Thursday, April 12, 2012

Two Books, Two Stories

As you know, dear readers, I am something of a…collector always seems like such a cold and scientific word…an accumulator of cookbooks. Sometimes I go out looking for something; sometimes a book just appears and I have to get it, especially if it is on my wish list or is something that I have been wanting to get – for whatever reason – for some time. As you know I am picky, but then I will succumb to any book if I get a good vibe from it, whether I have much experience with the food itself or not.

The newest editions to the library are above – Chez Panisse may be a long way from Clapham but as I was kindly taken there once in my youth (by a realtor who was dealing with my mom in getting our house in Berkeley on the market & sold, back in ’81) I have never forgotten how good the food was, even though it was pizza & cider and perhaps some salad, it was so good it must have imprinted upon me in some deep way. Thus when I came across the Chez Panisse CafĂ© Cookbook I had to get it, just in order to be reminded that the pizza was from a wood-burning oven and how good the French cider was…many Chez Panisse books are out there, I suspect, that sit beautifully on the shelf but never get used; I am going to try to make something from this, even if it’s just a side dish, to see if I can create some of the Berkeley magic right here.

Crazy Water Pickled Lemons by Diana Henry is a whole other story. I am moving tentatively (very tentatively) into trying out Mediterranean food, beyond Italy, beyond Sicily even; and this book looks like the right place to start (yes I do have the Claudia Roden book as well – so I can contrast & compare, of course). It is awesomely pretty, for one thing, and on a grey day like today the light and heat radiating from the book are enough to inspire me. But there is something else too; in buying this book I feel as if I have freed myself, and that is in part due to the fact that I got it somewhere I not only didn’t expect to find it, but in a chain of shops that ordinarily I avoid. I avoid it for a good reason, and have done so for over a year, but my gut instinct told me to go in and look, and there it was, sitting there patiently waiting, or so I like to think, for me. A cook’s relationship with any given book has to be a good one, or else the book will be ignored and the cook will remain ignorant of whatever wisdom it can provide. Mediterranean food is some of the oldest in the world, and that is why I am interested in it (of course I am following Elizabeth David’s main interests too – French, Italian, Mediterranean…more imprinting, I think) and I have not seen this book anywhere else, at any price. That I was forgiving and then rewarded shows how the cookbook gods, if there are any, wanted me to find that book; that it is a gorgeous and inspiring one is also moving, in a way.

Oxtail Stew

Oxtail stew is one of those things that is very good, but few of the books I have even bother to mention oxtail (I do have more than a few books, but only one – Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries – has a recipe). I don’t know why this is, save for the fact that because it’s not a glamorous cut, nor one easy to find (I’m guessing at this but think about it – it’s not what any butcher is going to feature in the window) that it is avoided. The fact that it’s the tail – bone and all – also probably puts people off.

That is too bad, as oxtail stew is amazing stuff – strong, richly comforting, good for what ails you, whatever that might be. The recipe I used wasn’t Slater’s – I tend to shy away from using mushrooms in a stew – but this one, which I highly recommend, with these caveats:

A whole oxtail is not something you can just get off the bat, so to speak; I used two large pieces, three smaller ones and a long narrow piece that looks something like a child’s bicycle’s handlebar which must be the end piece of the tail. The two large ones I got from a friendly butcher (note: I live in Clapham and didn’t go to an independent butcher but to a grocery store, for reasons I will mention in the fullness of time) and the smaller I got at another branch of the same grocery store that had them out and already cut and packaged to go. I figure with these six pieces I had most, if not all, of the tail, and cut back only on the onion, using half of one instead of a whole one.

I used ready-in-a-bag chopped swede instead of a parsnip on the hunch it would work, and it did; ordinarily I advocate cutting up your own vegetables, but these were on a discount shelf and had ripened, if that’s the right word, to a good point for using in a stew.

The crazy part of this recipe is when it tells you to use a strainer to get out all the celery, onion and carrot you put in to make the basis of the stew in the first place. That is impossible without a strainer (guess what – I don’t have one) and kind of pointless, as they lend body to the gravy and are good for you, if only for fibre. So keep ‘em in!

Also, when you put the stew in the fridge overnight to scrape the fat off the top the next day, do not go crazy trying to get every bit of fat off, and keep the fat – it’s good stuff – for using to cook vegetables, particularly carrots, as the thyme is right there in the fat already…and indeed I used dry twigs of old thyme and that worked out fine, though fresh thyme is always preferable.

Remove the bones just before serving, and you'll know when the stew is ready when you can do just that - the meat shouldn't be falling off them, exactly, but should pull away very easily.

The wine should be a strong red, as oxtail has a strong flavour and will twack anything too diffident.

The side dish I’d advise is mashed potatoes and lots of ‘em, straight up (no garlic or mustard or caramelized onions needed) with lots of butter.

After I made the stew I found a Delia Smith version where cider is used instead of wine; I may well try that out next, and report on how it goes…