Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Best Part of the Cow?

It may not be in especially good taste to suggest a body-parts contest for cattle. All the same, I've long fancied the aesthetics of the beef chart (and shall thus, in the same breath, recommend Stanley Lobel's classic The Complete Book of Meat). So why not launch a hypothetical contest, at least: what's the best part of the cow?

I think one's choice of beef cuts reveals much about one's preference as a cook. My uncle, for instance, makes a jaw-droppingly terrific jellied tongue. It may very well be the best thing I've ever eaten, full stop. (N.B.: we'll be visiting him this May, so perhaps he can be convinced to make it again). The recipe, like my uncle, is time-consuming and elaborate, but well worth the wait.

Were it possible to induce all the meat-eaters I know to cast lots for their favorite cut of beef, how would the spoils be divided? Who would sprint for the tenderloin, and who would scramble to get their hands on the liver, or the sweetbreads, or the tripe? The game would prove revealing, I'm sure.

Incidentally, our neighbors M. and J. recently purchased a quarter cow from a local farm. One hundred and thirty one pounds of frozen beef. They've got the whole thing on ice in their basement. Or rather, in their freezer lies a quarter-cow's worth of choice cuts; most of it is ground chuck. They didn't have to race to claim their share of my imaginary cow: they bought up the lion's share. That's one way around the problem.

My own interest— at least this week— has settled on the humble oxtail. This choice, dare I say, says a lot about me. First, I'm cheap. Oxtails are often sold as soup bones— like shanks, but with more cartilage.

Second, I like braising meat, since this appeals to my aesthetic as a cook: the longer a dish cooks, the farther in advance it can be prepared, and thus the more time there is to socialize with dinner guests. And oxtails are a braising meat par excellence. In fact, there's little else you can do with them.

Nothing makes a better ragout than oxtails. They're composed almost entirely of cartilage. So the same unguent richness that makes them a fine soup base makes them an even better ragout. Over time, the cartilage breaks down, which both flavors and thickens the ragout.

Here's the dish we made last night; the recipe is adapted from Marcella Hazan:

In a heavy pot or dutch oven, sweat two small chopped onions, three chopped carrots, and 3 cloves garlic in some olive oil. Meanwhile, brown 3 pounds of prepared oxtails in some olive oil. When the oxtails are browned all over, place them in the dutch oven amongst the vegetables. Deglaze both pans with a healthy amount of dry white wine-- about 2 cups-- and pour everything into the dutch oven. Add a can of plum tomatoes, chopped, along with a healthy grind of black pepper. Simmer, mostly covered, for 1 1/2 hours, turning the meat occasionally. If the braising liquid gets too dry, add a cup or so of water.

After the oxtails have been simmering for 1 1/2 hours, add 3-4 stalks of celery, coarsely chopped. This gives the dish a crucial brightness (and prevents it from developing the same lugubrious stew flavor to which so many braised meat dishes are prone). Simmer for another 45 minutes. When the meat is falling off the bone, remove the oxtails, cool slightly, and pull off the meat. Return the meat to the pot and discard the bones.

In a pot of salted, boiling water, cook a box of pasta (penne rigate, for instance) until it's al dente; drain, and add the pasta to the ragout. Simmer for a few minutes, check for seasoning, and serve.


Elizabeth said...

O Jonny, isn't this the same ragout you made that fateful night here at 301, when later in the evening Mike & I made out while you ran for cigs at the PhilaDeli? I believe it is, hence, it is the ragout d'amour. All hail oxtail.

p.s. we never saw the crank to that pasta machine again...

sw said...

Your question is interesting - and poses some problems. I love your choices, and I was tempted to respond by coming up with some obscure part of the animal - perhaps to sing the praises of the meninges or advocate for the urethral sphincter ("like the most delicate calamari, when deep fried in olive oil"). My own experiences with tongue and oxtail are from my Dickensian childhood, when such things were fed to schoolboys as the cheapest, lowest class cuts.

But I must say - what is better than a properly roasted Roast Beef? Cut from the bone in juicy slivers, its meat is so perfectly flavoured, from the soft succulence of the centre, to its salted, fatty rind, and then back again to the rich muscle along the bone. And, in a kitchen without a barbeque, who could not mention a hanger steak, easily marinated and grilled, and far more flavourful and tangy than such a cheap cut has a right to be.

But I must mention a recent beef experience, at an expensive boutique butcher nestled amongst the fashionable shops on Madison avenue. The butchers were a busy group of men from Ireland, England, and Long Island, bustling behind a tiny counter. One of them convinced me to get some stew meat. He pulled out a slab and cut it into chunks. Another butcher looked at it, sniffed, and said, "Like buddah!" I took it home, browned it in butter (or "buddah" as I now call it), threw in a chopped onion, several glugs of plonk, some beef broth (store bought, I'm afraid), and made the most delectable beef stew I've tasted outside of a country whose primary language is French.

What I love about your appreciation for the poster is that it does not disguise the fact that the meat comes from an animal. As a child, when I doffed my cap at the table after wiping the soot from my cheeks, I quite loved tongue - until I saw the pebble-surfaced obscenely curled tongue in a butcher's shop. As a child, I cleaned the coal dust from my hands on a Winter's day and clapped a bowl of steaming ox tail soup to my lips, until I saw a live cow from behind, its dung-caked tail swinging against its slimy rump. But none of these posed the same problem as the beautiful chunks of meat in that stew. For how does a chunk of beef get so perfectly marbled? Not from grazing on grasses; not from living in pastures.