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Peasantly hearty ways with oxtail

Oxtail a la Paysanne

My cooking career took a turn for the better the day I first made a Roux brothers recipe for lamb shanks. It was in the early Nineties and I still battle to find a more delicious lamb shank anywhere than the brothers’ rustic French peasant recipe in which they are cooked in a sauce packed with vegetables, stock and red wine and thickened with flour.

They come out utterly melting and deeply flavourful, and all you really need with them is a pile of creamy mashed potato and a very large appettite.

Having said that, this column isn’t about lamb shanks, despite evidence to the contrary. It’s about oxtail, a meat which always strikes me as being a distinctly South African thing as much as it is a winter dish. It also struck me, this week, that an approximation of that old Roux brothers recipe could be a fine thing for oxtail, which needs slow cooking and plenty of liquid even more than a lamb shank does.

And if you need a further recommendation, I made it, in the late Nineties, for a dinner for which the guests included Jeremy and Annette Cowley Nel, and they still talk about those shanks today. And please excuse the Olympian name dropping, but that woman is still as class an act now as she was in those difficult days of her thwarted Olympic career.

Also Olympian in a culinary sense are the three Rouxs, Michel junior having in recent years matched their fame thanks to his stirling efforts in front of the camera in shows like the British MasterChef, his rivetting Service series, and an outing on our own MasterChef. How odd that three of the world’s greatest chefs should share a name with a preparation for thickening a sauce. A very basic preparation, which is kind of fitting, for any great chef has to know the basics in order to build both a dish and a career.

You don’t need a roux (lower case, for the preparation) as such for this oxtail dish. That would require stirring flour and a fat together off the heat before adding to the sauce or stock to thicken it, whereas the flour in this dish gets sprinkled on the simmering vegetables and cooked into them for a few minutes which serves both to begin the process of thickening the greater dish as well as taking on the flavour of the vegetables and also adding a certain nuttiness to the whole as the flour itself cooks.

I invariaby buy more oxtail than I need because some of those smaller pieces really don’t look as if they have much meat on them, while the thicker chunks from the fatter end of the tail appear to have a good deal of bone. In fact, there’s loads of meat on those thicker bones, and even the smaller ones offer up a good mouthful or two.

If. And it’s a big if. If it is cooked to fall-apart tenderness, and totally so. There are no half measures with oxtail. Even fairly tender isn’t good enough. It has to be so tender that the meat just pulls away from the bone with minimal pressure from a fork. Anything less, and you won’t be eating some of that meat unless you have the teeth of a Tudor trencherman.

Oxtail a la Paysanne

1.5kg oxtail

2 Tbs flour

2 medium turnips, diced

2 large carrots, diced

5 or 6 shallots or two medium onions, sliced

1 or 2 cloves garlic

5 or 6 sprigs rosemary

2 Tbs chopped parsley

Handful top end of celery leaves, roughly chopped

250g back bacon, diced

2 large or 3 medium leeks, sliced

3 Tbs butter

2 cups red wine

1 cup beef stock

Salt and pepper to taste

3 Tbs olive oil

500g portabellini mushrooms, whole

Squeeze of lemon juice

Begin by sautéeing the shallots or onions and garlic in butter gently, then add the carrots, turnips, leeks, celery and bacon and simmer, stirring, for 5 to 7 minutes. Sprinkle the flour over and cook, stirring, for another five minutes. Add the rosemary sprigs, red wine and stock, season with salt and pepper, bring to a gentle simmer, and then add the oxtail pieces, making sure they’re immersed.

Cover and cook in a 200° oven for 15 minutes, then turn the heat down to 180° and cook for about three hours. Check it now and then to ensure that it is not catching, drying out or the meat overcooking. This timing worked perfectly for me, but if your quanitties vary it can turn out differently.

Cook the mushrooms in a large heavy pot in olive oil, adding a squeeze of lemon juice ofter a few minutes and then cook on a fairly brisk heat, stirring, unless they release their juices and they’re cooked away again. They should be a nutty brown with hardly any liquid. Then season and stir them into the oxtail stew and serve up with mashed potatoes.

It’s as hearty as a winter dish could get.
First published in Weekend Argus August 2012
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