Not-So-Awful Offal

19 Feb

Nose-to-tail eating has been a trend in Britain for over a decade, but it was a new concept for me when I first moved here. I grew up on standard manifestations of beef and chicken; either minced or cut into neat, quick-cooking pieces with not much of a relationship to the animal they came from.

This is not to dismiss steaks and chicken breasts entirely; I confess that while I consider myself an adventurous eater, I’m somewhat squeamish about innards. Frankly, it will be a cold day in Hell before I eat tripe or kidneys. But there are other forgotten cuts that I try to resurrect in my own cooking. Lamb shanks and ox cheeks are cheap and delicious, but my special love is reserved for oxtails.

When you cook them for long enough, oxtails can be more luxurious than a filet mignon. All of the collagen and sinew that would otherwise make the tail a tooth-breaking proposition breaks down with the gentle application of heat into a rich gravy with incredible beefy depths, and leaves behind velvety shreds of meat practically swooning off their bones.

Their richness means that they play very well with bright, aromatic flavours. You can stew them with red wine and woody herbs for a European accent, or push them in an Asian direction with soy, cinnamon, and star anise. But my recent favourite has been a Caribbean-style concoction, fragrant with thyme and allspice and with a lick of heat from Scotch bonnet peppers. It’s the perfect stew for when it’s still freezing outside and you want a little sunshine in your life!

Jamaican Oxtail Stew with Guinness (adapted from Food Stories and the New York Times)

Serves 4-5

2 tablespoons flour
salt and pepper
1.5kg/3 lbs oxtails
2 tablespoons neutral oil
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
4-5 sprigs thyme, leaves stripped off
2cm/1in piece ginger, minced
1 tablespoon whole allspice berries, crushed to a coarse powder
2 bay leaves
2 scotch bonnet chilies, left whole
2 400g tins/14 oz cans chopped/diced tomatoes
1 litre/1 quart beef stock
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 bottle Guinness
2 400g tins/14 oz cans butter beans, rinsed and drained

Preheat the oven to 140C/280F.

Combine the flour, salt, and pepper on a dinner plate, then toss the oxtails in the flour until well-coated.

Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven until very hot. Add the oxtails (in 2 batches if your pan isn’t roomy enough) and fry until the oxtails are browned. Brown = flavour.

Remove the oxtails, then turn the heat down to medium and add the onion, celery, and carrot. Sauté until the onion is translucent and soft, around 8 minutes.

Add the garlic, thyme, ginger, allspice, bay, and chilies, and sauté for another 2 minutes. Whatever you do, don’t molest the chilies while you’re cooking the stew; if they break apart too soon, you’ll experience an atomic blast rather than soothing warmth when you eat it.

Mix in the Guinness and stir for 30 seconds, then add the tomatoes, stock, sugar, and soy sauce. Bring everything to a boil, then put in the oven and bake for 2.5-3 hours.

At this stage, I strongly recommend you take the stew out and put it in the fridge overnight, if you have the time. This accomplishes two things: chilling the stew makes a lot of fat rise to the top and solidify, making it an easy job to scrape it off and make the dish healthier. It also takes the stew to a higher realm of tastiness.

If you’ve chilled the stew, once you’ve scraped off the fat bring the stew back up to a simmer on the stove top. Or if you don’t have the time, take it out of the oven and put it on the hob over a medium-low flame.

Either way, add the butter beans and continue to simmer the stew, covered, for approximately another 30 minutes, or until the butter beans are as soft as you like them.

Serve up with rice of some kind. And some Red Stripe, of course!

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