So listen…remember that time I taught you how to cook the perfect steak? Yeah, that WAS very nice of me. Well guess what? I’M FEELING NICE AGAIN, PLEBES. So today, I’m going to teach you how to make an oxtail stew that is better than pretty much anything else you could ever put in your mouth, including (and especially, really) me! So hop on into my culinary windowless van and let’s get started.
First, you’re going to need a lot of shit. Here’s a picture of all of it, plus a list of ingredients, plus some explanations. However, before all that, a forward: I am going to assume you know how to cut stuff, and I assume you’ll be OK if I don’t always give you exact measurements. Because I’m not going to do that. I don’t really measure things anymore. But we’ll get through this with pictures. I promise.
So here’s what we’re rolling with:
–Oxtail – You’re going to want to get this from a good butcher. You CAN get it at most grocery stores, though you might have to truck to a local independent market to find it. The thing is this: if you don’t go to the butcher, you’re going to get prison raped on the price. It will be pre-butchered and cost you anywhere from $5.99/lb to $9.99/lb depending on how much of a pirate your local grocer is. But if you go to the butcher and buy it whole, it’ll be cheaper. I bought these from Marconda’s at the Grove Farmer’s market, and because I bought it frozen and whole, I got it for $4.99/lb. That’s awesome (it was regularly $7.99). In a little bit I’ll explain how to butcher it – it’s CRAZY easy. Anyway, for this stew, I bought two whole oxtails. but you only need one to feed you and a couple other people and still have some leftovers.
–Carrots – Any kind will do. If you use baby carrots, about half a bag will be fine. If you get regular carrots, make sure you peel them (don’t be a fucking idiot) and cut them into bite-sized chunks. Four medium-sized carrots should suffice. If you like more carrots, use more. If you don’t like them as much, use fewer. See how simple this is?
–Celery – Buy a stalk whole and use about half of it. Again, cut them into bite-sized pieces.
–Onion – So ideally here, I use shallots. They have a much more concentrated flavor that really suits stews, and they’re usually of such perfect size that you don’t have to chop them up. But if you can’t get shallots already peeled, don’t fucking bother. It’s a nightmare. Otherwise, just get a large white onion and cut 3/4 of it up into (get ready for it!) bite-sized chunks. If you want to get fancy, you can get little onions like I did. I like them. They’re fun.
–Potatoes – Again, some options here. Regular potatoes work great – wash them, but leave the skins on. Or don’t, I don’t care. Bite-sized chunkify two large potatoes for this stew. Or, like me, buy the bags of little tiny potatoes and you don’t have to cut them. They’re more expensive but I like the flavor. Oh, you’d like to use sweet potatoes? Kill yourself. Sweet potatoes are fucking awful, especially in stew. What’s wrong with you?
–Beef stock – One container; they’re all about the same size. However, I recommend buying two – having extra is far preferable to not having enough. IMPORTANT: beef stock and beef broth are NOT the same thing. Do not use beef broth. I can’t stress this enough. You might have to hunt for stock too, but it’s essential and should not be substituted.
–Crushed tomatoes – Most things on this list you’re going to want to buy as fresh as you can. But get the canned stuff here. Crushing tomatoes into this consistency is a huge pain in the ass. Also, watch out, as some of them are flavored (lightly, but still) with basil. It’s not the end of the world if you get those, like I did, because I’m a stupid, but in my opinion basil doesn’t go great in this stew. Anyway, a 28 oz can (or thereabouts) is what you need.
–Red wine – A cheap-ass bottle of merlot or cabernet or Malbec will work perfectly. Some people use a stout beer, like Guinness, instead of wine. This is a wonderful twist on the norm and I encourage it wholly. Do not use white wine. Do not.
–Garlic – Four cloves, crushed. If you like more garlic…I mean, you should fucking know what I was going to say by now.
–Rosemary, Thyme, Savory – I cannot stress this enough: BUY THESE FRESH. DO NOT USE THE DRIED STUFF. If you MUST use the dried stuff because you didn’t listen to me, you will not “ruin” your stew, but you’re dumb as hell and it won’t be nearly as good. Fresh herbs are incredible. Don’t fuck around here.
–Bay leaves, Parsley – These you WANT dried.
–Tabasco – Totally optional. I think a little kick for the stew is necessary. Your mileage may vary.
–Sea salt – Another thing I cannot stress enough: DO NOT USE REGULAR TABLE SALT. Get yourself some sea salt in a grinder. Just trust me on this.
–Black pepper – Again, get yourself a pepper grinder and some whole peppercorns. You’re an adult, for God’s sake.
–Olive oil – Actually not in the picture because I forgot it. No one’s perfect.
–A Stockpot – Mine is pretty large. You won’t need one as large. But you will need one. A lot of stuff is going in here.
OK, so are we good here? Now all of this cost me about $80. If you use about half and don’t live in LA, you’ll be spending WELL under $40 for everything and it’ll probably feed four people four times. That ain’t bad economics.
Good, then. Cut up all your vegetables before you do anything else. Very important. Do not skip this step or wait until you’re cooking.
First of all, you want to get yourself a good boning (heh) knife. Do NOT use a good or even a decent knife of any kind to cut oxtail, because cutting it will fuck them RIGHT up. Boning knives are special, and very good ones are cheap. Here’s mine:
I bought this knife for $18 on Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Dexter-Russell-S131F-6PCP-Boning-Sani-Safe-Series/dp/B0001MRYDI/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1391913642&sr=8-3&keywords=boning+knife). Even THAT is a little expensive. You can get a great one at a kitchen specialty store for $10, and it is INVALUABLE in all kinds of cooking.
