Thursday, July 22, 2010

Oxtail ravioli: short cuts versus cheap cuts

Idiosyncratic is probably a good word to describe someone who lovingly and painstakingly slowly braises, strains, cools, shreds and portions two kilos of oxtails over seven hours, and then uses frozen wonton skins as ravioli wrapping.*

Idiosyncratic is also a pretty good description of someone who sees this same lengthy and messy exercise as a somehow saving time.

Idiosyncratic, too, to spend all this time and effort to create what is essentially oxtail soup despite having overwhelming memories of avoiding at all costs an offering of oxtail soup as a child.

Consistency is the sign of small mind.

On any animal, the harder working the muscle, the tougher it’s going to be. On a cow, the hardest working muscle is always going to be a tossup between the cheeks (constant chewing) and the tail (constant flicking).

The lazy muscles result in incredibly tender cuts of meat, the most well known being filet (aka tenderloin, fillet, eye fillet etc - which is taken from along the spine). Even in organically reared, grass-fed, happy cows, fillet is a little bland in flavour. Quick-cooking, oh-so-soft, brilliant raw for steak tartare and Carpaccio. It’s a trade-off: texture versus taste. It’s a premium cut. Very expensive.

Because people and supermarkets have rocks in their heads tender cuts are almost universally preferred (consistency, as I said, is the sign of a small mind). And yet the idea of their being ‘premium cuts’ strikes me as a bit silly. It’s all from a cow, right? If we’re going to kill the beast, we may as well eat more than the softest quarter of it.

Particularly when the real flavour is found in the hard working ‘economical cuts’. Bring on the skirt steak and the shin. Pork and lamb necks. Beef cheeks. Hocks and brisket. And oxtail.

It’s cheap. And packs a punch of flavour. But it is often sinuous. It’s attached to tendons and bones and often has marrow in its near vicinity. All good for flavour, if a little tough.

Time to work the magic of braising.

Any idiot can burn a fillet steak. But it takes an even bigger idiot to screw up braising. The genius of braising is that there is no genius required. At its most very basic, a braise is a cross between a poaching and a steaming process, with meat (or vegetables) first seared / browned and then partially covered in liquid, covered and cooked over a very low heat for a long time. And the beauty of it is that whilst you can undercook it, it’s almost impossible to overcook it. It takes a long time, but it’s not really time consuming. Mostly it’s just a matter of being vaguely around to make sure it doesn’t bubble over or run dry or that the gas doesn’t go out.**

Slow cooking oxtails results in a sticky, gelatinous mess of soft-as-butter dark fibrous meat. Rather than serving with equally rich creamy mashed potato or risotto, shredded, wrapped up in ravioli sheets and poached in consommé made from the left over strained braising liquid, wine, water and bottled tomatoes, sprinkled with a little gremolata, zesty and garlicly and fresh, the resultant soup is light and lavish, meaty and yet not too indulgent.

So the trade off for cheap and flavourful is that is takes forever. But the short cut is that you can make it all in advance, in bulk, and freeze it. Straight from the freezer? Cooks up in about ten minutes.

* The frozen wonton wrappers have as the listed ingredients: flour, eggs, salt. That’s it. This, I think, is pretty good. Plus they’re the right size, thinness and so terribly convenient. And I don’t have a pasta machine. Pasta dough is easy enough to make (it has flour, eggs and salt in it). But you try rolling it with a rolling pin.

** I’ve heard it’s even more foolproof with a kitchen gadget known as a crock-pot.

Oxtail ravioli* in tomato consommé

Serves 8

2 kg oxtail pieces (or other beef on the bone, like osso buco or short rib)

Plain flour (seasoned, for dusting the oxtail)
¼ cup oil olive (roughly)
2 brown onions, diced
2 large carrots, diced
375 ml dry red wine
500 ml veal or beef stock without salt (or water)
Herbs – 2 bay leaves, sprigs of rosemary, thyme, oregano and parley
2 pack frozen wonton wrappers or ½ kg fresh lasagne sheets (bought or homemade)
1 egg, lightly beaten

Dust oxtail pieces with flour (shake). Heat a couple of tablespoons of the oil in a very large saucepan, and cook the pieces in batches until brown all over.

Heat another few tablespoons of the oil and add the onions and carrots, cook until starting to brown.

Deglaze the pot with the wine, stirring to remove any pieces stuck to the sides of the pot. Bring to the boil and cook until the alcohol is cooked off (a couple of minutes).

Add the oxtail pieces back into the pot, add the herbs and stock (it should cover about ¾ of the meat and vegetables. Cover with a parchment lid, and then place the pots lid securely on top. Place over the very lowest heat and gently cook for about 4 hour (it should be just barely a simmer, remove the lid if it is cooking too rapidly). By this stage the meat should be falling off the bones (if not, cook a little longer).

Remove the oxtail pieces, and when cool enough to touch, shred the meat and discard the fat and bones.

Strain the braising liquid and reserve. Add the strained vegetables back in with the shredded meat (discard the herb stalks and bay leaves).

Taste the meat and vegetable ravioli filling, and add salt and pepper to taste.

Place 30 wonton wrappers on the bench, brush the edges lightly with egg wash. Place a small spoonful of filling in the centre of each, and then place another wrapper on top, pressing to seal. You can freeze, refrigerate or cook at this point.

To cook, add to consommé and cook until the wrappers are cooked and the filling is hot. When frozen I just throw then into boiling water frozen and cook.

Serve in a bowl of tomato consommé, sprinkled with gremolata and parmesan cheese.

Tomato consommé

Reserved strained braising liquid.

For each 250 ml braising liquid:

1 tin chopped tomatoes (no added salt or added anything is preferable)

500 mls water (or half water, half red wine)

Boil all ingredients together until reduced by half. Strain. Season. Pour over ravioli to serve.


Traditionally, this is made with equal parts finely chopped parsley, finely grated lemon zest and minced garlic.

I have been known to use grapefruit zest, minced olives, and capers as substitutes and enhancements ...

* Based on a recipe by Elizabeth Egan and Domenic Pipercelli of Becco restaurant in Melbourne published by Australian Gourmet Traveller.

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