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…