“Does she still make that incredible oxtail gravy?!” This question came from a friend who had moved to Alaska about 25 years ago. It’s been a long time, but he still remembers one particular meal at our home that included this rich savory sauce.
2 full large heads of garlic, (about 30-35) cloves separated, roasted, peeled, cloves left whole
2 T vegetable oil, or your favorite high heat oil
4 lbs oxtails
1 large onion, chopped
1 large green bell pepper, deseeded and chopped
2 (28 oz) cans Italian or plum tomatoes, hand squished
1 (10-15 oz) can tomato puree, different brands will have different weights
8 oz good imported Italian tomato paste
1 cup beef stock
1/2 cup full bodied red wine such as a good zinfandel or tawny port
1 large handful fresh basil (24 leaves minimum), rinsed, dried, large leaves torn in half
1 bay leaf
3 T dark brown sugar, packed
2 T plus 1 t dried garlic (yes, more garlic)
1 T dried basil
1 T dried oregano
2 t dried thyme
1 1/2 t fennel seed, lightly ground with mortar and pestle
1 1/2 t dried crushed rosemary
1/2 t ground black pepper
1/4 t ground white pepper
Tabasco sauce to taste, start with 4-6 shakes of the jar
2 T flat Italian parsley, rinsed, dried, and chopped
1 lb sturdy pasta such as ziti, rigatoni, or those lovely little wagon wheels cooked al dente
Spoon Mage™ Note:
If the idea of oxtails grosses you out, no worries, just substitute short ribs. Oxtails are delicious bits of meat with bones that flavor sauces. They are fun to eat. If you have not tried oxtails before, this is the time.
Packaged oxtails come with a variety of sizes included. Pop the small bones in your mouth whole and suck off the meat like you would a rib end. The largest bones take a little more work but it is well worth the effort. Start with your knife and fork and get what you can slice off. Then put your fork down, pick up the bone and set to gnawing on it. Have several napkins on hand.
Hand squishing tomatoes – either whole from a can or fresh – is a lot more fun and old style than buying diced tomatoes. Use your favorite brand with one warning. Lots of folks automatically turn to San Marzano’s, which are delicately flavored and naturally sweet. This sauce requires the more robust flavor of the American brand Hunts or Rienzi’s Italian plum tomatoes. Many store brands offer excellent fresh plum tomatoes. Use what you prefer or what you can find.
If you are using fresh tomatoes, you may want to peel them – or you might not. It is completely up to you. The skin is not only nutritious, but dratted tasty. This sauce is cooked long enough that the skin bits incorporate well and are no longer noticeable, even to a toddler.
Try that fantastic tomato paste that sits in a tube ready to be squished out as you need it (there are several brands). Use two tubes for this recipe.
Dark brown sugar is my choice to sweeten the pot if the tomatoes are particularly acidic. The only way to know what your tomatoes need is to let them cook and then taste. Go ahead and start out with two tablespoons.
I do not use salt in this sauce. If you do, don’t tell me but please just use a few twists of sea salt… I’ll tell you when to add it in the directions.
You cannot over-cook this sauce. It “matures”, thickens, and darkens as it cooks.
Oxtails need some time to meet with all the other nice ingredients and chat a while so it can overcome its natural shyness. Let it spend some time in the company of good seasonings, until finally, the meat submits, tenderized to the point where it is about to fall off the bone.
About six hours before dinner, prep and measure all the ingredients. Wear an apron.
Then set a nice big heavy pot over medium-high heat. As the pot heats up, carefully hover your hand a few inches over the pot. When the air above the pot feels very hot and you want to pull away, add the oil. Wait 30 seconds.
Now, using tongs, start adding the oxtails to the pot in small batches. Do not crowd them. Crowding slows down the process of browning and the meat will steam instead of browning. This changes the flavor and not in a good way. Take your time, brown in batches in very hot oil. They will spit a bit as they hit the hot fat. Be very careful.
Let the pieces sit in the hot oil for a minute or so. They will stick a bit. Gently wiggle them so you can lift them a bit to see if the side sitting on the pot is well browned. It is ok if a little of the meat sticks to the pan.
Turn the pieces over, browning them well on all sides. As they finish browning, remove them to a plate with enough of a side to hold any juices, and add more oxtails to the pan. Repeat as needed to finish the job.
The browned bits, both on the oxtails and the meat and fat that remained on the bottom of the pot, flavors the sauce. Don’t skip the browning or you will be disappointed with the results.
If too much oil accumulates, drain a little off, leaving only enough to make a nice slick of oil all over the pot. This is not deep frying, it is pan frying for oxtails.
When you are done with the browning, leave about two tablespoons of oil in the pan, add the onion and green pepper, reduce heat to medium, and sauté until the vegetables start to soften. Use your wooden spoon to scrape up the browned bits on the pot with each and every stir. Keep on cooking until the veggies soften.
Put the oxtail back in the pot along with the accumulated juices.
Add the crushed tomatoes (I do hope you crushed them with your hands, so much fun!).
Add everything else to the pot but the pasta and bring to a high simmer Stir carefully. If you are not sure of the acidic nature of your tomatoes, just add one or two tablespoons of brown sugar. You can always add the rest later.
Reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered for one hour. Stir infrequently.
Remove the lid and simmer for about three more hours. Yes three hours.
Stir now and then so it doesn’t burn. Be careful while stirring or the thickening sauce will bloop out all over your stove.
After the three hours, taste the sauce. Make adjustments to suit your taste buds. Let it simmer another 15 minutes. Taste the sauce again and learn what happened when you add a little of this or that. Many of you will need to add more brown sugar. It’s ok. This is special sauce and you are not allowed to worry about calories.
If the sauce simmered rather longer than described, that is great! Keep it, covered, on the lowest possible setting. Should it thicken enough to cut with a knife and fork, add a splash more port.
If the sauce is too thin because you forgot and didn’t start browning the oxtails until mid-afternoon, and dinner is only a few hours away, do the best you can to reduce the sauce and get those seasonings in order. Consider making a different sauce next time when the time is short.
Taste one final time before you start the pasta. If you are a salter, this is the time to do the deed. I’ll avert my eyes here and sing a few songs with the Swedish Chef to cover the sound of the sea salt grinder.
When a sauce asks to be salted, it means that the flavors are not acting in concert. If that happens for this sauce, add several drops of Tabasco sauce. In a sauce this hearty you will not taste the heat, but the sauce will bring all the flavors together. You might prefer to add a small splash of aged balsamic vinegar instead. It’s all good.
Does the sauce still taste acidic? If you worried about the sugar and held back, it might. That’s your tomatoes being a bit sour. Add another tablespoon. Add little at a time, let it sit a few minutes, and taste until it is just right. Remember, this sauce will not taste like traditional pasta sauce so do not try to force that.
Now you can just let it sit, covered, on the very lowest of low heat until it is time to cook the pasta. It doesn’t matter how long. It can sit for several hours more.
Cook and drain the pasta. Remove the oxtails from the sauce and place them on a large platter. Serve the oxtails, pasta, and sauce with a ton of fresh made Italian bread so you can get every last drop of goodness on the plate.
It will make your mother very happy if you also serve a nice green vegetable such as broccolini or a crisp green salad. Cook and enjoy mindfully.