Sunday, October 14, 2012

Ale-braised oxtail with bitter green pesto

With all the talk of beef in my last post, I thought I should put my money where my mouth is and actually cook some up. Furthermore, to prove my nose-to-tail credibility, no steaks of fillets for me: it could only be offal cuts. So, I picked up an entire ox tail and some lovely chunky marrow bones. These came from a family-run Ontario farm. They are not organic, and these cattle do eat corn (though not exclusively), but I am nevertheless happy to patronize the local folks.

Oxtail is a challenging cut to work with. While it provides intense beef flavour, it can be tough as nails and rather bony. The secret is to cook it very slowly in a moist environment. This means braising. Unlike some other braising cuts, you don't want the oxtail to actually be falling apart, yet, it needs to be tender enough to cut from the bone with a spoon. This requires some attention and care. In an effort to keep this dish as local as possible, I passed on the Guinness stout and instead chose to braise the oxtail in Muskoka Dark Ale; locally brewed and great to quaff on its own.

Given the small amount of meat coming from the oxtail, I wanted to raise the ante a little bit by accompanying the oxtail with unctuous and luxurious beef marrow. Ever since Fergus Henderson started serving this delicacy in his London restaurant, the St. John, it has gone mainstream. Marrow bone should not be cooked too long, as the marrow will liquefy and ooze out all over your pan. You're looking for a texture that is quivering, creamy and yet stable enough to be spreadable on toast - pure luxury. Think of it as beef butter.

With ingredients as rich as these, I wanted a fresh foil to counter the cloying beef. For this, I made up a batch of my bitter green pesto. This rather grown-up condiment is made with garlic, dandelion leaves and horseradish among other ingredients. I have made this in the past to great effect with roast beef. Eaten on its own, it could be a bit overwhelmingly bitter, but paired with something rich and meaty, it is pretty sensational.

Ale-braised Oxtail with roast bone marrow

1 whole oxtail, about 2-3 pounds worth, chopped rather chunky(your butcher can do this)
3 large beef marrow bones
2 500ml tins of Muskoka dark ale
1 shot of Forty Creek or other Canadian whiskey
2 onions, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 ribs of celery, chopped
3 bay leaves
3 juniper berries
Salt and pepper.

First, clean up the oxtail a bit. Trim some of the fat off of them. Then melt this fat down with a little canola oil in a very hot dutch oven or heavy bottomed pan. When the fat is almost smoking, season the oxtail and brown it evenly. Once brown, set the meat aside. Then get your vegetables in the pan and frizzle them in the fat until they are sweated out a bit, five to seven minutes. Don't let the vegetables take any colour. Then get everything out of the pan and into a colander to strain off some of the excess fat. Pour out the majority of the fat left in the pan and get your meat and veg back in there. Pour in the whiskey and flambe...that is, if you're comfortable doing that. If not, let the whiskey burn off for a few moments. Than get your beer in there. Scrape up all the brown bits off the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Add the bay leaves and the juniper berries, season generously with salt and pepper. Then bring it up to a boil and turn off the heat. Cover and get it into a low oven, say 300-325F (depending on your oven, you just want a very gentle simmer, so experiment to find the right temp). Let it braise for about three hours. About 30 minutes before the oxtail is finished, uncover and nestle the marrow bones in with everything. Roast like this uncovered for the remainder of the cooking time. This will allow the marrow bones to roast, while at the same time, reducing and thickening the braising liquor. Once done, Take out all the meat, the marrow bones and remove the vegetables with a slotted spoon. Discard the bay leaves and the juniper berries. Allow the braising liquid to cool somewhat and then skim off the majority of the fat (oxtail give off a lot of fat). Once you're satisfied with the fat content of the braising liquid, assemble the dish. Serve the oxtail hot, along with the braising liquid spooned over mashed potatoes. Sprinkle Maldon salt on to the top of the marrow bone and stand it proudly next to the ox tail.  Provide some toast on the side so that you can spread the marrow. Generously dollop the oxtail with bitter green pesto (recipe below)

Bitter Green Pesto

1 large bunch of fresh dandelion greens and about half as much fresh arugula
3 tbs of freshly grated horseradish
2 cloves of garlic
125 ml of cold-pressed canola oil
1 tbs balsamic vinegar
1 good handful of roasted walnuts
2 tbs of freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper

Put all the ingredients in food processor except for the oil and cheese. Blitz it up into a green paste. You may have to scrape the sides down a few times. Then turn the processor on and start drizzling in the oil. Once all the oil is in, stop the machine and fold in the cheese and season to taste. Something I nearly forgot: the measurements here make a rather sizeable amount of the stuff, so it's unlikely you'll use it all on the same day. However, the green of the pesto has a nasty habit of losing its colour rapidly overnight. To stop this from happening, before doing any food processing, get some salted water into a rolling boil and blanche the greens for about 10 or 20 seconds and then shock in an ice bath. This will 'set' the colour so that the pesto will last in your fridge for a good four or even five days without losing any colour. Try your luck at freezing it - I've never done this, but it may prove to be a good way to preserve it. 

The pesto should be rather biting and grassy flavoured - it's not meant to be eaten on its own, so don't be alarmed by the strength of the bitterness. Serve on gamy and rich meats, such as oxtail. It is also wonderful mixed with a bit of bone marrow and spread on hot, crusty toast. Bon appetite.

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