Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.


Ten pots until Spring #1: Oxtail stew, in the manner of the roman butchers.

I've been tired and busy and jaded at the end of a long cold winter and it's been a week since my last post.

But never mind because here we sit, perched precariously on the edge of Spring, teetering gently and expecting to drop headlong into a half-remembered world of blazing sunshine in blue skies and endless fields of daisies in which new lambs gambol and skip.

But not yet. Not before we take our leave from Winter with one last hearty meal: our old favourite, the oxtail stew.

(Why 'oxtail'? Why not 'beeftail'? Apparently the name goes back to the days when oxen were bred for transport first and eating second; rather than for eating only. Oxen subsequently became cattle, the English language’s only mass noun, with the females known as heifers prior to calving and thenceforth as cows; and the males as bullocks and then bulls, unless they become steers in which case ... . Ah, forget it. This is about food, not language, although I must say it is interesting to note that cattle derives from the Latin ‘caput’ (‘head’), and is closely related to ‘capital’ and ‘chattel’.)

Oxtail stew.

This is adapted from an old and fairly complex recipe - Coda alla Vaccinara - (of which there were many variations) for the cooking of the ox's tail after the animal had outlived its usefulness as a beast of burden in the Rome of old. No wonder the stew was cooked for a very long time. Today you are purchasing the tail of a far younger beast, so such extensive cooking time is not required; however, as with most dishes of this type, the flavour will probably improve in complexity if the dish is eaten the day after cooking.

Chop six celery stalks into small pieces by cutting first several times along the grain and then across. Chop an onion and a carrot into pieces about the same size as the celery. Score two cloves of garlic. Chop some parsley into at least half a cupful. (Parsley chopping hint: place parsley in a tumbler and snip with scissors.) Chop four slices of prosciutto into tiny squares.

Flour about a kilogram of oxtail segments and brown them in oil in a heavy pot. When browned, turn down heat and add chopped vegetables, parsley and prosciutto. Stir lazily for five minutes or so.

Add a tablespoonful of tomato paste, one jar of passata and half a cup of marsala, or a whole cup of red wine. (Donaldo Soviero in La Vera Cucina Italiana, his volume of sometimes very complex old Italian recipes uses marsala in a particularly rich and somewhat sweet version of the dish. Early Roman chefs often added bitter chocolate or dried fruits towards the end of cooking. I'm getting the idea that old ox tail was not an overly sweet meat.)

Season with salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper. Throw in a bay leaf and three or four cloves. Cover with water and bring to boil.

Simmer for an hour or two. Chill and reheat. Serve on garlic mash and shower the lot with more parsley. That's a lot of parsley - it balances the sweetness of the dish.

Drink: Mt Burrumboot Heathcote Merlot. The winemaker notes: 'Inky, dark, voluptuous and velvety are the words that spring to mind here. If you thought Merlot was a lightweight, think again. There is a reason why the great wines of St Emilion and Bordeaux - the Petrus and Cheval Blancs - are mainly based on this variety. And as with all great Merlots, this wine will age and age - lucky collectors will see the results of cellaring this beauty. Even jaded wine writers love this one.'

And jaded bloggers looking forward to Spring. Bring it on!


Lucy said...

Looking forward to it so much.

breadchick said...

A very nice way to leave your winter.

Sarcasta-Mom said...

SOunds delicious! So glad I found your blog. Can't wait to try the recipe myself :)

Truffle said...

I have never attempted this but it sounds so delightful that I'm keen to do so very soon. Lovely recipe.

kitchen hand said...

Thank you, Lucy, Breadchick and Truffle; and welcome, Sarcasta-Mom.