OK, so here’s what a whole oxtail looks like. This is what you want:
Oh, that’s nice. Now, before you do ANYTHING else, pat the oxtail down with a paper towel. Get as much moisture off the surface as you can. Why? We go back to our lesson on steaks: dry, raw meat crusts much, much better that wet meat. And since this meat crusting is paramount to developing flavor in your stew, you want a dry piece of oxtail.
Now, you can see very nicely in the above picture (amongst many other talents, I’m a legendary photographer and it was not at all a happy accident that this came out so clearly) that there are knuckles (joints) throughout the tail. This is nature doing the work for you. Take your boning knife and cut through every knuckle. Usually hitting right in the middle works and you just have to saw a little to break through. If you get stopped, move the knife just slightly to the right or left, and you’ll find the path through. It sounds daunting but it’s very, very easy. Once you’ve done that, trim off the excess fat on the largest piece, but be sure to leave a ring of fat all around the outside. You’ll have sections of oxtail that look like this:
Now, again, I used two oxtail here, so you won’t have that much. But it’ll look like that. Now, salt and pepper each section liberally, on ALL sides. And once you’ve done that…PREP IS OVER YAY!
SEAR THAT MEAT
Put your stockpot on the stove and turn the heat it to high. Take a couple of minutes, maybe 5, and let it get REALLY hot. Once it is, put in enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the stockpot. Also throw in two sprigs each of the rosemary, thyme and savory. If the springs aren’t roughly the same size, add a little more of the smaller ones.
Now, drop your meat in. I recommend putting it fat-side down first and letting that get crisp, then searing each of the flat sides. It’s OK to let the meat cook for 2-3 minutes per side.
You REALLY want a char, and here’s why: all those pieces of fat and meat and seasoning that stick to the bottom of the stockpot are going to provide 75% of the flavor for your stew. So let them char. Don’t let them BURN. But get kind of close to that. Once you’re done, put the oxtail on a plate and set it aside. It should look like this by now:
STEW THAT SHIT
OK! Turn the heat on your stockpot down to medium. Toss in your carrots, celery, onions and garlic. You’re going to cook these down, stirring every few minutes, until the carrots are soft and the onions and celery reach a stage that’s approaching translucence. Not sure what that looks like? Well, here’s what they look like just after you’ve tossed them in:
And here’s what they look like after they’ve transluced (I’m going with that), after about 15 minutes or so:
Yeah, OK, photographically not a huge difference. But what you WILL notice, along with the onions getting clearer, is that the veggies have released moisture and starches. This is going to help de-stick all the tasty stuff from the bottom of the stockpot and attach it to the veggies. The veggies will then release them into the liquid later, and that’s what makes this shit taste so goddamned good.
OK, so now that your veggies are ready, open up the bottle of red wine. Pour in enough of it to cover everything, like so:
Continue cooking this on medium heat, stirring every now and then, until the wine has reduced by half. Should take about 10-20 minutes depending on how much wine you needed to cover. Now there are a couple of things you’ll be able to notice that will tell you it’s time for the next step. First of all, most of the alcohol smell will have been cooked out of the wine (or beer, if you’re using that). But also, about half the wine will have been either absorbed by the vegetables or concentrated. So it should now look like this:
Now that it’s ready, dump in your potatoes. Open up your crushed tomatoes and pour those in too; stir everything together. Let this cook for about five minutes or so, until you see it bubbling just slightly.
OK, we’re almost home. Add three dried bay leaves. A big note here: you’re going to either want to extract them from the stew when it’s done or tell whoever’s eating it to be on the lookout for them. First of all, if you bite into one, it’ll taste fucking awful. But ingesting one CAN, if you’re very unlucky, turn your gastrointestinal system into the Straight of Gibraltar. You do not want this. On a similar note, you’ll want to remove the stems from the rosemary, thyme and savory. But at least those won’t nearly kill you. I mean, neither will the bay leaves. So I’m not sure what I’m talking about here.
Toss your meat back into the pot and add in enough beef stock to cover everything. Mix it all together. Add some more pepper. Add a goodly amount of parsley flakes. Add your Tabasco if you like. If you’ve made a large amount of stew, you might want to add one more each of the rosemary, thyme and savory sprigs, but this isn’t usually a necessity. Now stir it all together again.
And with that, you’re pretty much done! Turn the heat back up to medium-high and bring it all to a bubble – not a boil, just a bubble. Once it bubbles, turn the heat down to medium-low and cover the stockpot with a lid. Now, you have your last decision to make. If you like your stew a little soupier, cook it for another two-to-three hours, stirring every once in a while. If you like your stew thicker, cook it for anywhere up to six hours and it will reduce to something more like gravy. For me, the sweet spot is right in between: four hours.
I’ll post a picture of my final result later tonight. This was fun for me. Probably less for you.
One last thing: obviously, you’re going to want to eat your stew right away – maybe over rice, or perhaps just as is. But consider that you should DEFINITELY save some. Once it cools down, pop it in the refrigerator. Overnight, the flavors will mingle and settle and deepen, and when you heat it up the next day it’ll be even better. God, you will like me so much then.
So that’s it, really. You’re an accomplished adultish-type person now. Questions? Shoot me an email or leave me a comment. Otherwise, go eat, you goddamned jackal.
UPDATE: Here’s what it looks like served up…in TUPPERWARE! I’m not going to plate it all fancy-like for you. I’m going to eat it. Actually, it was eaten last night. And now I’m going to have some more. OK, this is over now. Enjoy your own.