Saturday, October 15, 2011

Oxtail Ragu

Oxtails from Batcheller Hill Farms
Way back in early summer, I had stopped by the Batcheller Hill Farms area of the Dewey Square Farmers Market, and discovered that they had oxtails. Holy crap! Oxtails! What will I do with those? At the time, I hadn't the foggiest. But sometimes you come across a really good quality "cheap cut" of meat, and decide that you should get it now, and an actual plan will come later on. Only a few days later, I strolled by the River View Farm stand, and they had beef bones. Like dinosaur-sized beef bones. Wrap 'em up. Bringin' that cheapness home with me. Once again, I'll think of what to do with the things later on, when I'm bored or at a bar somewhere discussing the awesomeness of dinosaur-sized beef bones. (A common conversation among my traveling band of thieves.)
Three and a half months later... Alright, so we've had our first frost in New England, albeit a light one, and though of late it has been freakishly warm, I decided earlier this week that Sunday was in fact the day. The oxtails and beef bones would have to emerge, and there would be much braising to be done. Also, despite the warm weather, this would be a perfect day to spend all day close by the condo to check on that meat again and again and again. You see, I live in the maritime paradise, jewel of the North Shore known as Salem, Massachusetts... smack in the middle of downtown. I love this little town, from the rich history to the quirkiness of the fact that it now makes a whole heap of money from the horrible occurrences of 1692. If I look out my window right now, there are hundreds of people walking by, smiling and enjoying themselves, clad in costumes and witch hats. Like I said, I love this place, but it takes me a while to adjust to the hoards invading to enjoy all our fun. So, anyway, I'll watch from my door step and adjust as needed. (Also, later in the month when things really get crazy, I promise I'll do some sort of a boozy Haunted Happenings rundown. Until then.)
So back to the oxtails and beef bones. Now, I've eaten many a braised ragu in my day. They're very rich, and some are more beefy and reduced than others. Some are also very tomato saturated, while others have no trace of tomato. I find that I enjoy a ragu that is pretty chunky, but not so much that sauce isn't covering parts of your pasta. I also like the day long simmered tomato flavor. But let's disclose something. I've never made a ragu before. I've made plenty of red sauces and marinara, but never a true ragu. The key? If you're patient and use good stuff, I'm told you can't screw it up. Therefore, today's endeavor will feature the creation of one pot of tomato sauce, one pot of braised meat, and then the end of the day marriage, and continued simmer of the two in order to achieve the ultimate braised beef sauce. Here is my story.
Peeled tomatoes
1. Let's start with our tomato sauce. Set a pot of water on the stove, and apply high heat. You want the water to boil.
2. Wash your plum tomatoes. I started with about ten, and cut a shallow "x" at the bottom of each. When the pot of water on the stove boils, drop in the tomatoes and count to thirty. Drain the pot into the sink, and rinse the tomatoes with cold water. Starting at each corner of the "x", you should now be able to remove the skin very easily. After peeling, roughly chop all of your tomatoes. 
The tomato sauce, early stages
3. Wash the large pot that you used to shock the skins of of the tomatoes. Now put that back on the stove at low heat, because this is going to be your receptacle for the tomato sauce. Add about three tablespoons of olive oil, and mince three cloves of garlic. Add the garlic to the pot, and allow to cook about five minutes, just enough to soften a bit. When softened, add in your tomatoes, partially cover, and simmer. This tomato sauce will simmer on low heat basically all day. Add salt and pepper to taste, and if it seems like the liquid level is too low, add in a half cup of chicken stock at a time. In total, I ended up using two cups of chicken stock over a period of about five hours.
Herb satchel, diced onion, celery,
4. With your tomato sauce safely on its way, it's time to prep the more intimidating piece of this recipe. (For the record, I started with a recipe by Mario Batali, and I think it worked out rather well.) Set your oven to 375 degrees. Prepare a little satchel of a few twigs of rosemary, a handful of flat leaf parsley, and about five little twigs of thyme. Set aside.
