Date night – Oxtail ragu

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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…!

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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.

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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…!

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Oxtailragu 
Serves 4-6

  • 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.

In praise of slow-cooked meat

Here’s a little song I wrote for you:

(To be sung to a truncated version of the tune of ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire’)

Short ribs braising in a pot of wine,
Lamb shanks bubbling on the stove.
Big pot of oxtail, been cooked for five hours,
And now just falling off the bone.
Everybody knows…
Boeuf Bourguignon is best cooked slow
The same is true of Bolognese
Although it’s been said, many times, many ways,
Try slow cooking, try slow cooking
Try slow cooking – today! 

Yes, I have too much time on my hands. Yes, it might also be true that I spend too much time on my own without anyone to talk to. However – putting aside these minor concerns for my mental health, slow-cooked meat is completely amazing, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

I do a lot of slow cooking, and have for some years – in fact, I think almost the first thing I cooked for a dinner party was boeuf bourguignon. One of my favourite things to do on a rainy Sunday is cook some sort of slow-cooked meat-in-liquid-type-dish, and now that I *ahem* have more time on my hands, I do this in the week, as well. Braising, stewing, casseroling and the like are up there with baking bread in terms of how to make your house smell amazing, and there are few things better to eat on a cold, blustery day.

On Monday night, I cooked a somewhat bastardised version of the Brazilian dish feijoada – essentially, various cuts of pork cooked slowly with black beans. Although I’m not sure I can speak for its authenticity, it was completely delicious, and Noel asked if I was going to blog about it. In many ways, I would love to write about that recipe, because it was great, but I have held back because I feel like posting recipes for slow-cooking is sort of… cheating.

For one thing, slow cooking meat is really, really, really easy. It does take time, but all but the first 30mins or so is time that involves no effort on your part whatsoever. Cheating, also, because almost every recipe for slow cooking follows the same basic premise – brown meat, sauté onion + other veg, put meat back in pot with some sort of liquid, cook on a low heat until completely scrummy – and so I felt I had very little to add. I do have a recipe for oxtail up my sleeve which I will post on here – probably some time next month. But beyond that, there are so many great recipes for slow cooking out there, I wasn’t sure I could really add to them.

So – rather than give you my version of a slow-cook recipe, I thought I’d talk a bit instead about slow-cooking in general, and share some tips and a few recipes I’ve really enjoyed, which you might like to try.

Tip 1 – brown your meat properly. I can’t emphasise this enough – start by browning your meat properly, and everything else will fall into place. In my opinion, there are few things less appetising to eat than blond, anaemic-looking pieces of meat – and conversely, few things more tasty than meat with a nice toasty crust: this is as true for braising as it is for cooking steak. In addition, if you brown your meat properly, all the yummy crusty goodness will go towards making the final sauce that bit more delicious. There are lots of recipes out there which will tell you the same thing, but the one which, for me, summed it up perfectly is Adam Roberts’ recipe for Daube de Boeuf over on Amateur Gourmet – as he says, ‘If I had to point out how I’ve grown the most as a cook over my 9 years of doing this, it would be my ability to brown meat really, really well’, and I agree – when I figured out this basic step, my casseroles improved massively. He also offers this excellent advice: ‘don’t start chopping your vegetables until you start browning your beef. This’ll ensure that you really let the beef take its time and you don’t stand around impatiently. If you do this right, you’ll have a plate of browned meat and a big bowl of vegetables ready to go at the same time’. So true – if you have nothing else to do when browning meat, you will stand around twiddling your thumbs and the temptation is to rush the process. So give yourself something else to do, and hey presto, the time flies.

Tip 1a – don’t crowd the pan when browning the meat. This is something which frustrated me for years. Countless recipes out there tell you not to brown the meat in batches and not crowd the pan, but I never read one which explained WHY. This drove me mad! Why can’t I shove all the meat in together and speed up the process?! Finally, I found the answer in the wonderful Felicity Cloake’s recipe for ‘perfect chilli con carne’. I should’ve known she would have the answer – and here it is: ‘don’t crowd the pan, or [the meat] will steam rather than brown’. Which makes sense, really. So there you have it.

Tip 2 – fat = flavour. Every recipe I have ever seen for slow cooking calls for what is usually referred to as ‘cheaper’ or ‘economical’ cuts of meat. What this means, is meat which is fattier than its more expensive counterparts – fattier, more full of connective tissue, tough as old boots if cooked quickly, but therefore absolutely ideal for slow cooking. When this meat is cooked slowly at a low temperature, the fat renders and the connective tissue breaks down, leaving the meat itself fork-tender, and the sauce in which it’s been cooked rich and unbelievably tasty. (On a side note – isn’t ‘fork-tender’ a wonderful phrase? So evocative, makes me automatically hungry). Of course, you can remove excess fat from the meat before cooking if you would like, but please don’t go nuts – leave some fat to help your dish along. Which brings me to…

Tip 3 – remove excess fat. I love fat – I am a total glutton for crispy bacon, chops, and don’t even get me started on crackling. What I don’t enjoy, however, is the greasy layer of fat on top of a sauce – and so I tend to spoon off the excess. There are two ways of doing this. Either, once the meat has had its allotted time, spoon the fat off and discard. Or, even more straightforward, if you have time, allow the dish to cool, the fat will solidify, and you can remove it very easily from the top before reheating. This has the added advantage of…

Tip 4 – slow-cooked dishes taste even better the next day. There is nothing wrong whatsoever with eating a casserole or braise straight from the oven. It will be delicious. However, if you have time and are able to plan ahead, another tip which, again, involves no effort on your part but which will take your dish straight from good to great is to leave it to cool overnight and serve it the next day. The flavours will develop and intensify, and it will taste even better. And how’s this – this means you can put a dish in the oven on a Sunday, potter around the house and do chores, then chill it overnight and eat it on Monday evening – seriously, what could be better after a miserable Monday than the most delicious dinner, ready made and waiting for you?

Tip 5 – make a big batch and freeze it. I’ve never yet made a slow-cooked meal which didn’t freeze well. It is such a great thing to have in the freezer. It is, if anything, easier to cook a big batch than a smaller one, and the leftovers will be awesome.

There you go, them’s my tips! Enjoy. To finish, here are a few recipes I’ve enjoyed over the years, and hope you do too.