Though I find it almost impossible to believe, this weekend just past marks four months since I arrived in Boston. Tempting though it is to break out all kinds of clichés – how time flies, etc – what I am most struck by is how right it feels to be here. Of course, it hasn’t all been easy – I’m now approaching my fifth month of unemployment, and even though it was my choice and if I had to make it again I would do exactly the same thing, it’s not always easy. That, and the fact that we have awoken today to yet more snow… This, after a few days of milder weather – yesterday, for the first time in months, I went out in my normal English winter coat, rather than my extremely unflattering but very warm skiing jacket, convinced that spring might just be on the way. Who am I kidding?
My move to Boston has been monumental in several ways. I touched on work above – and this has been a massive change. For the past five years, one of the things which has defined me is my career – both in as much as having a salary has allowed me to do the things I love outside work, and in that I absolutely love what I do, and am very proud of my work. Moving from working full time to not working at all is a huge shift, and I’ve learned a lot about myself.
The move has also been a big change for me and Noel – our home in Boston is our first home together. I’ve learned a lot about our relationship and some alarming things about myself – for instance, it turns out I am incredibly picky about toothpaste, and the fact that Noel is unable to remember to put the cap back on turns me into a shrieking banshee of a woman. (Seriously, though, dried toothpaste is so gross). But there are positives as well. One of the things we have been trying to do since we got here is take each other on dates each month – the deal is that whoever is organising the date has to plan everything; it doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive, but it has to be just the two of us (ie, not with Noel’s students…). For our first date, Noel took me to the Museum of Fine Art to see the Mario Testino exhibits, which was wonderful. My first date was equally cultural – a night drinking free beer at the Harpoon Brewery. Ahem.
For February, I decided to base our date around a film I’ve been trying to get Noel to watch for years – La vita e bella (Life is Beautiful). It’s one of my favourite films, but every time I’ve suggested watching it, Noel hasn’t been keen. I’ve heard all the excuses: from the ridiculous – ‘It’s in Italian, I’m too tired to read the subtitles’ – to the downright mean (and untrue…) – ‘your film choices are always rubbish’. But, seeing as I was organising the date, I got to choose…!
To go with this (perhaps to sweeten the pill a little?!), I cooked one of Noel’s favourites – oxtail ragu. That’s right, nothing says ‘I love you’ like oxtail. I’ve already waxed lyrical about slow cooking, and this is another great example. The recipe is essentially a basic ragu bolognese recipe, but substitutes oxtail for minced beef, and is cooked very slowly. The results are great – the meat is incredibly tender and flavourful – and as with so many slow-cooked dishes, it tastes as though it is much more complicated than it is. If you can’t get oxtail, or are not keen on it, you can substitute with beef shortribs, beef shin, or stewing steak. If you’re using meat without a bone in, you can reduce the cooking time to more like three hours. You can cook this either on the stove top throughout, or in a low oven.
Oxtail is a relatively new discovery for me – but a very happy one. I confess, I was only really aware of it because my grandma used to have these bowls when I was a child, and frankly I found the whole idea a bit off-putting. A few years ago, though, my dad had an oxtail stew for dinner when we were in South Africa, and I was blown away by how tender and delicious it was. I resolved to try cooking with it, and this recipe is the result. The key with oxtail is very long, slow cooking – this is true of many cheaper cuts of meat, but all the more so with oxtail which is full of gelatinous connective tissue, which breaks down to make the finished dish rich and unctuous, but which is unappetising if not fully rendered. It is also a fatty cut, so I would encourage you to make this in advance, if you can, and allow it to cool so that the rendered fat solidifies and you can very easily remove it from the top of the dish. (If you cannot make it in advance, you can spoon the hot fat off, but it is easier and quicker if the fat has hardened).
Before this, we had scallops wrapped in prosciutto with a lemon-parsley-time dressing, and we finished with tiramisu. We had cheesy ‘Italian’ music playing (think ‘That’s Amore’…), and drank lots of nice wine. And I’m happy to report that Noel is a convert to the film…!
- Approx. 3.5lbs oxtail
- Olive oil
- 1/4 cup diced pancetta / 3 rashers bacon, finely chopped
- 1 large carrot, very finely chopped
- 1 stick celery, very finely chopped
- 1 onion, very finely chopped
- 2 gloves garlic, minced
- 6 mushrooms, chopped into 1cm dice
- 3tbsp tomato puree
- 2 14oz/400g chopped/crushed tomatoes*
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 100ml wine (optional)
- Salt & Pepper
- 400-600g spaghetti
- Freshly grated parmesan, to serve.
If you plan to cook the dish in the oven, pre-heat to 150C / 300F. Heat 1/2tbsp of olive oil in a large casserole over a high heat until the oil is hot and glistening. Trim any excess fat from the oxtail, season with salt and pepper, and brown the meat in batches until it is a rich, dark brown on all sides. Remove to a plate. Reduce the heat a little, and add the pancetta/bacon, and cook until browned. Reduce the heat to low, and add the onion, carrot and celery. Cook over a low heat until the vegetables are very soft. Add the garlic and mushrooms, and cook for another 2-3 minutes.
Return the meat to the pan, and stir in the tomato puree – cook for a minute or two, and then add the tomatoes, thyme and wine, if using. Season with salt and pepper. Cover the pan, and either move to the oven, or leave on the stove on a very low heat. Cook for 4-5 hours.
If you are preparing the dish in advance, once it has cooked for the required time, you can remove from the oven and allow to cool, and then place in the fridge until needed. When you come to reheat it, remove the solidified fat from on top of the dish, and then remove the oxtail bones. If you are making it and serving it at the same time, once it has finished cooking, spoon the excess fat from the top of the dish and discard. Remove the oxtail bones and allow to cool until cold enough to handle.
You may find that some of the meat has fallen off the bones during cooking – this is fine. Remove any meat still attached to the bones, and shred into small pieces – it should be falling apart by this stage. Return the meat to the pan and discard the bones. Reheat the dish, and cook the spaghetti according to packet instructions. Serve with freshly grated parmesan.
* Note on tomatoes – in the UK, I usually use tinned chopped tomatoes. However, over here, tend to find the juice they are in thin and watery, and have had better results with crushed tomatoes.