Sometimes you forget just how good certain things are.
After a few days of snow and ice, you forget how wonderful it is to be able to walk freely along the pavement without risking life and limb, until you get to a non-icy patch and feel that delicious sense of liberation. After months of habitually using showers as your primary method of self-cleansing, you forget quite how wonderful long, hot baths can be until you have one. Bubbles and all. After cooking your own and your family's dinner every day for weeks, months even, you forget quite how amazing it is to just be called down from your room and find dinner on the table. You forget how anything tastes good if it's been made by someone else. After always cycling everywhere in the bitter cold, you forget how good it can feel to just get into a taxi, relish the warmth, and worry about the expense another time.
That sensation of remembering long-forgotten luxuries in life is something to be cherished, I think.
I've had several of these moments recently. Tucking into a gorgeous, juicy, pink burger and chips from Honest Burgers in Brixton a couple of weeks ago (if you live near there - go. If you don't - go), I asked myself why I don't eat more burgers. Every time I devour a bowl of chips at a restaurant (the only time I ever eat them), I tell myself that I'd definitely be happier if I ate more chips. The same goes for things like cheese, biscuits (chocolate Hobnobs in particular), bread, and pastries. It's precisely because I don't usually allow myself such indulgent delights that they remain, for me, indulgent. Generally they lurk out of sight, off my culinary radar, safely out of the way of temptation. I carry on cooking relatively healthy things (though still delicious, mind you - I said relatively), blissfully ignorant of everything I'm missing.
But sometimes I am reminded just how wonderful certain foods and recipes can be. Of course, these are usually things on the slightly less healthy end of the spectrum. After a few mouthfuls, though, all my notions of moderation and restraint are lost to the winds and I am content to sit and revel in every bite, savouring something that is wonderful precisely because it is rare, that is familiar yet at the same time not; trying it again feels like an adventure and a new discovery.
Recently, one such experience involved a beef stew. I made the most incredible, sublime, utterly mouthwatering and amazing beef and ale stew for myself and my boyfriend the other week. It happened on a whim, perhaps the product of the rapidly declining temperatures outside, perhaps because for some reason we both kept talking about steak and ale pie (I imagine these two reasons are closely related). I braised juicy hunks of Aberdeen Angus beef with button mushrooms, baby carrots, red onions, shallots and celery in a mixture of beef stock and ale, throwing in a few thyme sprigs and serving the whole thing with leek and potato mash.
I didn't intend to blog about it, but I keep thinking about it weeks later. It would be morally wrong, I think, to deprive the world of what is without doubt the definitive beef stew recipe. So watch this space.
Anyway, I bring that up (perhaps unfairly - I can't really go on and on about such a stew and leave you hanging, awaiting the recipe...but I have, so sorry) because it reminded me of how great beef can be. Red meat in general is something I eat very little of, mainly because it's not cheap and because I find it quite heavy, but after eating that stew I wondered why there is not more beef in my life.
In this spirit of cow-homage, and because I was still in awe of that stew, I decided to try something I've been intrigued by for a while: oxtail.
Oxtail is, quite literally, the tail of the cow. It is sold sliced into chunky, meaty rounds, bone in the middle and thick veins of fat and gelatine spidering out towards its edges. Because of the nature of this cut, it demands very long and slow cooking, to tenderise all those fibres and render the fat out. However, if you have the patience (very little actual hands-on work is required), you'll be rewarded with one of the most flavoursome and tender cuts of beef, a perfect melting stew for winter evenings.
I braised my oxtail, according to a recipe from Diana Henry's 'Food From Plenty', a cookbook I love. It involves cooking the meat in a mixture of red wine, beef stock and orange juice infused with bay, cinnamon and juniper. Towards the end, peeled baby onions and prunes are added to the liquid to soften and contribute their luscious sweetness. I added ground ginger and star anise, because I wanted flavourings that would lift the intense meaty richness of the oxtail. This pot of bubbling gorgeousness sat in the oven for nearly four hours, and when I removed it the meat was falling apart and tender, and the sauce was rich, silky and unctuous, due to the gelatine from the meat.
