Oxtail Stew, Alyssa Style

I’ve been hoping to make this happen for years and I finally did it.

Oxtail stew was a much-loved treat when I was growing up. It was never a common meal, and I grew to treasure the smell of it cooking and the experience of eating it. In some ways, it became the decadent upper end of what I remember fondly about my mother’s cooking, where arroz con salchichas was the cozy lower end. As a meal I could make myself, it eluded me for many years, primarily because of the difficulty of sourcing oxtails, but I still got to enjoy it a few times in Ottawa. But now I’ve learned how to make it myself.

In the modern world, oxtails are uncommon and expensive. A single head of cattle has only one tail, after all, whereas it has many, many kilograms of other cuts. Oxtails have a distinctive, somewhat gelatinous texture once cooked that makes them quite unlike most other beef preparations, due to the abundance of connective tissue that softens and melts as it cooks. Like brisket and similar cuts of meat, cattle tails are tough and mostly unpalatable without the long cooking time that enables this result, but the fall-off-the-bone results are worth the wait and effort. Oxtails became a fixture in the Caribbean Hispanic community for much the same reason as brisket became a classic of Jewish cooking in the US: the need to make use of all available foodstuffs, no matter how nominally subpar. Sourcing oxtails can be difficult, but ethnic markets are a good place to start. Mine come from my local African grocery, after the local Latin American groceries proved fruitless.

This variation features a few changes relative to the one I grew up with. In particular, I have left out the otherwise standard onion and garlic to spare my stomach and added asafoetida. Asafoetida, also known as hing, is a substitute for the earthy flavor of onions commonly used in South Asian cooking and available in South Asian groceries. Hing is sold as a resin mixed with flour to keep it powdery, and whether that flour is rice or wheat depends on whether the asafoetida is sourced from southern or northern India, respectively. This is an important detail to keep in mind for those avoiding gluten.

Because of the necessarily long cooking time, this dish is ideal for slow cookers. The version presented here assumes the use of an Instant Pot, a Canadian slow-cooking invention that is rapidly proving indispensable in many kitchens, but should be easily modified for other contexts. Reduce the cooking time and keep an eye on the desired liquid content of the final product when modifying this recipe for stovetop use. This recipe serves eight and reheats well.

Equipment

You will need an Instant Pot with a capacity of at least four liters, a chef’s knife, a cutting board, a wooden spoon, and a ladle.

Ingredients

  • Green bell pepper, 1
  • Red or orange bell pepper, 1
  • Potatoes, 5 large
  • Oxtails, 1.5 lbs. Oxtails are often sold cut into appropriately-sized chunks already; cut into sections no more than 2” thick if not. These do not have to be defrosted before use in this recipe, unless you have to cut them.
  • Spinach, chopped, 150 g
  • Cooking oil, as needed
  • Asafoetida/hing, to taste
  • Parsley, either 1/3 cup fresh or ¼ cup dried
  • Canned whole tomatoes, 1 791-mL can.
  • Red cooking wine, 1.5 cups Reduce this volume for a thicker broth.
  • Capers, ¼ cup
  • Cumin, 1 tablespoon
  • Thyme, 1 teaspoon
  • Oregano, 1 teaspoon
  • Cuban oregano, leaves from one long branch
  • Bay leaves, 2
  • Balsamic vinegar, 1 tablespoon
  • Dried red pepper, 1 dash

Common Food Restrictions

  • Gluten-Free: This recipe is naturally gluten-free if rice-based asafoetida is used.
  • Ketogenic / Low-Carb: Remove potatoes.
  • Low-FODMAP: This recipe is optimized to reduce FODMAP content.
  • Vegetarian/Vegan: A specific meat is the centerpiece of this stew, so a vegetarian substitute is unlikely.

Preparation

  1. Dice the green bell pepper and red bell pepper. Chop the potatoes into medium pieces.
  2. Add the cooking oil and asafoetida to the Instant Pot on the Sauté setting. Add the oxtails and brown on all sides. If using frozen spinach, you can add it here to thaw at the same time.
  3. Add the remaining ingredients to the Instant Pot and switch to the Slow Cook setting for 6 hours.
  4. Ladle into bowls and serve with ground black pepper to taste.

My mother and grandmother are still better at this than I am, not least because they get to use onion and garlic, but I’m good enough to satisfy myself and that’s what counts. I hope this recipe serves you well, as it has served me.

A bowl of oxtail stew, with one of the chunks of oxtail raised.

 

 

 

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Oxtail Stew, Alyssa Style
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