My Ode to the Oxtail
Here is a hint for those who like to cook - use oxtail. Yes, it looks like a giant denuded penis and yes, it is actually the tail which is a little gross. But, do you need a rich brown stock? A meaty soup base? A rich and hearty braise? Then skip your boutique grocer's tail at $6.99 per pound and go directly to the local Asian supermarket and spend $2.59 and buy three times as much.
Oxtail is just as it sounds - tail. There was time when it actually meant old male cow tail, which would be the best for braising and stewing due to its age and muscle tone, but now it generally means cow tail young or old. And of course, all tail is not equal. Even young oxtail can give you a leg up though. Here is why: Oxtail is a very well-used muscle for a cow, equalling flavor, and it is full of nasty stuff like collagen that carries flavor and creates unctuous body. When you braise oxtail you are at the same time creating a super stock with the liquid. You get all the goody out of the bones and all of the meaty flavor that does not exist when making a traditional stock based only on bones. Braising oxtail is a two-fer. A traditionally made stock (simmering bones in aromatic liquid) still has its place in the kitchen. It can create discreet background flavors when braising, soups of course can be very good, it is a good wetting agent, etc. Chicken stock is extremely versatile, but those store-bought pre-roasted chickens are so full of sodium preservatives and MSG that your leftover stock may taste like a chicken McNugget, and vegetable stock is criminally underrated for its versatility and clarity of flavor. But in restaurant life we have another secret weapon: the fond. The fond is a flavor bomb. It is very powerful and not really needing any further reduction. It is Slayer to your Moby. This is where the dense flavor and high carmelization potential of oxtail really shines. I say braise your tail in the traditional way, pick the meat out and reserve it with some of the liquid for moistness and use as needed, then reduce the strained liquid with all the leftover bones and reduce it further until you have a thermonuclear potion of erotic bovinsim. Oxtail is like a giant finger, there is a joint or knuckle every couple of inches. Cut cleanly through this joint, get rid of any extra fat and really fully brown every inch of surface area without dessicating the meat. Remove the tail, brown your onion, then add and carrot, celery or other aromatic vegetables you want. If you are super classy you may even char some tomato and put it in. For Italianate braises some tomato is key, but if you use dollar tomato paste it will have absolutely no brightness or lift. One of the few splurges that I advocate is buying the good canned San Marzano tomatoes if you do have access to seasonal ones. A ghetto trick is to use that dollar tomato paste but half and seed several romas to try to get some tomato acid in there. And always slip in an anchovy when no one is looking. Then add you thyme, bay, peppercorns, whole head garlic, etc. If you making oxtail soup, use a lot of liquid, otherwise use as little as possible.
Choose your vessel size carefully. Excess liquid is dilute flavor so keep it tight and packed. Be generous with the wine and garlic. Slow is good, so heat slowly and cool down slowly. You can use store bought stock at this point to top up the liquid. Because oxtail is all about rich flavor I advocate just barely covering it with liquid to start and then let it evaporate and reduce. This means that you will need to flip your tail, but you will create extra flavor on the exposed portion that is resubmerged. Using a parchment sheet is the classic way to allow evaporation and retain heat. When your braise has finished the key step is to pick the meat out carefully, and this job sucks. There are fine bits of cartilage hidden in their so use your fingers' tactile abilities to find them. Missing these bits has caused innumerable bad days for young cooks rushing to get through oxtails before service only have a plate come back to the chef with a piece of bone pushed to the side. Once the meat is cleaned keep it moist, never let it dry out, and in fact it should only be cooled in its liquid - never pull hot meat out of a braise to cool unless you want your love to produce chewy cardboard. Returning to the earlier stock versus fond discussion, a fond is made not by simmering bones in water but by reducing bones and meat with minimal liquid repeatedly to a brown fond, and then rewetting it over and over with different liquids (wine, stock, water, tears, etc.). Heat control and attention is key. This braising of tail and reusing bones even further is sort of in between, like a cheater fond. Carefully reduce and clean up your liquid with careful skimming. You will know when it is done. Due to the high reduction I do not salt the braise until the meat is picked and reserved, otherwise heavy salting can produce an inedible disaster with high reduction. It also impedes browning by liberating moisture from the meat. I'll stop here for now with kitchen tips - more to come soon. My personal fave oxtail dish I ever made was oxtail and foie gras raviolo with the gently spiced reduction over the top (be sure to make your own pasta). Piemontese-style goodness! Oh yeah, and wine pairings are pretty endless. Good reds from all over, Rhone, Nebbiolo to Aglianico. Keep it rich though. A weedy Cab Franc from the Loire, though a personal fave may not match in body (unless it is a warm vintage). Spain is good to, but maybe not too over the top, like Priorat. Try a Ribera del Duero that has some acid. Let the food shine but let the wine speak from it.