Part of the journey you and I are going on this year, dear reader, is my transition back into meat-eating. After about 13 years of various forms of vegetarianism, I’m ready to allow meat a place at the table.
This past fall, A and I signed up for a half-share with Moomaw Family Farm’s meat CSA. For those of you unfamiliar with the Community-Supported Agriculture model, CSA shareholders sign up to receive regular deliveries or pick-ups from a local farmer, and pay up-front to help defray the costs of preparing for the growing season. In our case, we’ll be receiving 10 lbs. of meat every other month, starting this summer.
If I’m going to be a meat-eater, I want to be the kind who doesn’t let things go to waste; that is, I want to learn how to cook the so-called ‘off-cuts,’ including organ meats. Not being a very patient person, I decided to jump right in and make oxtail ragout.
We bought the oxtail from Meadow Harvest at the Hillsdale Farmers Market. When I opened the plastic, there it lay: the tail of an ox, segmented but still whole. It was, in fact, an animal’s tail. I immediately began to rethink becoming a meat eater.
The recipe I was using came from Trina Hahneman’s The Scandinavian Cookbook. “Trim off excess fat” read the first instruction. I looked at my ox tail. The whole thing was encased in a thin layer of fat. “How do I know which fat is excess and which fat is necessary?” I wondered. After a contemplative moment, I picked up my knife and gamely got to it.
“This is disgusting,” I grumbled after awhile, bits of half-frozen animal fat wedged under my nails.
“Anything is disgusting if you stare at it for 20 minutes,” A said cheerfully, as he made a grilled cheese sandwich.
“Not vegetables,” I replied.
“You’re doing great,” he said, with a sincere lack of empathy.
After fighting with the tail for another 20 minutes, I made a bet with myself that the rest of the clinging fat wouldn’t ruin the ragout—and since I don’t know much about cooking red meat, I didn’t have much confidence in winning the bet either way. I melted the butter, and when the pot was nice and hot, dropped in my disgusting pieces of tail and began to brown them.
After a minute, a pleasing smell arose from the pot. I flipped the pieces over. They seemed to be browning perfectly. So far, so good. In went the red wine, garlic, shallots, bay, and rosemary, and I settled in with a book while the oxtail simmered on the stove.
A few hours later, the whole house was permeated with the aroma of continental cooking. Housemates began to come out of the woodwork, their noses twitching. I hesitantly poked at the meat—and it literally fell off the bone and into the broth. “I made meat!” I crowed.
So tender! So rich and flavorful! And surprisingly easy, all things considered. The velvety oxtail was unlike any stewed meat I grew up with, softly-flavored and easy to digest. And on top of that night’s dinner, we were left with a perfect quart of beef broth (did someone say French onion soup?), full of richness and nutrients from the tail bones.
We ate this with watercress mashed potatoes and sautéed hedgehog mushrooms, but it would also go well with wintry roasted vegetables such as potato, carrots, and parsnips, and a good brown mustard. This dish supplied 3 servings for us light meat-eaters, but would probably be just right for two carnivores.
If no one at your local farmers market has oxtail listed on their menu board, try calling the ranch directly to special-order it. If you don’t live in a place where ranchers sell farm-direct, ask at your local butcher.
Braised Oxtail for Two
Adapted from Trina Hahneman’s The Scandinavian Cookbook
1 ½ lbs. oxtail, segmented
¼ C butter
1 T olive oil
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 large shallot, roughly chopped
2 small bay leaves
1 small sprig rosemary
¼ C red wine
¼ t arrowroot powder or ¾ t flour
Trim as much fat from the oxtail as you can. This is going to be very tedious, but do try. Melt the butter in a large casserole or heavy pot, then add the olive oil. When the oil is hot, brown the oxtail segments, in batches if necessary, turning to brown evenly. Add the red wine and the arrowroot or flour, and mix to dissolve. Add the garlic, shallots, bay, and rosemary, and add water just to cover. Bring to a simmer, skimming off any foam that rises to the top, and cook about 3 hours, or until the meat is tender and flakes off the bone.