This week I'm really feeling the briefness of the December daylight and the deepening of the cold temperatures. While I normally make a big effort to eat only small amounts of meat and to eat clean and light, especially at night, this dreary week I have braises and rich sauces on my mind. It seemed only right to pop out to the butcher, buy a whole oxtail, and cook it into slow submission.
Oxtail (which by the way is actually the tail of either gender of cattle) is an ideal meat for braising: its flavor emerges triumphantly with a long, slow cook, with each piece's hunk of marrow only helping things along. It used to be dirt cheap, and now it's just kind of cheap, but it is still a great choice for a meaty sauce when you're in the mood to try something different.
A few notes on the recipe: it is a braise, so you don't need to be exact with measurements or ingredients. For a basic ragù you do need tomatoes and the support vegetables (carrot, onion, celery if possible), but in terms of spices, listen to what you crave. I love nutmeg, but if it's not your thing, take it out. If you like a little heat, add a pinch of dried red pepper flakes. As for how to serve this, I like it over gnocchi, or on big rigatoni or pappardelle; any noodle that can handle the weight of a hearty sauce will do.
With the long dark winter just beginning, take a moment and indulge your fantasies of rich, deep sauces. Even when the sun shines brightly on your pasty winter skin, you will want a taste of this.
4 to 5 pounds oxtail, cut into 3-inch pieces at the butcher
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Flour, for dredging
1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
3 whole celery ribs, chopped
1 (28-ounce) can plum tomatoes, crushed
3 cups dry red wine
2 rosemary sprigs
2 thyme sprigs
2 bay leaves
4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 300°F.
Pat the meat dry with paper towels then dust with the flour, tapping off any excess. Season with salt and pepper on all sides.
Place a 6-quart Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed, oven-safe pot with a tight-fitting lid over medium-high heat. Add the oil, and when glistening, add the meat (metal tongs come in handy here) and sear on all sides, about 8 to 10 minutes. Work in batches if necessary to avoid overcrowding.
Transfer the meat to a plate. Add onion, carrot and celery and cook, stirring frequently, until browned, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the tomatoes with their juices, wine, rosemary, thyme, bay leaves, garlic and nutmeg. Bring to a boil for 5 minutes.
Add the meat and enough water to just barely cover meat. Return to a boil, then cover the pot and transfer it to the oven. Cook for 3 to 4 hours, until the meat is fork tender and falling off the bones.
Remove the pot from the oven and transfer the pieces of meat to a plate. Skim any visible fat from the surface of the sauce. Pick the meat from the bones, pulling away and discarding any pieces of fat, and then return the meat to the pan. Pluck out the bay leaves, and sprigs of rosemary and thyme. Season the sauce with salt and pepper.
Serve atop gnocchi or any pasta meant to withstand a hearty sauce. The ragù can be made a few days ahead; keep covered and refrigerated, then reheat over medium-low heat.
This is a hearty, chunky sauce. If you prefer something more uniform in texture, blend a portion or all of the sauce in a blender.