Cooking with Offal – Say whaa? (Part 1)

Note: In case you couldn’t tell by the title, if you are super squeamish, vegan, or vegetarian, this may not be the post for you. No offense.

Last spring, Alex and I purchased a quarter of a cow from a local farm that specializes in grass-fed beef. We shopped around for a chest freezer* (we found the best price at Sam’s Club online), shuttled the meat from the farmer’s market to the car in rolling coolers, organized it by size of cuts in the chest freezer, dutifully crossed things off the cut list as we consumed them, and even survived a derecho power-loss without sacrificing any meat to the spoilage gods. While it looks like a lot when you first bring home all that meat, buying in bulk like this is hands down the most affordable way to obtain grass-fed beef. The same farm charges something like $7/pound for ground beef, and the cost goes up from there for the bigger/nicer cuts. In bulk, we paid more like $5.50/pound for all cuts including roasts, filets, ribeye, etc. Ergo, significant savings, and our beef dish repertoire magically expands beyond chilis, hamburgers, meatloaf, and meatballs.

*In case you’ve balked at purchasing a chest freezer or wondered whether a quarter of a cow can fit in the freezer in your kitchen (what’s that? you don’t keep a chest freezer between your fridge and china cabinet?), the farmers told us that a quarter cow can fit in most standard home freezers. However, not much else will fit in there, so…eat a lot quickly to make room, or consider splitting a share with a friend.

Now, when you buy in bulk, you are sometimes presented with cuts that are, well… shall we say…less common in the U.S. than perhaps other places in the world. And as our personal beef supply slowly starts dwindling this winter, I find myself face-to-face with these ofally less popular cuts. (Ha! Get it? Awfully? Offally?)

Ahem. Oxtail, for instance.

Tulips and oxtail

Now, since it’s not technically an organ, there is debate about whether oxtail is truly offal; it’s actually closer to muscle like other, more familiar cuts of meat. But in the U.S., I’d venture to say that any non-prime meat might be considered offal to the average citizen. We’ll call our oxtail “introductory offal,” mmkay?

Regardless, it’s not anything to be afraid of or grossed out by. Actually, I just discovered it’s one of the most expensive cuts, coming in at close to $27/pound for my grass-fed variety! (But remember, people, buy in bulk to reap the savings!). Plenty of (inter)national dishes feature this delicacy (?) in some form of a hearty, nutritious stew. I’m no Andrew Zimmern, but I’ve had my fair share of unusual foods: crubeens and mannish water, for example, so it wasn’t the notion of eating the unfamiliar that was delaying my dinner prep.

The issue was, having never eaten oxtail, I had no earthly idea how to go about cooking it.

Enter Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking, for indeed my dinner dilemma was not simply a forgotten skill, it was a skill that had yet to be learned! Ms. Allen is nicknamed the Julia Child of Ireland, so when I found a recipe for Oxtail with Grainy Mustard Sauce, I immediately thought of my first crubeens experience (which was also served with a mustard sauce) and could already picture the flavors and textures of this dish. My gustatory prognosis was spot-on: the meat is super flavorful and pairs nicely with a luxurious, hearty, creamy sauce that the mustard cuts through with just the right kind of distinguished pizazz–the kind that makes me think of Colonel Mustard from my childhood days playing Clue. But do let me say it’s definitely a good idea to serve this meat with something satiating like mashed potatoes. Can I convince you that what it lacks in portion size it makes up for in flavor?

Oxtail in Grainy Mustard Sauce (adapted from Forgotten Skills of Cooking)

I don’t know how in what quantities oxtail is typically sold. I don’t even know if you can find it at a big-box supermarket. Ms. Allen called for 1.25 pounds; I had 0.6 pounds. She also calls for a prodigious amount of onions which I simply couldn’t fathom. I have thus made adjustments to maintain the braising method of preparation while slightly altering the sauce proportions.

– 1 oxtail (cut into its natural “sections,” if this hasn’t already been done for you)
– 2 large onions, cut into wedges
– 2 bay leaves
– 1/2 cup beef stock or broth (doesn’t have to be exact)
– 1/2 cup heavy cream
– 1/2 tablespoon Dijon mustard
– 1/2 tablespoon grainy mustard (dangit! I didn’t realize until it was time to add the mustard that I was plumb out of the grainy kind. I just used extra Dijon and a little bit of prepared honey mustard. Use the grainy stuff if you want a little more bite to your sauce)
– 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
– 1 tablespoon flour

Oxtail sections

1. Salt and pepper the meat. Heat some olive oil over medium-high heat in a skillet or dutch oven. Sear the oxtail on all sides–be careful! Due to the fat content and the fact that there’s a bone running through it, it will spit and splatter you. I use my long tongs for searing like this and found myself belting out over the whir of the range fan: “You’ve got the long tongs…” to the tune of that catchy Nasvhille TV series duet. True story.

I've got the lonng tonngs

2. Okay, once you’ve got the image of me singing to my kitchenware out of your head and your oxtail is seared, put the meat aside to rest, and throw in your onions, tossing them around in the fat until browned and starting to soften. Then move those off to the side too.

Seared oxtail

3. Pour in some beef stock and stir up any bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the meat and onions back in along with the bay leaves. Put the lid on, turn the heat down, and simmer for 2 hours. The meat will be tender and just about ready to pull off the bone.

4. Pull the meat out of the pot and set aside while you prepare the sauce. Melt a bit of butter (microwave is fast) and whisk in some flour, then stir into the sauce to thicken it up. Slowly stir in the cream and bring it to a simmer. When it’s bubbling, stir in the mustard(s) and add the meat back in. Spoon the sauce over the meat to help it reheat. Pile a piece on top of some mashed potatoes, sprinkle with some parsley or other fresh herbs, and go to town.

Oxtail in mustard sauce

Nourishment

Nothing like enjoying gourmet food at home! This plate would have been at least $25 in a nice restaurant around here. Chez moi? Closer to $5, plus a little time and energy. (That’s twenty dollahs in my pock-et!).

Next week I’m trying heart.

What do you think? Have you ever eaten oxtail? How was it prepared? Do tell.

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