I’m like Pee Wee Herman in the burning pet store when it comes to oxtail. You know the scene in the old Pee Wee’s Big Adventure movie when he goes in to save all the critters but winces and gags every time he walks past the snakes, knowing his conscience will eventually force him to rescue them too, even though the idea repulses him? Yup, that’s me. I knew it would happen at some point, me and a package of oxtail. The idea of making oxtail soup was intriguing, but after having to squish the guts from helix snails and rip the skins and eyeballs off fresh squids in various kitchens my willingness to experiment with foods that are foreign to me has diminished over the years. I mean it’s an ox tail…skinned and cut into rounds; circles that very apparently came from near the rear end of an enormous, probably very smelly, mammalian beast.
The point of the medieval feast my boys and I planned was to eat and cook in the manner of people of days gone by, of cultures vastly different from our own. I had to face my fear so, rather than just pointing and squinting my eyes at the bulging packages of oxtail in the meat department of our local grocery store, I stopped and had my boys decide on which styrofoam plastic wrapped chunks of “meat” we should buy for one of our fourth course dishes.
The idea of doing that again, now that I am on the other side of making what was actually a tasty pot of stew with the “giant cow tail” as we started calling it, is almost enough to turn me vegan. I wasn’t expecting it to be so fatty. And when you think of the layer of fat that is on each round of meat coated cartilage that makes up what is in a package of oxtail it isn’t a pleasant thought. Not bony and thin like a cow tail, not skinny and wiry like a pig tail, (Like I’d eat one of those!) but a fat… ox‘s… tail.
The recipe came from the Gode Cookery Page. I made changes to it, of course, because I can’t leave well enough alone. Actually, it was in an attempt to save money. The recipe called for sherry and brandy. I was purchasing Marsala for another of the medieval dishes so used it in place of the sherry and added Guiness which was already in the pantry. We also threw in red pearl onions because they just seemed authentic.
In addition to those changes, I substituted ham and fat back in place of the prosciutto. I was on a late night run to my local store for the ingredients and didn’t have time to look all over town for the prosciutto, which isn’t common in the mountainous area in which I live. It worked just fine. I could have used bacon but I didn’t think the smoky flavor and aroma would have been appropriate to the dish and time period we were focusing on.
I also changed the cooking method with the intention of maximizing the flavor in the tail meat.
1 large onion, diced
2 cups leeks, cleaned and sliced
1 1/2 c. mini carrots sliced into rounds
1 c. peeled and trimmed red pearl onions
1 1/2 lb. oxtail pieces
2 oz. ham
2 oz. pork fat back
1/2 c. marsala wine
1/2 c. Guinness
4 bay leaves
1/2 tsp. dried thyme (no fresh this time of year and none available in the store)
Sprig of fresh Italian parsley
2 minced cloves of garlic
Pinch of ground cloves
Pinch of red pepper flakes
2 T extra virgin olive oil
3 c. water
Heat oil in a braising pan over high heat. Sear oxtail pieces until fat renders and edges are browned.
Remove and set aside. Add prosciutto, or in this case, ham and fat back. Cook until the fat is rendered from the pieces.
Add the garlic. Sweat to develop flavor and then add the onions and leeks. Saute until translucent.
Add the carrots.
Reduce heat and cook the vegetables in the fat until the onions begin to caramelize. Deglaze the pan with the marsala and Guinness, scraping bottom to release browned bits into the liquid.
Add the water, herbs, and spices and return the tail meat to the pot. Bring to a simmer. Cover and braise in the liquid for two hours.
It was good with fresh, buttered hunks of bread.
8 to 10 servings.