Friday, December 21, 2007

Tails of Beauty, Tails of Might

Sucking it right off the bone.

That aptly describes the pleasure I feel when I am enjoying a bowl of my mama's simple oxtail soup. Nilaga. Oxtails. Ginger. Onions. Salt. Water. That's it. Simmer slowly until done. For years, I denied myself the oxtail experience of my roots, going instead for the boutique meat. Glamorous filets, chicken breast, an occasional short rib feast. But oxtails were mean, disgusting looking, and only poor people ate them. Which was exactly the reason they will always be so good.

When my forties came, the fall signalled the need to hang in for provisions that would increase warmth and fortify soul. Muscles and bones ached more. The need for a good read and something warm on the stove cooking for a VERY long time was spiritual. I believe I was reading "Like Water for Chocolate" at that time in our walk-up flat in the Marina, when I came across the recipe for oxtail soup. The soup that brought Tita, the heroine of the book, back to life from a nervous breakdown. The soup whose recipe was taught to her by Nacha, the ancient cook in her tyrannical mother's kitchen. What a way to remember the healing power of the bones.

Luckily, I found them at a butcher's on Mission Street. And with ginger, onions, cabbage, and the tails, Tita, Nacha and I shared in the glorious mystery of sucking down on some good bones and gelatinous cartilage. The healing I felt co-incided with that of the literary characters and I felt myself inside Tita through the warmth that these oxtails gave. We were eating meat that needed time, thought, and patience to coax out the very best of its character, which is humble by roots, and mighty in flavor.

This holiday, I'll be slow-cooking them in a base of carrot, celery, onions, bay leaves and other herbs (bouquet garnis), and either a little vermouth or maybe a decent house red. The bones need to start up early, probably before I head out to dance class on Saturday. I'm setting the crockpot to cook them for ten hours. Plenty of time. By the time friends come, they'll be ready to pour over some rice in bowls and it will be us and our faces in sauce and sucking down on some good tender meat.

Bones Basic

2-3 lbs. oxtails
1 onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
3 large carrots, chopped
1 c. red wine
veal stock
bay leaves (2)
2 TBS. whole peppercorns
1/2 cup flour seasoned with salt and pepper
1/2 c. olive oil

Lightly dust tails with seasoned flour. Sear on high heat in thick-bottom pot or Dutch oven until brown. Remove from Dutch oven and place at the bottom of the crock pot. De-glaze the fond from the Dutch oven with the wine. Add stock and simmer until the brown bits are dissolved. Remove from heat.

Add chopped savory vegetables, bay leaf, peppercorns to the crockpot. Pour the stock over everything to cover. Season to taste then seal crockpot with its lid and leave it alone and read a book. Preferably something that makes you happy curled up with a coverlet on the couch.

I can't imagine a better winter day. Cheers.

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