The name alone may make some people blanch.
But to me, the tail never fails to get me in the heart.
You see, oxtails were the very last dish that I cooked for my Dad before he passed away. And so, they always make me think of him.
He’s the one who taught me true appreciation for this once-shunned, once-inexpensive cut that has such brazen beefiness.
If you like short ribs, you’re sure to go crazy for oxtails, which cook up even more tender with even more profound flavor. You can find them easily in the butcher case of Asian markets.
Sure, there’s more cartilage and bone in oxtails. But that’s what adds to their flavor and makes eating them such messy fun.
My Dad would cook up a cavernous pot on weekends, simmering the cut-up oxtails with star anise, soy sauce and ginger in a brothy cross between a soup and a stew. He’d throw in carrots and turnips, then let the pot simmer for hours until the meat was as tender as can be.
Then, he’d ladle big scoops of it into flat bowls filled with fluffy steamed rice, with the grains absorbing the aromatic broth so perfectly.
When I was a kid, I liked the smaller ends of the tail better than the larger ones that held more meat. That’s because the tinier ones fit my fingers so much better when I gnawed on them heartily to get every last strand of meat.
Fancy restaurants bone out the meat now for a neater presentation. But at its core, oxtails make for a dish you just have to dig into with your hands, just as you would a cracked crab. If you’re familiar with the gleeful slurping sounds you hear at ramen restaurants, you’ll be more than prepared for that sucking sound that’s a clear signal that someone is happily eating oxtails with their fingers.
“Savory Braised Oxtails with Preserved Lemon Polenta” is from Chef Ming Tsai’s first cookbook, “Blue Ginger” (Clarkson Potter). I’ve made this dish once every winter since the book came out in 1999. That’s how good this dish is.
It’s not the traditional, soupy-style of Chinese oxtail that my Dad used to cook. It’s more contemporary, and even a little richer.
It’s still a long-simmered dish that cooks on the stovetop for about three hours. There are still plenty of wonderful aromatics, including fennel, carrots, celery, garlic, lemongrass, bay leaves, plum tomatoes, dark soy sauce and Shaoxing wine. Once the oxtail are cooked, remove them from the pot, then puree the cooking liquid with an immersion blender. The result is a velvety sauce with the color and body of mole negro.
The oxtails are served with creamy polenta brightened with the tang and saltiness of preserved lemon, which you can buy at gourmet stores or make your own easily at home with my directions here. The genius touch is that the polenta cooks in the oven, so you don’t have to give your arm a workout with all the usual stirring. The oxtails also go great with plain white rice, if that’s more your fancy.
You’ll probably end up with quite a bit of extra sauce leftover after finishing up all the oxtails. I like to freeze it to use as a base for making beef stew later on. Trust me, you don’t want to waste any of the sauce.
I hope this oxtail dish becomes a favorite that you look forward to making every winter, just as I do. One taste always makes me nostalgic for my childhood and for the man who taught me to savor some of the finer, more unorthodox tastes in life.
Savory Braised Oxtail with Preserved Lemon Polenta
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup salt
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
12 large oxtail (6 to 8 pounds)
4 tablespoons canola oil
2 large onions chopped
2 medium fennel bulbs, cored and roughly chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh ginger
10 garlic cloves, peeled
4 lemongrass stalks, white parts only, pounded and finely chopped
2 cups Shaoxing wine
1 (1-pound) can plum tomatoes, drained
1 cup dark soy sauce
4 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried
2 bay leaves
1 lemon, halved
Preserved Lemon Polenta (see recipe below)
On a platter, combine flour, salt and pepper, and mix. Add oxtails and dredge on all sides. Set aside.
Heat a Dutch oven or heavy large pot over medium high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil and swirl to coat bottom of the pot. When the oil shimmers, add oxtails and brown on all sides, about 10 to 12 minutes, working in batches if necessary. Remove the oxtails, wipe out the pot, and add remaining 2 tablespoons oil. When oil shimmers, add onions, fennel, celery, carrot, ginger, garlic and lemongrass. Saute, stirring until soft, about 10 minutes. Add wine, stir, and cook to reduce it by half, 6 to 8 minutes. Add tomatoes, soy sauce, thyme, bay leaves and lemon. Return meat to the pot, add water to cover, and correct seasonings. The liquid should be well seasoned. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer, covered, until the meat falls from the bones, about 3 hours.
Remove oxtails to a plate and skim sauce to remove fat. Remove bay leaves, lemons, and thyme sprigs, if using, and cook over high heat to reduce sauce by one-fourth, 8 to 10 minutes. Using a hand or standard blender, puree sauce. Correct seasonings. Divide polenta among 4 plates, top with oxtails, spoon some of the sauce over, and serve.
Preserved Lemon Polenta
5 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh ginger
1 cup medium-grain polenta or cornmeal
1/4 cup preserved lemons
4 cups chicken stock or low-sodium canned broth
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Heat a large ovenproof saucepan over medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the butter and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Add shallots and ginger, and saute, stirring until soft, about 6 minutes.
Add polenta, preserved lemon, and stock. Season with salt and pepper, stir well, fold in remaining butter, and cover tightly with foil. Transfer to the oven and bake until liquid is absorbed, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Correct seasonings and serve.
Recipes from “Blue Ginger” by Ming Tsai
Another Ming Tsai Recipe: Cranberry-Hoisin Chicken ‘N’ Rice
More: My Q&A with Ming Tsai