Friday, January 24, 2014

Oxtails with grapes

Amazing is a much overused word, but here I will indulge. This amazingly good recipe, which at first seems too outlandish to bother with, strikes me as excellent confirmation of the suspicion, inspired by Mrs. Humphrey below, that great food often must come from the experiments of hungry anonymous people throwing into the pot whatever they had on hand. A charming French name also helps lift any recipe into the realm of deliciousness.

This is "La queue de boeuf des vignerons" -- oxtail in the style of the vinegrowers -- and it comes from South Wind Through the Kitchen: The Best of Elizabeth David. A stew of oxtail, bacon, and the basic vegetables and Mediterranean herb combinations of carrot and onion, garlic, bay leaf, thyme and parsley, all stewed together leisurely while you are busy with other things, would just cry out for the addition of two pounds of white grapes, wouldn't it? I would think so, if I were a hardworking farmer looking forward to a harvest time lunch break, and walking by those big hampers of grapes and thinking suddenly, why not? "Lovely" and "divine" Mrs. David comments. She is right.

The recipe begins with the steeping of "at least 2" oxtails in cold water for at least 2 hours, to soak out the blood. I did this but did not see that it made any difference. Perhaps oxtails were sent to the market in different condition when Mrs. David was writing, than they are now.

Then, you will chop 2 large onions and 4 large carrots into dice, and put them in a heavy pot with either a 4 ounce piece of salt pork or some bacon, or perhaps 4 Tablespoons of butter. Turn on the heat, and simmer this mixture "until the fat from the bacon is running," or until the vegetables soften a little, about 10 minutes.

Now, put in the oxtail pieces, and the bouquet of 2 bay leaves, parsley, thyme, and 2 crushed cloves of garlic. Season the meat with salt and pepper. Cover the pot and cook gently for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, pluck the 2 pounds of green grapes from their stems and and crush them all lightly in a bowl (I used a potato masher). Add the grapes to the pot. Place a sheet of tin foil over the pot, and then cover it with the lid. Remove to a very slow oven (290 F), and bake for a minimum of three and a half hours. The meat should be falling off the bones or "it will not be good," and that's true.

The resulting gravy is very fatty. Mrs. David recommends fussing with the gravy a bit more than I care to -- put it through a sieve, and so on, whereas I prefer to serve stews in all their carrot-cluttered glory -- but if you have time it would be good either to put the sauce into a clear cup and siphon it away from its layer of fat with a bulb baster, or else plan to make the dish a day ahead so you can chill it and peel the fat away easily before serving. The vivid green grapes cook down and melt away to almost nothing, leaving a rich but not sweet sauce.

Mashed potatoes with a breath of horseradish might go very well with this, and a nice little white wine is a good accompaniment. Amazing.

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