Heads or Tails

As the temperatures hovered dangerously close to 80 degrees these past few days in AZ, you would think I would be focusing on grilling or making fancy salads. Nope. Oddly, braising is what sounds good. Maybe it’s a fortuitous that St. Patrick’s Day is on the horizon as I can satisfy some of my braising needs by cooking a corned beef.

My mother was a traditional cook, at least during the years when I was growing up, and she did a lot of braising. I remember eating beef pot roasts and pork roasts and spare ribs that she would cook slowly in the oven until they were tender. I remember beef stews and green beans made with ham hocks and vegetable soups made with beef shanks.

But what I was recalling as of late was a stew that she made occasionally that featured oxtails. Little pieces of beef that came – not shockingly – from the tails of a cow. I’m guessing probably not necessarily an ox, but at least some sort of beef. Oxtails probably stemmed from the mentality that was common among people who grow up on farms: you don’t waste any part of the animal.

Mom didn’t necessarily take this philosophy to heart, as I don’t remember her ever serving us, well, heart. At least not beef heart. I remember battling my brother and sisters for the chicken heart, that teeny-tiny, chewy organ that comes in the little sack that frequently is shoved inside a chicken, along with a liver or two, a few gizzards, and the neck. Since chickens, as most animals, only have one heart (earthworms have five hearts, but I wouldn’t want to eat a single one of them), it was a valuable commodity. Livers were first runner up, and we happily gave Dad the gizzards.

I don’t have my mom’s recipe for Oxtail Stew, but I sure remember the meal. I recall that they varied in size but I always seemed to get the small ones. But mostly I remember that they were extremely slippery. I loved them. I joyfully picked up the scalding little devils with my fingers and gnawed until I got most of the meat, not necessarily an easy task, but I have always been good at getting meat from a bone. I think I was a hyena in a former life.

I decided to make Oxtail Stew.

Since I didn’t have my mother’s recipe, I did what any normal 21st century cook would do: I went to Pinterest.  There, I found a yummy-sounding recipe for oxtail stew cooked in a slow cooker. That sounded spot-on to me, so I invited my brother Dave and my sister Bec to dinner where we could eat with our fingers and reminisce about Mom. I warned Bill (who had never eaten oxtails) that it was likely that he was going to have to swallow his pride and eat with his fingers, something he is loath to do unless it’s a pizza.

But first I needed to find oxtails. None at Basha’s. None at Fry’s. AJ’s Fine Foods took 15 rings before they answered the telephone and then, upon my request for their meat department, sent me to a black hole which produced no meat department. Cross them off my list, then and forever, no matter how fine their food is.

However, when you’re on the hunt for any unusual cut of meat or any unfamiliar vegetable, your best bet is to hit the Mexican markets and/or the Asian markets. Bill and I set off on our adventure, where our intent was to hit the Mexican market first and if that produced no results, go a bit further into the Asian part of Mesa. We lucked out on our first try and found delicious-looking oxtails at Los Altos Ranch Market…..

uncooked-oxtails-los-altos-market-2-17

Those oxtails eventually became this……

oxtails

After eight hours in a slow cooker, the meat was indescribably tender and tasty, and the broth was rich and packed with flavor. I served the stew over mashed potatoes, and there was none left at the end of the meal. My assessment? I was sad that they were so tender that they didn’t provide my desire for slipperiness. However, my brother (looking carefully around for Mom’s ghost bearing some sort of weapon) said he thought mine were better than Mom’s. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

Here’s the recipe…..

Slow Cooker Oxtail Stew

Ingredients
2 – 3 lbs. oxtails
2 T. flour, seasoned with salt and pepper to taste
8 slices of bacon, cooked and crumbled
1 large onion, chopped
2 sticks of celery, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
½ lb. mushrooms, cleaned and cut in half
½ c. red wine
1-1/2 c. beef broth or stock
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 T. tomato paste

Process
Cook bacon in large skillet until crisp. Remove to a plate, and crumble.

Coat oxtails in the seasoned flour, and cook in the bacon grease until brown on all sides. Cook only a few at a time to aid in browning.

Place vegetables, wine, stock, bay leaf, thyme, and tomato paste into slow-cooker. Add the bacon and the oxtails to the vegetables.  Cover with lid and cook for 8 hours or until oxtails are tender.

Serve with mashed potatoes, rice, or noodles.

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