The combination of flavours in this stew are fantastic - you get all that depth of flavour from the meat, red wine and stock, but the orange, anise and ginger give it a really intriguing aroma that sits well with the meaty strands of tail. It's not your average beef stew, but something far more exotic, reminiscent of a Moroccan tagine. I wasn't sure how the prunes would work, but I think they were the perfect partner to the beef - it's so rich that it really needs something sweet to take the edge off. The baby onions, which soften into little pearls of earthy flavour, also help with this. A scattering of parsley at the end to add a bit of oomph, a giant mound of creamy mashed potato (adding a little wholegrain mustard would be divine), and some steamed veg (I used carrots and Swiss chard) turn this into a hearty, wholesome dinner, perfect for the current cold snap.
You could also serve this with couscous, bulgar wheat, pearl barley or polenta - anything to soak up that delicious sauce. I reckon pearl barley or bulgar wheat would be fantastic, because their nutty crunchiness would counteract the sweetness of the meat.
Incidentally, if you're bothered about the fat content of oxtail (there is quite a lot, compared to normal braising steak), make the stew a day ahead and refrigerate it overnight. The fat will all congeal on the surface and you can just flake it off with a spoon. Also, leaving stews like this overnight is generally a great idea, as it intensifies their finished flavour and texture. A win all round, really.
If you haven't tried oxtail yet, I'd urge you to give it a go - it's incredibly easy to cook and immensely rewarding (don't be put off by the long-ish ingredients list below - you mostly just chuck stuff in a pan and let the oven get on with the rest). OK, so it is a bit more work to eat - you have to shred the meat away from the bone with your fork - but it's worth every bite. Most butchers should be able to order oxtail for you; they have even started selling it in Tesco. It's not as cheap as it perhaps should be, but I imagine this is because you only get one tail per cow, so they're not as plentiful as other cuts.
Saying that, it beats a fillet steak both on the price front and the flavour front.
Embrace the meaty tail, snuggle up with a gorgeous bowl of winter stew, and remember just how good beef can be.
Oxtail with prunes, orange and star anise (serves 4 generously):
Adapted from 'Food From Plenty' by Diana Henry
1.2kg oxtail, cut into lengths
Salt and pepper
1 onion, roughly chopped
2 celery sticks, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
300ml red wine
500ml beef (or chicken) stock
3 bay leaves
Half a cinnamon stick
1 tsp ground ginger
10 juniper berries, crushed
1 large star anise
16 shallots or baby onions, peeled
2 tsp soft brown sugar (optional)
3 tbsp flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
Mashed potato or another chosen accompaniment, to serve
Preheat the oven to 150C/135C fan oven. Place around 4 tbsp flour in a large bowl and season generously. Toss the oxtail pieces in the flour to coat. Heat 2 tbsp oil in a large ovenproof casserole and brown the oxtail over a high heat until coloured all over. Remove and set aside.
Lower the heat and fry the onion and celery until soft and golden. Add the garlic and cook for another couple of minutes, then pour in the wine. Scrape up all the bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pan (the best bits!)
Return the oxtail to the pan. Juice the orange and add all the juice to the pan along with half of the orange itself, cut into two pieces. Add the stock, bay, cinnamon, ginger, juniper and star anise. Season well. Cover with a lid and bring to the boil, then put in the oven and cook for around 3 hours until the meat is falling off the bone (leaving it in a little longer won't do it any harm - I cooked mine for 4 hours). Check every now and again to make sure the meat is still mostly submerged in the liquid - if not, top up with a little water.
After 1.5-2 hours, add the prunes and shallots to the pan, stir, and return to the oven for the remainder of the cooking time (if you add them sooner, they fall apart).
When ready to serve, check the sauce is the desired consistency - if it's too runny, remove the oxtail from the pan and reduce the sauce by boiling it. Try to fish out the bay leaves, anise, cinnamon stick and orange peel before serving. Check the seasoning and add the sugar if it needs it. Scatter over the parsley and serve the meat accompanied by the sauce.