FOR many years, I believed that the only person more competitive than I was 1980s tennis super-brat, John McEnroe. Then Lance Armstrong zipped onto the scene and conquered, not only the Tour de France, but also cancer and the New York City Marathon, and I was relegated third place.
More recently however, in the warm surrounds of my own kitchen, my rating came under further threat. This time, the challenger was my husband and the contest, The Great Oxtail Stew Cook Off.
It all began one wet and windy Saturday morning as winter boomed its unambiguous arrival in the Cape. Throwing back the last of our morning coffee, spouse and I looked out the window upon the tempestuous day and then glanced at one another across the kitchen table, as if in agreement. For sure, it was the perfect day to hunker down over the stove and delve deeply into some serious cooking. The designated dish? No doubt about it: it was an oxtail stew kind of day.
Up until that point, we were on the same page. But that was before we had reached for our recipe books.
“I’ll brave the storm and get the oxtail,” he said, in an enthusiastic, team-player kind of voice. “I think we have everything else. No. Wait. We don’t have beans.”
In that instant, the gauntlet clattered down between us. The prospect of rivalry surfaced.
“We don’t have beans”. His words were the culinary equivalent of tossing a coin between cricket rival skippers, like Graham Smith and Ricky Ponting. The inevitable next move had to be combat.
“Oh no you don’t,” I prickled, standing up slowly and inching towards the back door without taking my eyes off him for a second. “We are not going the bean route. We are doing it with bacon, mushrooms, beef shin, onions and red wine.”
But he’s quick for a tall man and, with three long steps, crossed the floor to block me at the exit: “Too many extra ingredients disguise the great beef flavour,” he snarled, breathing heavily. “My Jamaican recipe with butter beans brings out the best of the bones and marrow. All I need is an onion, garlic, soy sauce, water and the oxtail, and I have a superb dish that tastes of tail and little else. Your recipe is far too complicated and rich.”
“Complicated? Rich?” I cried, furtively revising my escape route and manoeuvring now towards the front door. “That is the whole point of oxtail stew. It is what makes it the ultimate comfort food. The bacon adds a delicious smokiness to the dish. The mushrooms and pickling onions absorb and disperse the beef flavour beautifully. Disguise it? You are so wrong. The extra ingredients enhance it fantastically. What’s more, I am going to use a bottle of your best cabernet sauvignon for added robustness. I might even toss in some tomato pesto.”
Snatching his car keys from the counter, husband glared across the room at me: “What a hotchpotch. Why even bother with oxtail,” he scoffed.
By now, we had begun circling the kitchen table like a pair wrestlers about to engage in a bone-crunching clinch. For some time, we stalked one another menacingly, hurling words – each utterance more malevolent than the previous – without restraint.
Eventually, exhausted from the cursing and pacing, we accepted that we had reached an impasse. There was no other option: choose your ingredients and prepare to duel in The Great Oxtail Stew Cook Off. What follows below is an account of my battle plan.
There are three invariables when it comes to creating a World Champion Oxtail Stew. You need plenty of time, the best ingredients available and self-restraint to help avoid stirring the pot too much.
Oxtail stew is unequivocally a dish that must be cooked slowly. There are no shortcuts, sprints to the finish or “limited overs”. Because it contains more connective tissue, marrow, muscle fibre and collagen ¬– which toughen when heated – than other meat, oxtail needs to be cooked over a gentle heat over a long period. Think of preparing oxtail stew as an ultra marathon – the Comrades of the kitchen, perhaps. And, like a marathon runner, focus on the finishing line – it is worth every hour it takes to get there.
Selecting the best ingredients you can lay your hands on for oxtail stew is essential. Buy the largest, meatiest oxtail joints available and trim excess fat. Skinny cuts of tail contain little meat and simply add annoying tiny bones to the dish. Be as meticulous when you choose beef shin, mushrooms, bacon, onions and wine. Although oxtail stew requires lengthy cooking, the individual flavours and textures of each component are crucial to its ultimate success, and the outcome will only be as good as each of the ingredients you use.
Another vital consideration with regards cooking oxtail stew that it should not be stirred too frequently, particularly as it nears the end of its cooking time. Think of the process as being one during which you arrange layers of ingredients, textures and flavours. These simmer gently together and will eventually merge into a gently burbling mass of rich, meaty complexity. If you stir it too frequently, you risk breaking down the meat and creating less of a stew and more of a thick soup.
My recipe requires a minimum of four hours of gentle simmering, by which time it contains precious nuggets of tender and juicy meat, and succulent onions and mushrooms infused with beef, courtesy of both the oxtail and the beef shin pieces that I add to increase the meat content. The dish is even better if you prepare it a day or two prior to serving. The rest, followed by gentle reheating, helps develop the flavours and slightly reduce the thick, gummy stock.
The result of The Great Oxtail Cook Off? Need you ask? See my winning recipe below. And the moral of the story? He, who has beans, does not survive to tell the tail.
World Champion Oxtail Stew
1 – 1,25 kg oxtail
500 g beef shin, chopped into small pieces
125 g rindless bacon, cubed
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
3 large onions, chopped
3 large carrots, sliced
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 fresh lemon leaf
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups full-bodied red wine
2 cups water
2 tablespoons beef stock powder
2 tablespoons of tomato paste
250 g whole button mushrooms
500 g pickling onions
Salt and pepper for seasoning
Brown the beef shin and bacon in half the oil and butter mixture in a big, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Remove shin and bacon, and brown the oxtail in the same fat. Remove and season all the meat. Place the onions in the same pot and, when golden-brown, add the carrots, garlic and lemon leaf. Fry for a couple of minutes before adding the flour and blending it in. Add the wine, water, stock powder and tomato paste. Bring to the boil. Put all the meat back in the pot, cover and simmer very gently for four hours or longer. Test the meat. It should be fork-tender and just beginning to break away from the bones. Remove the lemon leaf and any excess fat from the mixture. Add the pickling onions and mushrooms that have been briefly browned in the other half of the olive oil in a separate fry pan. Simmer for another 15 minutes and add seasoning to taste.
(First published in The Weekender in June 2009. Photograph by Penny Haw.)