The other day at my favorite local butcher, Bleecker & Greer in Rockport, Maine https://www.mainemeat.com, I spotted a freezer tray full of chunks of oxtail and immediately grabbed it to add to my own freezer collection of odd pieces of meat. Oxtail is one of those once disparaged poverty cuts that have gained prestige among today’s chefs simply because it is so rare. Ask at a supermarket meat counter for oxtail and you may well get a blank stare. But ask at a good artisanal butcher who uses the whole animal and you will be gratified (as will the butcher) with the response.
What makes oxtail so superior for a ragù, or any kind of stew, is the presence of all the connective tissue that binds the tail segments together. Just watch cows in a pasture at the height of summer as they lazily whip their tails to ward off flies—it takes a lot of connective tissue to keep up that motion! That connective tissue yields collagen and marrow to enrich the sauce.
This is adapted from a recipe my daughter Sara Jenkins developed for the Food52 website. It’s a variation of an Italian meaty, tomato-y ragù and the oxtail adds incredible richness. If you can’t find oxtail, however, you could use beef shanks to get similar lush results—ask the butcher to cut the shanks about 2 inches thick. This will result in the equally delicious Italian dish called ossobuco, “bone with a hole.”
polenta, especially the delicious almost white polenta that I make with cornmeal from Liberation Farms, a Somali Bantu cooperative farm in Auburn, Maine. Liberation Farms polenta is made from a flint corn variety this community brought to Maine when they arrived from East Africa. It is stone-ground to a medium-grade meal at the Maine Grains grist mill in Skowhegan and is available here: https://mainegrains.com/product/organic-liberation-farms-cornmeal/
Leftover ragù may be frozen and kept for several months to add to any other beef-y stew or pasta sauce.
- About 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 to 4 pounds oxtail, cut in 1 ½ to 2-inch slices
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 yellow onions, peeled
- 6 medium carrots
- 6 celery stalks, including green parts
- 2 tablespoons Italian tomato paste or concentrate
- 1 head garlic, unpeeled, cut in half horizontally (crosswise)
- 1 bottle dry red wine
- 1 35-ounce can tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
- Sprigs of rosemary and Italian parsley
- Bay leaves
Set the oven on 250º.
Add about ¼ cup oil to a deep, heavy cast iron pan with a lid.
Set the pan over high heat. Generously sprinkle the oxtail pieces with salt and pepper and add them, one by one, to the hot oil in the pan. Brown each piece on all sides, working in batches if necessary, about 6 to 8 minutes to a side. As the oxtail pieces brown, remove them and set aside. When all the meat is well browned, remove the pan from the heat, drain the fat, and wipe the pan out with paper towels.
Meanwhile, while the meat is browning, chop together one onion, 3 carrots, and 3 celery stalks. They should be chopped quite small but not minced. Add the vegetables to the wiped-out pan, along with another 2 tablespoons of oil. Set over medium-low heat and let the vegetables wilt and brown for a few minutes, stirring frequently, then add one tablespoon of the tomato paste, along with about ¼ cup of boiling water. Stir to dissolve the paste and let the liquid steam and reduce for a few more minutes.
Arrange the pieces of oxtail in the pan, nestling them in the vegetables. Put the garlic halves in the center. Now pour in the wine to come just to the tops of the oxtail pieces. (Add boiling water if the wine is not sufficient.) Bring the liquid to a simmer, cover the pan, and transfer to the oven.
Leave it undisturbed for 3 to 4 hours, or until the meat is falling-apart tender. Check it from time to time and add a little more boiling water if the liquid is cooking down too much.
While the meat is cooking, coarsely chop the remaining 2 carrots, the celery stalks and the onion and transfer to a food processor, along with the aromatics, except for the bay leaves. Process to a fine mincc.
Add 3 tablespoons of oil to another heavy pan (a Dutch oven with a lid will work beautifully) and sauté the minced vegetables and herbs over medium-low heat until the vegetables soften and give off a nice aroma. Add the remaining tablespoon of tomato paste and about ¾ cup of boiling water, stirring to dissolve the tomato paste and mix it with the vegetables. Add the canned tomatoes, breaking them up in your hands (or use the side of a wooden spoon). Stir in the bay leaves and let the tomato sauce simmer for about 20 minutes. When it’s nice and thick, set aside to await the meat.
When the oxtail is done, remove the pieces and transfer to a plate or bowl to cool down.
Strain off the cooking liquid and set aside to let the fat rise to the top, then skim the fat off as completely as you can. (If you have time, this is easier to do by setting the cooking liquid in the refrigerator until the fat hardens on the top and can be easily removed.) Add the liquid, free of most of its fat, to the tomatoes and bring to a simmer.
When the oxtail pieces are cool enough to handle, pick the meat off, discarding the bones and fat, and add it to the tomato sauce.
Simmer everything together until all the elements are amalgamated and the juices have reduced to a slightly syrupy consistency, thick enough to coat a pasta strand, about 35 minutes.
At this point, the ragù can be used immediately, with pasta, polenta, or beans (cannellini or similar). Or, less traditionally, use the ragù to top steamed rice or potatoes. It can be refrigerated for 3 to 4 days or frozen for 3 to 4 months.