Heston Blumenthal's Oxtail Stew Recipe
aka: Why I could never be a chef!
What is it with the oxtails? Last week, over dinner at The Blue Plate, I caught up with a friend, a San Francisco native, who had just returned to the city after 18 months working in Australia. "Why is it?", she said, "that every menu in town has oxtail on it? When I left it was the butternut squash that was ubiquitous, now it's the oxtail." Ubiquitous or not, I couldn't help but order the Blue Plate's version, oxtail and mushroom bruschetta, pine nuts and preserved lemon and it was so delicious, I immediately resolved to learn to cook oxtail as soon as I could.
I looked up some recipes in my collection and online, and without too much thought, clearly, I settled on this one, entitled "The Twist in the Tail" by Heston Blumenthal. Had I read this tounge in cheek warning beforehand, maybe I would have thought twice:
"However, his emphasis on slow cooking seems to me salutary and admirable. And by slow he means very slow. I was cooking oxtail stew the other day and naturally, pedantically, checked a few recipes for how long to give it. Alastair Little two hours (you're joking), Fay Maschler three, Frances Bissell four (getting warmer). I think I gave it five, and two subsequent reheatings of 45 minutes each only enhanced the tail's fork-meltingness. Mr Blumenthal probably has a recipe that involves giving it the full cycle of the moon." Julian BarnesYes he does, Julian, of course he does, and muggins here fell for it. I started making this stew on Saturday last, I didn't sit down to eat it until Tuesday evening. Not only that, I had to call my bank to try and get a second mortgage for the cost of the ingredients. Oxtail just isn't cheap any more, as Elise remarks:
"My father remembers growing up during the Depression that oxtails were considered food for people without much money (of which he was one). You could get them for pennies a pound. Now they are considered choice - hard to come by and expensive. He figures that the "gourmandes" finally caught on and have driven the prices up, much to his regret."I paid $20 for a bag of oxtails which may sound steep, but I did purchase them at Prather so I could be certain that the beef had been produced using only sustainable organic agricultural practices. The guys kindly gave me a discount, I have no idea why, the price on the label was actually over $23. But in the grand scheme of things, a $3 saving didn't ease the blow that much. On top of the meat, the stew contains a multitude of vegetables, all of which are strained out of the stew before the final presentation: 6 onions, as many carrots, a whole head of celery, a mass of mushrooms, lots of leeks and tons of tomato (I used my puree, frozen from when tomatoes were still in season)*. And then there was the wine - two whole bottles of my finest red that were reduced to practically nothing, along with a generous splash of dry white and a good slurp of port. I'd be lucky if I managed to make this recipe for under $100!
And then the recipe instructions are confusing, even for me who is not a total novice in the kitchen. At every stage they fill me with doubt over my actions. Why does Heston worry about people biting on a peppercorn when further down the line the sauce is strained anyway? Did I really have to place the spices in a little muslin parcel? "Quarter the onions", Heston says, "it's easier to remove them later". But Heston, unless I am missing something you never tell me to 'remove them later'. And what about the part when I nearly burnt down my kitchen. I was actually scared at that point, to tell the truth. What do you mean by "unrefined sugar"? Have you ever tried caramelizing natural pure cane sugar, Heston? There is no caramelizing as far as I can tell - just melted or burnt, nothing in between.
Despite all of this, and the added expenses of leaving the oven on for 10 hours whilst I cooked the stew over night, and having to open the bottle of Chateau Neuf de Pape to accompany dinner because, frankly after what I'd been through in getting this stew to the table, nothing else in our cellar would have done the meal justice, the result was very rich and very tasty. In fact I would go so far as to say it was the most delicious stew I have ever eaten. But was it worth it? Was it worth the effort? Was it worth the $100+ bill? I don't quite think so. I could have happily eaten a Chef's tasting menu at Manresa for that price without even lifting a finger.
*Don't fret my frugal friends, I have saved these important vegetable players, dismissed from the grand stew finale on a fancy whim, to star in another dish on another day.