Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Pasta with Oxtail Ragu

When I came home from the store the other day and announced excitedly that they now carry oxtails, Nick looked at me like I was crazy. And maybe I am, but this cheap, tough cut is much loved by Italian cooks and professional chefs alike. Mario Batali claims that it's the most flavorful part of the cow, so I just had to give it a try.

Because oxtails are tough, bony little critters, they require a braise. In this case, the braise was turned into a ragu, which is a thick, hearty pasta sauce. The stuff they sell in jars is not really ragu--it's tomato sauce. A ragu is a thick, chunky sauce that usually includes a mirepoix and and good bit of wine, but generally no ground beef. Also, it's generally cooked long enough to be considered a braise.

At this time of year, I just love to braise anything and everything, so you'll be seeing a lot of it around here. Braising makes the house smell wonderful for hours on end, and sitting by the fire on a cold night and enjoying those smells is just lovely.

I also love that you can make a braised meal and have the kitchen sparkling clean by the time the meal is ready. This makes braised dishes ideal for company, especially because the meal can even be prepared the day before, and if anything, it actually gets better.

I served this ragu with some homemade tagliatelli, but it would also be delicious incorporated into a simple lasagne. This amount of ragu is enough to lightly sauce four servings, or heavily sauce 2 servings of pasta, possibly with some left over. In the instructions below, I've written for enough pasta to serve 2 people with good appetites. If you would like 4-6 servings of pasta, use 400 grams of flour and 4 eggs.

Pasta with Oxtail Ragu

  • 2 1/2 pounds oxtail, cut into 2-4 inch pieces
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 small parsnip, peeled and chopped
  • 1/2 small fennel bulb, chopped
  • 1 can (15 ounces) plum tomatoes
  • 2 cups dry red wine
  • 3 small rosemary sprigs
  • 3 sprigs oregano
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 cup chicken stock or water
  • 200 grams all-purpose flour
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon of a combination of chopped fresh rosemary and oregano
  • Pinch red pepper flakes
  • Balsamic vinegar*
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Trim the oxtail of excess fat, and remove silverskin, if possible. Season with salt and pepper, and dredge in flour, shaking off the excess.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a 6-quart Dutch oven. When the oil shimmers, add the oxtail and brown on all sides. You will most likely have to do this in batches; add more oil to the pot as necessary. Transfer the oxtails to a plate.

Add the onion, parsnip, and fennel to the pan and saute over medium heat until soft and browned, about 7 minutes. Add the wine and increase the heat to high. Boil until reduced by about a fourth, about 5 minutes. As the wine reduces, scrape up the brown bits from the bottom of the pot.

While the tomatoes are still in the can, cut them into pieces with a pair of kitchen scissors. In a piece of cheesecloth, tie up the rosemary, oregano and garlic. Add this herb sachet and the tomatoes to the pot. Put the pieces of oxtail back in the pot.

If necessary, add enough water to come most of the way up the pieces of meat. Bring to a boil, cover, and place in the center of the oven. Cook until the oxtail is very tender and beginning to fall off the bones, about 3-4 hours. Check the meat halfway through the cooking time. If the liquid is no longer coming at least half way up the side of the oxtail pieces, add the chicken stock or water.

While the ragu is braising, make the pasta:
Mound the flour in the center of a large wooden board, and sprinkle it with the salt. Make a well in the center and add the eggs. Using a fork or your fingers, beat the eggs together, then, continuing to use a swirling motion, begin to incorporate the flour, starting with the inner rim of the well.

As you expand the well, keep pushing the flour up to retain the well shape. This takes some practice, and if the eggs break through the wall of the well, all is not lost--just try to combine the eggs and flour as well as you can.
When half of the flour is incorporated, the dough will begin to come together. Start kneading the dough, using primarily the palms of your hands. Once the dough is a cohesive mass, set the dough aside and scrape up and discard any dried bits of dough.

Lightly flour the board and continue kneading for 10 minutes, dusting the board with additional flour as necessary. The dough should be elastic, very smooth, and a little sticky. And seriously, this really takes 10 whole minutes--do not try to slack on this part, just find a Zen place and knead away. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and allow to rest for 30 minutes at room temperature.

To roll out the pasta, divide it into 3 pieces (if you're using 200 grams of flour). Make the first piece into a flattish shape and cover the rest. With your plain roller set to the largest setting (lower number), pass the dough through once. Fold like a book (one flat piece in the back, and two pieces folded over on the sides so that they almost meet in the middle) and pass through again. Fold like a book and repeat 2 more times. After the last time, send the pasta through as is.

Then, put the roller on the next smallest setting and pass the dough through. Continue to do this on smaller and smaller settings until the pasta is the right thickness (I like a 6 or 7 on Kitchenaid stand mixers). Lay the dough out on a flat surface and cover with a towel so that it does not dry out, and repeat with the remaining lumps of dough.

When all of the pasta is laid out flat, switch to the fettuccine-cutting roller, and pass the pieces of dough through, one at a time. Sprinkle the dough with a little bit of flour so that the noodles don't stick together; cover with a towel so they do not dry out. 
When the meat is ready, remove the pot from the oven. Transfer the oxtail to a plate, and discard the herb sachet. Skim the fat off the surface. If the remaining liquid is not very thick, (ragus are very thick sauces), place the pot over a burner and boil until reduced to the proper consistency.

If you would like a fancier presentation, either use a stick blender to puree the sauce, or strain out the vegetables and puree them in a food processor; return to the pot. If you would like a more 'rustic' presentation, just leave the vegetables as they are.

When the sauce is the proper consistency and the meat is cool enough to handle, pick the meat off the bones and return to the pot. Let the meat warm through before serving. Add the red pepper flakes. Taste for seasoning, and add salt, pepper, and more red pepper flakes as needed. This dish is very good with a great deal of pepper.

In a large pot of boiling, salted water, cook the pasta until al dente, about 2-3 minutes. Drain the pasta and divide amongst the serving vessels of your choice. Spoon the ragu over the top of the pasta and serve. 

*The balsamic vinegar does not have a quantity listed, as I added a few drops only to my own portion. I thought that the dish needed some acidity, and I thought that balsamic would be just perfect, but too much vinegar could have ruined the dish for Nick. For the whole pot, you'll likely want to use about a 1/2 teaspoon. Start with that and taste for flavor; add more if you like.

Note: As I mentioned above, this dish can be better on the day after it's made. Making it the day before is also advantageous because you can skim the fat off the surface of the sauce, and when you pull apart the pieces of meat, you'll be better able to remove the extra fat.

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