Monday, September 25, 2006

Eating. oxtails.

Years ago, at a friend's house for dinner (one of many; they usually consisted of barbecued steak, steamed Chinese broccoli, rice, and various other side dishes), my dad looked down at the platter of grilled steaks and exclaimed, "Wow! We never have meat like this at home!" (This was greeted with much laughter and the look of death administered as only my mother can give it). I doubt my mother has ever forgiven him, and with good reason. For someone who has long been an almost-vegetarian, my mother certainly knows her way around various cuts of beef, pork, and chicken. Growing up, particularly during the years my cousins lived with us, there were piles of chicken wings, mounds of fried pork chops, beef short ribs or oxtails braised with tomatoes and onions. I loved those oxtails, those gelatinous links of bone encased by rich, tender meat. They would simmer for hours, cooking gently, the tomatoes giving a sweet acidity to the sauce, which would be soaked up by the steamed white rice we ate with every meal. It is one of those dishes that always reminds me of childhood.

Later I would read Nigella Lawson's description of oxtails braised in stout (from How to Eat), which at the time was unobtainable in Britain due to mad-cow disease. It was a grown-up version of what I remembered from when I was young - my mother's version had celery and onions and carrots and tomatoes, perhaps a few bay leaves; I think it was all cooked in water. Here Lawson had used Mackeson stout, which "has a creamy roundness that suits the fatly honeyed flesh from the oxtails." (Her writing is so seductive that you always immediately want to cook every dish in her books). There is another recipe for beef braised in beer, later on, but it uses lean steak (for stewing), as it is part of her "low-fat" chapter, and if I'm going to be poncing about with a few pounds of beef and a pint of beer I want the real thing, none of that low-fat bullshit. There were the same onions and celery and tomatoes and carrots, with a few other herbs and spices thrown in. I would try this someday, I thought.

Some years after that I was temporarily on my own and came across a recipe for beef carbonnade in the New York Times magazine. Suffice it to say, it was not a success. Oh, it was edible, but not the culinary nirvana I had hoped for. I gave up. Months went by, and it was time to try again. This time around, I was winging it, and was met with howling success. I didn't use the various herbs and spices and aromatics that Nigella Lawson specified, because, well, I'm lazy. I didn't sear the meat, bring everything to a boil, and then put the covered pot into the oven because, have you tried carrying a fully-loaded Le Creuset french oven from the stovetop to the oven? Even empty, motherfucker is heavy, never mind piping-hot and filled with meat, vegetables, and broth (or beer). So I sear the meat and vegetables, pour the beer in, and leave it barely burbling away on the lowest heat possible. On the stove.

Because it worked so well the first time around I went for it again, beef short ribs and oxtails, dusted with flour, browned, simmered with caramelized onions and carrots in Guinness; this time I added mushrooms because they happened to be in the fridge. I made mashed potatoes because I don't have a rice cooker, although I don't really need an excuse to make mashed potatoes, with milk and lots of butter. It is everything I remember, the tender meat, the unctuous sauce, the sweet onions and carrots, the creamy mashed potatoes. And I am home.

1 comment:

Juanita J. Sanchez said...

Oxtails never sounded very tantilizing, until now.