5. Dice one large carrot, and three smaller stalks of celery. Also dice one medium onion.
6. Take out your oxtails and beef bones. Liberally salt and pepper all of them, and then dredge through flour.
Seared oxtails and beef bones
7. Add about five tablespoons of olive oil to your dutch oven and set to high heat. When the oil is smoking hot, add your bones and oxtails. Sear on all sides, until they're all browned. This should take somewhere around 10 minutes. Remove from the oil and place aside.
8. Reduce heat to about medium, and add in your onion, carrot, and celery. Stir for about five minutes. After five minutes, add your little satchel of herbs, pour in a bottle of dry red wine. I used a bottle of Malbec. Bring to a boil, then add your meat and bones back. Bring again to a boil, cover, and throw the dutch oven into the actual oven.
Everything ready to braise
9. Allow your meat to braise for about 2 1/2 hours.  Remove the pot from the oven, and remove your meat from the bones. The meat should easily fall off of the bones. If it does not, it needs additional braising time, so you should ship the whole lot back into the oven for more slow cooking. Now when you're removing the meat from the oxtails and beef bones, don't be surprised if your hand at one point starts sticking to the cutting board. Maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but seriously expect some sticky collagen action from this recipe when stripping the meat from bones.
10. When you have finished removing the meat from the bones, and the dutch oven is waiting patiently for your attention on the stove, you can skim a whole heap of fat from the surface of the ragu. There should be a lot of fat. Don't panic, just continue skimming. In total, I had approximately a third of a cup of fat when all was said and done. The entire layer of fat will be easiest to skim while the pot is off the heat as it floats easily up to the top of the sauce. After skimming as much fat as you possibly can, feel free to add back your shredded meat to the deep red/brown sauce.
11. At this point, depending on the consistency of the ragu, which should have already reduced A LOT, you'll want to set the dutch oven on low heat on the stove. Add ladles of your tomato sauce until the sauce has enough tomato flavor, and it's completely up to you. Due to the amount of meat that I was able to claim from those bones, I actually felt pretty comfortable adding all of my tomato sauce that had been cooking all day long.
Braised sauce & tomato sauce
All-day simmered tomato sauce
12. I allowed the sauce to simmer for about another forty minutes, and when the flavor of the tomato and the wine sauce had intermingled enough, I decided it was done. At this point, you can feel free to use the sauce over your pasta, polenta, gnocchi, etc.. We used some higher quality egg noodle fettuccine purchased from Milk and Honey Green Grocer in Salem.
An excellent fettuccine
for our ragu
As I'm sure you can deter from the length of this entry, this is kind of a lot of work. There are multiple pots, and hours and hours of monitoring, but at the same time, the toughest part is at the front end of the process, and after that you're simply left with the smell of braising meat and garlicky tomato sauce flowing through a warm kitchen. The taste of the actual sauce is so rich, meaty, herb plentiful and with remarkable depth that on the first bite of pasta, I spent a good few minutes chewing, exhaling and enjoying the fruits of my labor. It's a delicious (and fatty) sauce that coats the inside of ones mouth with all of that pleasant savory comfort food goodness and also a touch of sophistication due to the great quality of all of the ingredients we used along the way. I'm pretty sure that I won't be making it again for a while, especially since I've now used all of my oxtails, but I'll have to keep the recipe for a large family gathering in future.

Oxtail ragu on fettuccine, worth every scrap of effort

For tomato sauce -
10-12 fat plum tomatoes
3 cloves of garlic
3 tablespoons of olive oil
Salt and pepper

For oxtail ragu -
Satchel of rosemary, thyme, parsley
1 carrot
3 stalks of celery
1 onion
5 tablespoons olive oil
Salt, pepper, flour
1 1/2 lbs of meaty oxtails
Beef bones (really just a bonus ingredient)
1 bottle red wine (malbec)

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