CHINESE RED COOKED OXTAILS
RED COOKED OXTAIL
A while ago I was buying meat from Autumn Harvest farm and saw in their cooler two packages of meat not listed on the whiteboard: oxtails. They were easy to pick out: circles of meat mantled with fat about a bone. Visually they were quite pleasing, descending in size. Oxtails are not usually sold at the farmer’s market. I don’t know why. The only time I had ever eaten them, at Dano’s on Cayuga (my favorite Ithaca restaurant, long gone to its present location on Seneca Lake) they were hauntingly delicious. Tender, flavourful, rich with slippery fat and cartilage and fork-tender meat with a good bone for gnawing, there is nothing like an oxtail. And here were two packages, enough to feed a few people. They were inexpensive and unclaimed. (Inexpensive: I did see oxtails the other day for twice what I paid). They sat in the freezer, along with a wild boar ham and a rack of lamb, awaiting the right occasion. Which came this weekend with the arrival of my old dear friend M and his wife M. On Saturday we had a feast for 12: roasted rack of lamb, boar ham roasted with fennel, sage, rosemary, thyme and bacon in a 275 degree oven until just done (150 degrees), flounder baked with the last frozen tomato puree from last year’s garden, with fresh oregano, and potatoes roasted in the pork drippings. It was a warm night and we sat out on the porch eating long into the night. Sunday, Bloomsday, and Father’s Day, we were going to eat early, and there would be fewer of us. One of the M’s is Chinese, and we talk food, a lot. I knew that for the Chinese meal I would braise those oxtails in dark soy sauce and rice wine with anise, a style of Chinese stew known as red cooked.
I can’t tell you how much the oxtails weighed. I believe it was a full tail, because in each package the pieces went from very wide to very small. The smallest were like pegs, and the largest were the size of shanks. All together they filled a pretty big pot. They fed 7 so I am going to guess there were at least 7 pounds and possible 8. And I did not measure. This recipe then is about how to cook these things, and other things like them. You will have to be a cook and make decisions. It is a forgiving recipe. Too salty? Add water. Too thin? Add soy sauce, wine, cook it down.
I can’t say how authentic my procedures are. Often, usually, Chinese cooks parboil meats to rid them of blood and produce a clear broth. With red cooking the clearness is obviously not an issue. I use the standard western method of browning the meat and creating the braise in the pot with the bits that stick to the pan.
Cut up an onion, smash and peal 6 cloves of garlic, and slice a two inch piece of ginger with the skin on. Measure out onto a plate 3 star anise, 3 pieces of dried tangerine peal, a teaspoon of whole black peppercorns, a teaspoon of whole coriander seed, a cinnamon stick (I used a two inch piece of Chinese cinnamon bark) and a teaspoon of Sichuan peppercorns. Season the oxtails on all sides with salt and pepper. Measure out 2/3rds of a cup of dark soy sauce, 2/3rds of a cup Shaoxing rice wine, ¼ cup sugar, and boil a pot of water.
In a heavy bottomed pot large enough to fit all of the tails, heat a ¼ cup of vegetable oil over high heat. Brown them in batches. Lower the heat, add the onions, ginger and garlic and fry until fragrant. Add the spices. DO NOT BURN this stuff. You want to sauté them briefly. Add the soy sauce, and then the oxtails, and toss and stir until the oxtails take on the colour of the soy sauce. Add the rice wine, the sugar, a pinch of salt, stir, and add water to just cover the oxtails. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer gently, with little lazy bubbles, for 3-4 hours, until the tails are fork tender. Remove the tails, strain the liquid and return the liquid to the pan. Taste. Adjust for salt and sugar. Add ½ cup more rice wine to the pot and a 4 cups of quartered turnip or daikon radish (you can use carrots, or parsnips, or whatever root you like) and 12 dried shitake mushrooms (or more!) soaked in water, along with the soaking liquid. Simmer for a half hour. Season the pot with a little Chinkiang vinegar and sesame oil and then pour the liquid, turnips and mushrooms over the braised oxtails, in a giant bowl. Serve with rice. I drank a great Italian red wine. Everyone was fainting with pleasure.