When a Chef Won't Share His Oxtail Secrets, It's All About Winging It
|Photo by Bradford Schmidt|
"Are you really so unhappy working here that it's necessary to be a douchebag?" I thought.
I was out to dinner with a friend at a local restaurant, and the chef was sitting with us. He's a pretty well-known guy, and the restaurant had opened fairly recently, and I assumed he wanted to talk about cooking, food, whatever. Which is nice, if you're not a jerk.
My dinner companion mentioned that I wrote this column, which led to the topic of oxtail, something I had never cooked but wanted to dig into. The chef, who'd been acting like he was too good for the likes of us since he'd sat down, mentioned he was well-known for an oxtail dish. And even though he seemed as pissy as a spurned 12-year-old about the fact that I didn't already know how to cook oxtail, I still thought I'd gotten lucky: Tips coming!
Yeah, not so much. "To be honest," he began. According to a judge I had to, ahem, go before when I was younger, "to be honest" usually implies that you're lying. He continued, "I'm not really comfortable sharing recipes. But I'd be happy to talk about the theory."
I understood. No big deal. I didn't really want to follow a recipe anyway. "That'd be great. If you'd pass along a few basics for me to use, I could try making oxtail for my next column."
"OK," the chef said. He thought for a moment, then looked at me and said: "There's a great article on braising in The New York Times. Look it up when you get home."
That's it? I thought. That's his tip? My mother probably emailed me that frigging tip. But then he continued.
"At least I think it was the Times -- I read like five papers a day."
I sat and looked at him for a moment before thanking him and saying it was time to get going, avoiding voicing the whole douchebag thing. Fuck him, I thought; I'll figure it out on my own. Words both strong and cocky, I know, but I came home with a couple of pounds of oxtail the other day anyway. Which my wife was, well, a bit leery of, because they look like what they are.
"You're going to make that?"
"Do you know how?"
I did have that braising comment to go off of, but that was pretty obvious anyway, so I started thinking about flavors. I remember a trip to Jamaica when I was a kid in which oxtail seemed to come up a lot (not that I was willing to put down my Jamaican patties to try it). So Caribbean-ish was what I'd go for. But not a stew: If I'm eating oxtail, I'm going right at it, all exposed for what it is. Shit, I really don't know what I'm doing here.
"Those look kinda gross," said Joanna. She doesn't like stuff that still looks like animal.
"Yeah, well, be grateful it's already chopped up and we're avoiding the whole pretend-penis joke thing."
Maybe so, I thought, but I'm still gonna cook me some tail. Browning for a start is obvious, so I chucked 'em into a cast iron pot with olive oil and got them going. Things improved quickly too: Browned up, they looked a lot less tail-like and a lot more meaty. And they smelled really good.
"What next, dude?" My wife's interest had been piqued. I was onto something here.
"I suppose I'll pull them out and color up a few sliced onions in the pot," I said, and that seemed to work well, what with the stuck tail bits and all. Smashed garlic, a chopped jalapeno (of course), and shredded fresh ginger followed quickly, then some beef broth and a bit of tomato paste for braising. Add allspice, nutmeg, and cinnamon and holy shit, it was starting to look pretty sweet. And smell great.
I tried a bit of the broth, and I knew I was on this shit. Boiled it for a sec, dropped in my browned cow, covered it, and plopped it into the oven at 325 for a few hours. When Joanna looked at me to tell me how good it smelled, I started feeling pretty confident.
When it was done and I pulled the top, my mouth literally began to water. No stew here, like I said, so I pulled the tail chunks and onions, then reduced the liquid and whisked in a bit of cream. Tail, onions, sauce, all spooned over some rice, and I dug in.
Turns out that I didn't need that patronizing asshat's help after all.
Bradford Schmidt is The Meatist. He's also author of the blog Bone in the Fan. He lives in northern Palm Beach County and is happy to tell you how he cooks anything. Even oxtail.