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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Tails Have It

I have been away from my kitchen for longer than I care for.  Yesterday I had the day off and knew I could dedicate the entire day to  dicing, chopping, braising, and filling the house with long awaited aromas and wonders.  I wanted home cooking.  I needed comfort food.
I went to the supermarket without a list or any idea of what to prepare. I wanted to be inspired.  To be spoken to. To be drawn in by something.  I found beautiful oxtails.  My mind raced. Oxtails braised for hours with wine and vegetables would smell heavenly and once assembled, would simply cook themselves. Sold.
In the aisles of the market I decided to make Braised Italian Oxtails with parsnips, carrots, onions,  and celery over herbed cheese polenta. Oxtails are, well, beef tails cut into whatever thickness  desired.  Waste nothing.  Eat the tail.  A poor man's osso buco, beef and bone sliced directly across the leg or chin or, in this case, the tail. The bone adds tremendous flavor while the bone marrow adds buttery luciousness and glisten.

I heavily seasoned flour with paprika, salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, and fresh thyme.  After dredging the tails in the flour mix, I sauteed them in butter and oil until well browned. I set them aside and added onions, celery, fresh unpeeled garlic to the pan to saute, sweat, and pick up the flavor fond stuck to the bottom of the pot.  Once browned, I added 2 cups of white wine, 4 cups of beef stock, a can of hand crushed san marzano tomatoes, a bay leaf, oregano, salt, pepper, and a splash of red wine vinegar. I nestled the oxtails into the sauce, covered the pot, and braised them in the oven for 4 hours.  Yes, 4 hours.
Midway through the braising, I scooped out the spent vegetables and garlic.  They had done their duty flavoring the braising liquid.  I tossed in a fresh batch of pearl onions, sliced carrots, parsnips, and celery to  finish cooking with the oxtails.  The braised sauce had almost reduced by 1/2, so I added a bit more water and beef stock.

While they braised away, I prepared the polenta.  I usually serve a soft gooey polenta, but decided a crunchy base would stand up better to the long long simmerred oxtails..  After making basic polenta with salted water, butter, reggiano, heavy cream, chopped basil, and parsley, I poured it into a sheet pan to cool and harden. Once cooled, I sliced it into triangles, floured it, and pan-fried it until it was crispy golden.

After 4 hours of tormenting aromatic beckening from the brazen braising tails, it was time to eat. I placed 2 golden polenta triangles in large pasta bowls, topped the crunchy corn base with an oxtail, and spooned the sauce with melted vegetables over everything. A shower of reserved parsley, basil, and reggiano finished it off. 

To. Die. For.

Though still physically intact after an improbable amount of time in the oven, the oxtails fell apart with the mere touch of a fork.  The meat fell into the sauce and down onto the polenta like strands of beef streamers with soft  strong assertiveness. The marrow from the bones melded with the sweet acidity of the tomatoes creating a beef butter lipstick. Rich. It was like beef short ribs on steroids.   The velvet sweetness of the parsnips, carrots, and celery balanced out the the Thomas Keller inspired finishing splash of red wine vinegar.
 The polenta triangles stayed crisp under the weight of such richness until the sauce melted the crunchy exterior and revealed the cheese laden creamy inside. The marriage of sauce, cheese, long simmered vegetables, and butter beef was perfect. Very rich. Comforting. It was exactly what I wanted our home to smell like and taste like. It had been a while.

Welcome home, sailor.

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