Oxtails are at a premium in our home. Korean-style oxtail soup as made by the missus is one of the boys’ absolute favourite foods and so any oxtail we purchase almost always goes into making that. Alas, good oxtail is not always easy to find. In December, however, I connected with a small farm in the far south of Minnesota that sells their beef and lamb both directly from their website and from a trailer they bring up north once a month and park in a lot, usually in Burnsville. As it happens their route takes them right past the exit on Highway 35 to our town and so I made a date to meet them in the parking lot of the Flying J gas station (aka The Big Steer). The tryst was originally going to be for the purpose of purchasing lamb shanks. I asked if they had oxtails as well and they said they did. I took their entire inventory (less dramatic than it sounds: they had five left). With that many in the freezer at once, and the promise of a re-supply when done, I was able to claim two for my own uses.
When I brought them home I realized that unlike other oxtails we’ve purchased from Asian and Middle Eastern stores—and on a few occasions from the butcher from whom we purchase half a pig and quarter of a cow from time to time—these tails were whole! Would I need to get a saw? How many limbs would I lose? A quick bit of youtubing, however, revealed that oxtails are very easy to segment with just a chef’s knife and so proved to be the case. I defrosted one right before New Year’s and was pleased to discover that it had already been trimmed of most of the fat—though there was still enough left to put away for rendering later (once I have the fat from all five tails amassed). It took less than a minute or so to find the soft cartilage between segments and cut through them. What did I have planned for them? Oxtail curry, of course.
Oxtail braised with tomato is a standard preparation from Italy to Greece and parts beyond and while I’ve never encountered oxtail curry in India it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s eaten there too. (As always, it’s a massive country.) I seared the tail segments, toasted some spices, made a wet masala with onion, garlic, ginger and tomatoes, placed it all in a stone pot, added just enough water to almost cover and slow-cooked it till the meat was absolutely tender. Simple. And oh so delicious with the curry rich and viscous. The whole family devoured it over a couple of days with first parathas and then rice.
If you don’t have easy access to oxtail then you can make this with a collagen heavy cut of beef like chuck or brisket that responds well to long, slow cooking. It probably won’t hurt to add some soup bones to the mix; if you don’t have soup bones use beef stock instead of water. (By the way, if you do live in the Twin Cities metro, I believe Goette Farms will be bringing their trailer up again on February 10. Check their Facebook page for details; sorry, I’ve already reserved all the oxtails.)
- 1 oxtail cut into segments, about 2.5 lbs with the fat fully trimmed
- 1 cup chopped red onion (don’t chop it too fine)
- 1 tspn freshly pounded garlic
- 1 tspn freshly pounded ginger
- The following spices toasted carefully and ground to a coarse powder when cool: 2 tspns coriander seeds, 1 tspn cumin seeds, 1 tspn black peppercorn, 1 star anise, 1 piece of cinnamon about twice the size of the star anise, 3 large Kashmiri chillies, 1-2 hot red chillies
- 1 tspn haldi/turmeric powder
- 1 cup chopped tomato
- Hot water off the boil
- 1 tblspn chopped dhania/cilantro for garnish before serving (optional)
- Heat a heavy-bottomed stainless steel pan or similar that can take all the oxtail segments comfortably over high heat for a few minutes and then swirl a couple of tablespoons of oil into it. As soon as the oil shimmers (which will be very soon) add the oxtails and brown nicely on all sides (both flat sides and then stand them up and rotate to get the sides). Remove the oxtails to a plate and set aside.
- Wipe the pan down, reduce the flame to medium and another tablespoon or two of oil. When hot add the onions and saute for 10-12 minutes till nicely browned.
- Add the ginger and garlic and saute for another minute.
- Add the turmeric and powdered spices and saute for another 30 seconds or so.
- Add the tomatoes and salt, mix in thoroughly and cook till the tomatoes have completely disintegrated and the oil begins to separate.
- Place the browned oxtails in one layer in a deep saucepan, pour the contents of the pan over, mix, add enough hot water to just cover, bring to a simmer, cover and cook till the meat is falling off the bone.
- Let it cool and for best results refrigerate for a day and reheat over low heat. Garnish with cilantro if desired before serving with rice or parathas.
- As you can see this has a deep red colour. But it’s not terribly hot. That’s because the chillies are mostly very mild Kashmiri chillies (get them on Amazon if you don’t have an Indian store within reach). You can, of course, make this hotter if you like using only hot dried chillies; I kept it mild so our kids could eat it too. It would probably also be very good with just guajillo chillies.
- This is not a million miles from the way in which nihari is made but there’s no flour added at the end here and the use of tomato is not standard in nihari (which is not to say it’s never used).
- You want there to be some reduction in the gravy as it cooks so you don’t want a pot with a heavy, tightly fitting lid. But you also don’t want it to dry out and scorch. Check every once in a while and if the gravy has depleted too much before the meat gets fully tender just add some more hot water. Err on the side of more not less water—the collagen in the tail will render the final gravy viscous. If it’s too thin at the end you can always reduce it. But you want this to be very easily pourable.
- It really does get a lot better after sitting for a day. But if you can’t wait it’ll be pretty good freshly made as well.
- Also in our freezer from Goette Farms: a bunch of lamb shanks and a very intriguing pack of lamb belly. I should cook some of that up soon too.