Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Masochist - Oxtail Ragu

Sometimes I get into a funny mood and can be masochistic when it comes to choosing recipes: actively seeking out the lengthiest option as I have perversely decided  ‘complicated’ is obviously ‘best’.

While long and hard isn’t always great (it’s the motion of the ocean mister…) and a simple, unfussy recipe often wins, in the case of this oxtail ragu the richness and complexity of flavour is gained in the time-consuming, multiple stage process.  It’s not particularly difficult as there aren’t tricky skills involved, but you do need to plan ahead – for me nearly three days, and once started you can’t forget about it.  Basically, you need to be food obsessed enough to have it hovering at the back of your consciousness until it sits happily in your bowl. 

The long process meant an increased emotional investment in it going well.  Day Two: after leaving the oxtail, red wine and veg in the oven at the appropriate temperature for five hours and checking at 4 ½, I discovered a dry, black mess.  Yup, I had a bit of a paddy and nearly burst into tears.  Over oxtail.  Alex came to the rescue and convinced me to add some water and heat through to ‘re-hydrate’ rather than chuck it.  Thank fuck as it salvaged the sauce and the meat, save a few hard bits, was fine.  Next time I’ll add a cartouche to keep that precious liquid from evaporating.

The final result is actually worth it.  The oxtail’s funny star-shaped bones yield a deeply flavoured, tender meat and a sauce that’s rich with a slightly gelatinous oily texture.  Even after skimming the fat there is unctuous orange tinged oil that coats the pappardelle.  A little goes a long way with the pasta, and the final sprinkle of parsley and lemon juice is a must to lift it.  So good.

The recipe is from the North London pub the Bull and Last, given to Olive Magazine, though I got it from the BBC’s GoodFood website (a wicked site to bookmark for recipes).  I wasn’t impressed at the instructions: they weren’t clear enough and didn’t even indicate skimming off the huge amount of fat produced by simmering oxtail.  Fine if you’re a fairly experienced cook but not obvious to everyone so I’ve re-written below.  
NB: I used Chinese cooking wine instead of the port indicated in the original recipe as I didn’t have any and thought it would at least add a different dimension of alcohol flavour to the red wine.

Ingredients  - 6-8 people

1st stage ingredients

Beef dripping or olive oil
1½ kg oxtail , cut into pieces
1 onion roughly chopped
1 celery roughly chopped
1 carrot roughly chopped
1 garlic bulb, unpeeled and broken into cloves
¼ teaspoon of allspice berries or 4 berries
2 cloves
7 peppercorns
1 star anise
375 ml red wine
850 ml strong beef stock

2nd Stage Ingredients – the ragu itself

1 carrot finely chopped
½ leek finely chopped
2 celery sticks finely diced
½ celeriac finely diced
1 small onion finely diced
3 garlic cloves finely chopped
1 tbsp tomato puree
200 ml red wine
125ml port/dry sherry /Chinese rice wine
large bunch of parsley, roughly chopped
juice of 1 lemon
pappardelle  - enough for 6-8 people

Day 1

1)    Put all the stage one ingredients in a large Tupperware and pour over the wine and beef stock.  Leave to marinade over-night .

Day 2

1)    Preheat the oven to 170C/fan 150C/gas 5 and remove the oxtail pieces from the marinade.  Pat dry with kitchen paper and heat olive oil or dripping in a heavy based frying pan. Open windows and put your extractor on.  Brown the oxtail in batches till it has a crispy golden exterior and put in a lidded oven proof pan.  Strain the veg and reserve the marinade.  Turn the pan down to medium heat and fry the veg till the edges are golden then add to the oxtail.  Pour back over the marinade liquid.  Make a cartouche (disk of baking paper, same diameter of pot), dampened on the meat touching side and place over mixture, then the lid, then in the oven for four – five hours.
2)    Remove pan from oven and remove the oxtail pieces and strain the liquid (discarding the veg) into another container.  Rest the oxtail for 2 hours then pull the meat from the bones (throw away the bones).   Leave overnight to cool.

Day 3

1)    Using a big spoon skim off the couple of inches of fat that will have risen to the surface of the sauce. 
2)    Reheat the sauce and reduce until there there is 2/3 of the mixture left.  Set aside.
3)    In olive oil fry Stage 2 veg over a low-medium heat until it is softened, should take nearly 10 minutes.  Add the garlic, tomato puree and fry for a further minute.
4)    Add Stage 2 wine and other alcohol of choice, then reduce by half.  Add the oxtail meat and the reduced cooking liquid.  Cook over a low heat for about 45 mins to an hour till it has thickened.  About 10 minutes before the end cook the pappardelle.
5)    Taste for seasoning and add the lemon juice and chopped parsley.
6)    Serve with grated parmesan. 


  1. I've been turning to simpler recipes more recently though, sometimes I find the simpler the better because the ingredients really shine. But then again there's something just irreplaceable about a slow-cooked rendang or curry with a super long ingredients list/cooking time, though that I usually leave for occasions where I really want to please. that oxtail ragu looks fabulous, worth all the masochistic fun.

    p.s. I've also often used shaoxing wine in place of red wine for ragu and in fact many western braises! it's so conveniently shelf-stable so I always have that heh. ( http://mummyicancook.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/ragout-of-venison-neck-slow-braised-in.html )

    1. Me too - simple when it works is just fantastic. But its so gratifyingly indulgent to focus loads of time and energy on one, ultimate meal...such a build up of anticipation! (obvs a weekend thing!)

      you know, i reckon the shaoxing wine was better - little lighter and more perfumey!

    2. I know what you mean. And usually after a week long of simple/quick weekday meals, you really just want to do something exciting for the weekend.

      I like shaoxing a lot so I'm biased towards it anyway (: