You braisin’? You should be. The cold weather is in full swing, and NYC chef Justin Smillie’s new cookbook, Slow Fires, is not unlike a long poem (with recipes) about that special, magical moment when a tough, meaty, collagen-bound piece of meat gives up its treasured secret and yields willingly to nothing more than the tines of a fork. We’re talking about slow cooking, folks — oxtails most definitely included. You’ll need a Dutch oven and a thing for delayed gratification.
I can think of no better example than oxtails or shanks to demonstrate the virtues of traditional slow braising. Inexpensive, with tons of connective tissue, these cuts must be braised to reveal their beautiful character. Here, burnt-onion dashi is the primary liquid. It’s mineral and light, a balance to the red wine, and the collagen-rich cut will make it viscous and lush.
Lavish time and attention on each step of this recipe and you will get a delicious tutorial on the basics of braising. Really brown the meat; thoroughly melt the vegetables; scrape up all the fond as you go. When you add the wine and vinegar, let it steam, sizzle, and simmer off, so it just streaks the pan’s base and cooks into the soffritto. With each step you are building baseline flavor and understanding of the technique.
As the braise simmers, baste the meat and turn the pan until the oxtails hit their tender sweet spot. Then take a deep breath. That scent is part of the reward.
A quick note if you are buying oxtails: Ask your butcher to cut pieces from the tail’s center. You want plump cuts, or this rags-to-riches transformation won’t impress.
- zest of 1 lemon, removed in strips with a vegetable peeler
- 15 fresh thyme sprigs
- 1 gallon water
- 1 tablespoon Aleppo pepper (optional)
- 1 cup kosher salt, plus more
- 1/4 cup (packed) light brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons black peppercorns, toasted and freshly cracked, plus more
- 1 tablespoon coriander seeds, toasted
- 1 tablespoon mustard seeds, toasted
- 1 whole head of garlic, halved crosswise
- 8 2-inch-high oxtails, short ribs, or beef shanks (about 6 pounds total)
- olive oil, as needed
- 4 medium onions, diced fine
- 4 celery stalks, diced fine
- 2 medium carrots, diced fine
- 12 garlic cloves, finely grated
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 5 salt-packed anchovies, rinsed and chopped
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped, fresh oregano leaves
- 2 tablespoons pimento (smoked paprika)
- 1/2 cup red wine vinegar
- 1/4 cup agave or honey
- 1 cup red wine
- 4 cups burnt-onion dashi or chicken broth
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano leaves
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 6 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 oil-packed anchovy fillets, drained and finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon finely sliced fresh chives
- 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest (from 2 lemons)
- 1/4 cup lemon juice (from 2 lemons)
Marinated savoy cabbage
- 2 quarts water
- 1/2 cup kosher salt
- 2 cups ice
- 1 small head of Savoy cabbage, leaves separated and rinsed
- 2 tablespoons chardonnay vinegar or apple cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon colatura or high-quality fish sauce, such as Red Boat
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice (from about 1 lemon)
- 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest (from about 1 lemon)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons sliced fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
- 1 tablespoon finely sliced fresh chives
- Fine sea salt and freshly cracked black peppercorns
- 4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1/2 cup vegetable shortening or lard, chilled
- 1 1/4 cups ice-cold water
- olive oil, for brushing
For the cabbage
In a large container, combine the water, kosher salt and ice.
Place the cabbage leaves in the ice bath and refrigerate the container. Brine the cabbage for 1 hour, or until the leaves crisp.
Drain the cabbage. Tear the leaves into rough 2-inch pieces. Working in batches, use a salad spinner to dry the leaves. Transfer the cabbage to a large salad bowl.
In a small bowl, mix the vinegar, colatura, and lemon juice and zest. Whisk in the olive oil.
Using your hands, rub the cabbage with enough dressing to liberally coat the leaves. Let the slaw rest for 10 minutes, or until the cabbage softens a bit. Just before serving, toss in the parsley and chives. Season the slaw with sea salt and pepper to taste, if necessary. Serve.
For the piadini
Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a large mixing bowl. Cut the chilled shortening into 1/4-inch bits and, using your fingers, rub it into the flour until only pea-sized lumps remain. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and add the water. Stir with a fork to form a loose, shaggy dough.
Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead it for about 8 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic. Set a 12-inch square of plastic wrap on a work surface and brush it with oil. Turn the dough out onto the oiled sheet. Lift up the edges and tightly wrap the dough in the plastic. Refrigerate for 1 hour, or until well chilled. The dough can be made 1 to 2 days in advance and stored, wrapped in plastic, in the refrigerator.
Turn the chilled dough out onto a work surface and remove the plastic wrap. Cut it into 8 pieces and, with the palm of your hand, gently roll each portion into a smooth ball. Set the balls aside and loosely cover with plastic wrap.
Lightly dust a work surface and rolling pin with flour. Roll each ball into a disk 6 inches in diameter and 1/8 inch thick.
Heat a cast-iron pan or heavy griddle over medium-high heat until drops of water bounce on the hot surface once or twice before evaporating. Lay a disk or two on the hot pan; the dough should gently sizzle immediately. Griddle the bread for 1 minute per side, or until it turns golden and blisters in spots. Transfer the cooked flatbread to a warm platter and cover with a dry kitchen towel. Repeat with the remaining dough. Serve warm.
For the gremolata
In a medium bowl, whisk together the parsley, oregano, sugar, olive oil, anchovies, chives and lemon zest and juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Gremolata stays fresh, covered, in the refrigerator for 2 days.
For the oxtails
Press the lemon zest and the thyme with the broad side of a chef’s knife to release their essential oils. Pour the water into a deep container and stir in the Aleppo pepper, if using, salt, and brown sugar. Once the salt dissolves, stir in the toasted peppercorns, coriander and mustard seeds, garlic, thyme, and lemon zest. Submerge the oxtails in the brine and cover the container. Refrigerate the meat for 24 hours.
Lift the oxtails out of the brine and place them on a cooling rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. Pat the meat dry and discard the brine. Return the oxtails to the refrigerator and let the meat rest, uncovered, until it feels dry and tacky, about 12 hours.
For the braise
Aggressively season the oxtails with freshly cracked pepper. Set a lidded large Dutch oven over medium heat and swirl in enough olive oil to generously slick the bottom. When the oil turns shimmering-hot, add as many oxtails as will fit comfortably. Brown the meat at a steady, controlled sizzle. Once the oxtails release from the pot and turn a rich golden brown, sear the reverse sides. After both flat sides brown, turn the oxtails onto their sides and brown their edges. Set the browned meat on a platter and repeat with the remaining oxtails. Give each batch 15 to 20 minutes to thoroughly brown.
If the fond gets too dark while searing, remove the meat from the pot and deglaze the fond with a splash of water. Scrape up all the meaty bits and pour the drippings into a small bowl. Set the bowl of drippings aside, wipe out the pot, reheat, slick with oil, and continue browning the next batch.
Once the oxtails are browned, preheat the oven to 325°F. Pour off the fat (or add some oil) until you have 2 tablespoons of fat in the pot. Set the pot back over medium-low heat and stir in the onions, celery, carrots, and garlic. Make sure to scrape up the fond while sautéing the soffritto. Gently sweat the vegetables, stirring often, for 15 minutes, or until they collapse and soften. Season lightly with salt.
Stir in the tomato paste and anchovies. Sauté the mixture for 5 minutes, or until the anchovies melt into the vegetables. Add the oregano and pimentón and sauté 1 minute more, or until their perfume blooms. There should be no liquid in the pot at this point, but the vegetables should be meltingly soft and juicy enough to streak the pan’s base.
Pour in the vinegar, agave or honey, and wine. Increase the heat to medium and gently simmer the liquid for 10 minutes, or until it evaporates. Increase the heat to high and stir in the burnt-onion dashi and any reserved drippings, if you deglazed while browning. Bring everything to a rolling boil.
Remove the pan from the heat and carefully nestle the browned oxtails into the pot, shingling them so the meat overlaps and lies evenly. Set the pot back over medium-high heat and simmer the braising liquid for 5 minutes. There should be enough liquid to keep the oxtails two-thirds submerged. If necessary, add more stock or water.
Turn off the heat and cover the pot. Transfer the oxtails to the oven and gently braise them for 3 hours, or until the meat shrinks, pulls away from the bone, and, when prodded in its thickest portion, gives but does not collapse. The meat should feel tender but bouncy. Every 30 minutes throughout the braising process, uncover the pot, baste the meat, re-cover, and rotate the pot 90 degrees. Once they are perfectly cooked, remove the oxtails from the oven and season with salt and pepper to taste. Let them rest at room temperature for 1 hour. If not serving the oxtails on the same day, cool the pot in a sink of ice water, then cover and refrigerate. Properly stored, these keep for up to 4 days.
For the finish
Skim the congealed fat off the surface. Set the braise back over medium heat and rewarm at a steady simmer until heated through to the bone, 15 to 20 minutes.
To serve, scoop the oxtails and sauce onto a large, warm serving platter. Serve with Marinated Savoy Cabbage and Remina’s Piadini alongside. Gremolata also does well here.