Winter can sometimes feel like the least generous season for cooks, a barren and lean time of year as we wait patiently for spring to arrive with all its rich bounty and colourful, sprightly ingredients to entice us back into the kitchen. It is, however, the perfect time to indulge in old fashioned, heart-warming dishes designed to keep out the cold and revive flagging spirits and jaded palates during gloomy winter’s days.
Stewing and braising are the basics of good home cooking. Rich comfort food with robust flavours in the shape of pot roasts, casseroles, hot pots and stews, cooked slowly to create memorable dishes with big flavours that are also kind on the purse strings. One of my all time favourites is braised oxtail.
As a kid, my grandmother would often cook oxtail stew and I still have fond memories of sitting around her small dinner table enjoying all those incredibly, intense flavours. I totally understand that with its bony, somewhat ungraceful looks and fatty protruding discs of marrow that oxtails can turn off many home cooks before they even get a second look. But that is a real shame because there’s beautiful meat lurking there somewhere and although it’s similar to short ribs it’s even silkier, tender and more delicious when slowly cooked with just a little patience and love.
With its high ratio of bone to beef, oxtails apparent weakness is actually its towering strength. It’s a guarantee of gelatinous, tender meat coupled with a deep, flavoursome stock to keep out the chill on a winter’s night.
There is a myth that slow cooking is a lot of bother and takes too much time. The reality is that braising underrated, cheaper cuts of meat can be quick and easy to produce, leaving you time to get on with other things while the meat is cooking and tempting you the fabulous aromas that float around the kitchen during the cooking process. Slowly simmering food is off course one of the most ancient forms of cooking. In prehistoric times, meat was boiled in troughs and hot stones were added at regular intervals to keep the water simmering. In the Bronze Age, the arrival of the first cooking pots revolutionised primitive meals, giving the cook more scope to use other ingredients to flavour meat and stocks. Luckily today, we are blessed with far more Ingredients to choose from, but a hearty soup or robust stew makes just as good a meal now as it did then.
BRAISED OXTAIL IN RED WINE
This wonderful recipe asks little more from us than patience. I love to serve this rich stew with pureed potatoes flavoured with crème fraiche and spring onions.
Ingredients: Serves 4
1kg oxtail, trimmed of fat and jointed
4 tbsp plain flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
2 tbsp olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
2 large carrots, chopped
2 leeks, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
400ml red wine
600ml beef stock
2 tbsp tomato purée
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
75g unsalted butter
Chopped parsley to serve
Preheat the oven to 150C/130C Fan/Gas 2.
Sprinkle the oxtail pieces with seasoned flour until the meat is well coated. Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan and fry the oxtail until they are well browned. Transfer to a casserole dish.
Add the butter to the pan and cook the onion, carrot, leeks and celery over a gentle flame until soft. Transfer to the casserole dish. Deglaze the pan with the red wine and add to the casserole with the beef stock, tomato purée, thyme and the bay leaf. Season with salt and pepper, put the casserole on the heat and bring to a gentle simmer. Cover with a lid and cook in the centre of the oven for 2½ hours. Stir after 1 hour, turning the oxtail in the sauce. The meat should be falling off the bone and the sauce should be thick. Remove the casserole dish from the oven and transfer the oxtail pieces to a plate, set aside and keep warm. Skim any fat that has pooled on the surface of the sauce. Discard the bay leaf. Push the cooking liquid through a fine sieve into a clean pan and simmer over a medium heat. Season to taste. Add the oxtail, sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve with pureed potatoes.
POTATO PUREE WITH CRÈME FRAICHE & SPRING ONIONS
1½ Kg potatoes (waxy varities such as Desirèe or maris piper are best)
3 tbsp crème fraiche
2 spring onions, finely chopped
Peel the potatoes and cut them into even sizes so they all cook at the same time. Cook for about 12-15 minutes in boiling salted water. Drain well then return to the pan and cook for 1-2 minutes over a dry heat. Mash the potatoes very thoroughly until completely lump free. Don't be tempted to use a food processor though, as it will make the potatoes gluey.
Gradually beat in the butter then slowly mix the crème fraiche into the potato purée with some salt and freshly ground pepper. Sprinkle with chopped spring onions and serve immediately.