Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Offally Good, Part I -- Oxtail

I've got a colleague in my department who is from nearby farm country, who after the break bought home an entire cow from a friend of theirs (obviously already butchered and all of that). At some point it came up that they had no idea what to do with the various organs of the cow. And if there's one thing I will not stand for, it's deliciousness like tongue, brain, heart, and other assorted innards going to waste. I can't help it, I'm Polish -- I'm genetically pre-disposed to love organ meats.

Yet I've never actually had the opportunity to cook with any of them, and I really like to learn how to cook new things. So now I'm hoping I can learn to not only make them edible, but make some halfway decent food in the process. Join me, won't you, as we begin our journey and I teach you how to cook with oxtail. Which I am not at all ashamed to admit I didn't realize was literally the tail of the cow until I got it (I mean, it makes all sorts of sense, sure, but I thought it was one of those weird old timey words that had some sort of long story behind it).

Anyway, the key to most all offal is cooking it slowly to make it tender enough to eat. And by slowly, I mean like 6-7 hours, so start this shit early if you're cooking along at home. Today I'm making an oxtail stew, based loosely on this recipe (careful though, it's an English recipe and uses the metric system. Like I'm some sort of super human who has time to translate measurements while cooking. Fuck that. Besides, measuring is for chumps. The stew has enough rosemary when I say it has enough rosemary).

First, the tail itself. Looks pretty funky, but definitely was once a tail. Or an H.R. Geiger creation.

Seriously. This could totally be something that bursts out of a dude's chest.
Apparently you've got to cook the thing before you actually cook it. Probably because it's a damned tail, and not some expensive cut of meat. Obviously one of the reasons for the cheapness of offal is that it's tough, a pain in the ass to prepare, and not particularly the healthiest for you. To that point, you typically need a lot of other stuff to jazz up your offal, since it's not that great and all. So you throw a bunch of vegetables and aromatics (as I've learned is way classier to call them) in a pot. The recipe I linked to calls for fresh herbs, but fuck that noise, this is a stew (there's a misconception amongst people that fresh herbs are always better than dried. Not the case! Fresh are best for when they are added at the end of the process and will receive minimal cooking. For something that's going to be sitting and stewing for a long time, dried can often serve you better).

Specifically: carrots, celery, leeks, bay leaves, rosemary, thyme, and cloves.
 So that stuff all hangs out and makes the house smell ridiculously amazing for a period of time. I was aiming for 20 minutes, but I think I got impatient at around the 16 minute mark. It's going to spend all fucking day in the oven anyway, I don't think it's that big a deal. At roughly the same time, apparently the tail is getting ready to join the party, so it gets yanked out of the oven where it had been hanging out with some olive oil and caramelizing itself. It now looks like this.

Still looks like an alien, but now one that is a tasty golden brown.
Then once again you need to add a bunch of shit to give this stuff flavor. So about a third or so of a bottle of wine. Make sure to pour yourself a glass as well. (Sure, it's barely past noon, but it's just one glass, it's not like you're being crazy irresponsible. Ok, maybe two glasses, but it's not like I'm not putting in work here. That was a lot of chopping. Besides this is America, and if you don't have a glass of wine while cooking, you're letting the terrorists win. Why do you hate America so much?!?). Then put in a can of tomatoes. Not the giant can, and not those tiny itty-bitty cans, but you know, like the regular size ones. In addition to that, you could add some boring-ass water, or you could add the homemade stock you made from all of the Thanksgiving leftovers. You feel particularly clever when you do this, because when you made and froze the stock, you had no idea what you were going to do with it.

Homemade stock. Physical evidence of my complete lack of a social life.
Then everything gets together in the pot and hangs out in the oven for several hours at some lowish temp (something in the low-300s). You can't quite see it in the pic, but this time you remembered to unscrew the plastic handles of the pot and lid before you put them in the oven, which helps the house smell like delicious stew instead of melting plastic. You are once again quite proud of yourself.

The alien baby rests in a warm bath.
So that's been hanging out in the oven pretty much all afternoon. I think it went in a little before 1:00 and other than the occasional stir (which was really more of an excuse to open up the lid and smell its deliciousness, but I'm sure stirring does something to something), it didn't come out until about 6:30 or so. But you're far from finished! For the tail is just chockablock full of the rest of the cow's spine. So you fish it out with a slotted spoon because it's already falling apart of its own accord (a very good sign!) and it now looks significantly less like something that might burst out of Kane's chest after encountering the face hugger and more like delicious meatstuff.

Pictured: delicious meatstuff. Spellcheck for some reason does not recognize "meatstuff" as a valid word.
The fortunate thing about stewing meat for that long is that it becomes literally fall-off-the-bone tender, so you just need to wiggle it around a bunch and rip off the bits of flesh that refuse to separate from their bone friends. Then you're left with a regular ol' pile of meat. Were you to show this to a stranger passing through your kitchen, they'd have no idea it was actually tail. At the same time, if you regularly have strangers in your kitchen, you may want to install better locks.

Hi, you can't even tell I was a creepy-looking tail only hours ago!
Of course, in addition to your new pile of meat, you also have a pile of spine. Technically the tail, sure, but I think those are pretty much the same thing (note: I am definitely not a biologist). It's fun to have a plateful of spinal bones, makes you feel like an archeologist. And don't you go throwing those bones away! Make sure to keep them and their delicious marrow for making more stock. Just toss 'em in a plastic bag with various veggie trimmings and keep them in the freezer. When you collect enough, make a big ol' pot of stock to freeze and have at the ready. What's that, you're not already making your own stock at home? Way to sell your soul to BIG STOCK. WAKE UP, SHEEPLE! Anyway, here's what your pile of bones will look like:

What you're preparing to eat used to be employed mainly to swat at flies on the ass of a barnyard creature.

While admiring your bones, you should have thrown the meat back into the pot and the pot back into the oven to hang out and stew some more. Oh, and at some point you should have made some mashed potatoes. It's no hurry, you've got about a 7-hour window, though I suggest waiting more toward the end. Then you're done. Well, I mean, you should probably put it all on a plate, or in a bowl or something, but really, it's your food, you eat it however you like. If you go with a traditional plate-based method, it will look something like this:

Pictured: A somewhat competent-looking stew and potatoes.

But what it any good?

Surprisingly yes, it was quite delicious. I've never had oxtail before, but it stewed up quite nice like. While I still advocate not paying attention to measurements of spices, I'd suggest using less cloves than I did. There's a hint of sophomore poetry major in mine that's not the best, but otherwise, pretty decent for my first foray into tail.

Check back later in the week as we head to Central America and make some tacos de lengua with delicious cow tongue. And this weekend: brain! Oh, the adventures we're having with lesser-used cow parts this week!

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