfect. However, you’re using it in stew. I feel strongly that there is no need to break the budget when 2 hours of heat and aromatics will play havoc on any delicacy of flavor that the wine once had. My choice was a dry but full bodied Argentian Malbec (on sale at the LCBO for $7.45…) and it was marvellous.
To add flavor to the stew without compromising the simplicity of meat, broth and root vegetables, a great trick is to tie the aromatics up in a pouch (like you would for bouquet garni). Lay a double layer of cheesecloth out in a square which is about 8×8″.
Coarsely chop the onion, peel and all, and smash the garlic cloves. There’s no need to be fussy and particular when you’re doing this, because the unsettling looking ‘hairs’ on the bottom of the onion are going to come out at the end. Chop the stems from the parsley (reserving the leaves to use as garnish at the end) and leave the thyme and rosemary sprigs whole. Lay everything in the center of your cheesecloth along with the bay leaves, allspice berries and coriander seeds.
Pinch the sides up tightly to make a little pouch and tie it tightly with kitchen twine or whatever you happen to have in the drawer (just not the waxed blue nylon string, because we all know what happened to Bridget Jones).
Dice the pancetta into bite sized pieces (about 1/4″). Set a large heavy bottomed skillet over medium heat and add the tablespoon of oil and the pancetta. Cook the pancetta until it has rendered out most of the fat and the pieces are crispy. Scoop the frizzled meat out and put this directly in the bottom the big soup pot that you’ll be making the stew in. As for all of that smoky and salty fat, and there will be quite a generous amount, pour off (and reserve) all but one and a half tablespoons. Set the oiled pan back on the stove and turn the heat up to medium high.
Season the oxtail with salt and pepper before tossing the pieces with the flour. Do you normally pat your meat dry before you season it? So do I, but this isn’t the time. The natural moisture (what a delightful euphemism…) will help the flour to stick and coat each piece. If your oxtail was positively running in a river of blood, well, that would be another thing. And I would find a new butcher.
Shake off any excess flour and reserve whatever is left in the bottom of the bowl. This will probably be about 1 tablespoon or so.
Now then, back to the fat. Brown the meat in batches, being sure to brown each side for 1-2 minutes or until it looks dark and richly caramelized in spots. Add more of the fat as needed while you continue browning the rest of the meat. The cooked meat can join your crispy pancetta in that soup pot.
I like to be busy, so as I brown the meat I also peel the vegetables and cut them into large chunks of approximately the same size, each just slightly smaller than the average piece of oxtail. Into the pot they go and the pouch o’ flavor can be nestled in as well.
Pour the remaining fat into the pan. There should still be a good tablespoon or so of fat and a mess of crusty browned and burnt looking bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Fear not, because that means crusty brown flavor. Sprinkle the reserved flour (which was shaken off the oxtail) evenly over top and whisk it in. Let the flour cook in the fat for no more than a minute or two, knowing that it WILL clump and that’s normal, and stir away just until the color starts to deepen. Slowly pour in the wine, whisking constantly and vigorously to scrape up all that deliciousness which is grimacing as it frees itself from the bottom of the pan.
Bring the wine up to temperature and let it come to a boil, whisking regularly but not constantly, until the sauce reduces by about 1/3. This will take about 5-7 minutes.
Pour the wine mixture into the pan and top it up with the beef stock. The liquid should be at the same level as the potatoes, although they will float up so don’t pay them too much mind. Depending on the size of your pot you might need to add another cup or two of water.
Peel the pearl onions and drop them in as well before setting the pot over low heat.
Let the oxtail simmer gently, uncovered, for at least 2 hours and up to 4. A long, slow, warm bath in luscious red wine is just what that oxtail needed after a long day in the fridge, and by the end it will be blissfully falling off the bone. Very little attention is needed at this point. You can give the stew a once through with your spoon every half hour or so to make sure that nothing is sticking to the bottom, but that’s really about it. If the stew starts to look too dry after about 1.5 hours (ie., the vegetables are lying dry on top and starting to shrivel) add a touch more water, give it a stir, and put a lid on the pot for the remaining cooking time.
So. Four hours. Huh. This is a good time to make a loaf of homemade bread, if I don’t say so myself. This hearty peasant boule was leavened with yeast and a rich, malty dark beer. The dough was spiked through with nutmeg and rosemary to complement the rich flavors of the stew. However, I’m not giving you the recipe because it just wasn’t quite right. I think I’ll try it again and up the ante on sweetness, maybe with a touch more sugar or a dollop of honey. Even though it wasn’t perfect, it was still a great vehicle to soak up all those juices.
When the meat is tender, take the pot off the stove and remove the pouch full of seasoning. Be sure to squeeze this packet out as well as you can to extract every last ounce of flavor before it hits the compost heap. Chill the stew for at least an hour, or until the fat rises to the top and congeals. Most stews taste better the day after they’re made and this one is no exception. If you have the time to do so, refrigerate the whole jin bang show overnight and then scrape it in the morrow.
It should also be noted that I am exceptionally and unabashedly lazy. If I had both presence of mind AND an attention towards industry, I would surely take over the world. However, I’m often rather lacking in both. Every time I scrape cold fat from a stew I think to myself, “This would be much easier if there weren’t potatoes and carrots getting in the way. Next time I should really refrigerate the broth separately and then put them back together during the reheat.” But then somehow, like a goldfish, by the time I’m making stew again I’m still thinking, “This would be much easier if there weren’t potatoes and carrots getting in the way….”
So note to self. Refrigerate the solids and the liquids separately and spare yourself some heartache.
Skim off as much of the fat as you can and discard it (sigh). Reheat the rest over gentle heat until it has warmed through before serving.
Garnish the stew with fresh parsley to brighten it up and serve with plenty of crusty bread on the side to mop up all those meaty, wine soaked juices.
I love to see big, beefy chunks of oxtail in my stew, and sadly I’m not nearly feminine enough to be shy about gnawing the meat off the bones (possibly grunting when I do so, and occasionally gesturing with my spoon when I want some more wine. But not every one can be as classy as I am). Other people might be a bit…ahem…squeamish.
Mike, for example, will do his best to soldier through but his misery is almost palpable. Because I love him, before I reheat the stew I’ll pick apart the meat and discard the sinew and bone. If you live with a Mike (you lucky thing!) you might want to consider doing this as well. He summed it up the best when he looked at me plaintively and said, “The sauce? I could slurp it up with a straw. I could eat that goddamned sauce over ICE CREAM, for god’s sake. But…I don’t do well with bones…” So hey, if it only takes five minutes of extra work to give him a meal he’ll enjoy, I’ll do it.
Alsatian oxtail stew is as easy as any to make but the flavors are so rich, deep and luxurious that the simple stew is elevated to the realm of the divine. Who knew that tails could taste so good?