‘What should I have for dinner?’ – it’s one of the eternal questions, and one that can sometimes leave my brain spinning because the supermarket is too full of things and I haven’t made a plan. For a successful shopping trip, I really must have a plan, or I end up eating biscuits for dinner and feeling guilty. I spend a lot of time thinking about food, as you’ll have gathered, but it’s not only the recipe itself that I turn over and over in my head, it’s the ingredients that I’ll have to buy, where they are in the supermarket, what order I’ll get them in to be most efficient, what steps I’ll take to make the meal and what order I’ll do them in, then back to what the recipe is again and so forth. There is often nothing in my head but this circle of thoughts going round and round, and becoming ever more cemented into a Plan. I like to think of it as working out how best to use my time once I get in, rather than as compulsive behaviour; you say tomato and I say tomato…
Another part of my love of cooking, apart from spending my entire journey home thinking about exactly what I’m going to do when I get there, is a bit more abstract and relaxed. I enjoy putting together flavours in my head and thinking them over, tasting them with my brain, until I have what seems like an interesting and workable recipe. Sometimes I have an idea that seems well conceived straight away, so that I can throw it together with very little deliberation, but sometimes an idea takes a while to come together. I had been trying to figure out what to make for Monday night’s dinner for a couple of days beforehand. A friend of mine was coming over to be fed; I try to give him a good square meal every few weeks, as when he moved out of his mum’s house he had no idea how to cook and I’m worried he’ll get scurvy. So far this hasn’t happened, but his tales of eating three-week old bacon that’s been uncovered in the fridge still give me the Fear.
I have also recently been fixating on oxtail as an ingredient. Fixating is a strong word, and of course I’m exaggerating a little, but see the description of my Rain Man-esque train of thought above if you think I’m completely misusing it. Thoughts go into my brain, but they do not necessarily come back out again until I can make them into real things, or at least try. In the matter of new ingredients, it’s almost always the case that I’ll have to go ahead and buy whatever it is I’ve been thinking about and try it out. Similarly to the recipe process, sometimes it takes a while to decide on what I would like to do with an ingredient and sometimes an idea seems entirely logical. With oxtail, the obvious route for me was a stew, I think with some ox heart and made in my lovely heart shaped dish. I know that oxtail soup is the typical thing to make but it’s never taken my fancy, and besides, who wants to be obvious? The stew is something I’ll be making for my parents one Sunday as my dad recently saw someone on TV making oxtail stew and was really vocal about how much he thought he’d enjoy it. A hint? Perhaps. At any rate, that’s one recipe I’m looking forward to putting together, but as I have a number of busy weekends lined up it will have to wait. In the meantime, I couldn’t wait to make something else with oxtail, and set my brain purring again.
Oxtail. The actual tail of an actual ox. Well, cow or bull. Ox-ish. I’m not put off by the idea at all; I feel like if you’re going to breed an animal to eat, you may as well eat as much of it as you can. I feel the same about pigs’ trotters, I’m keen to give them a shot, but wouldn’t just fire them on a plate and tuck in once the meat was cooked, I’d either take it off and serve it with the traditional two veg (I do literally mean with two vegetables, let’s not allow the talk of lesser used meat products to suggest some other, more shudder inducing prospect to us) or put it through something – soup or stew comes to mind, or some kind of terrine maybe. Right enough, oxtail is more attractive to look at than pig feet, it has that to be said for it. At any rate, I wanted to cook the meat on the bone, to keep it lovely and moist, but I decided that I’d then remove it to serve. Not much of a step forward but one that was sensible, as I found out when I came to remove the meat – dinner would have taken twice as long as usual to eat and would have been half as filling. Once again, though, I digress. Here’s a picture of the result of all this mental deliberation, just to break things up a bit:
And back to the rambling explanation of how this recipe came about. Someone I was talking to about this interest of mine in buying and cooking oxtail remarked that they thought of oxtail as a really Spanish ingredient. This took me by surprise as I hadn’t really thought about it in terms of any specific country, but it sent me off in a new direction of thought. ‘If we’re talking Spanish food,’ my brain said, ‘we’re talking fabada.’. This is a bean and meat stew that I’ve made an approximation of before, to decent results. It uses ham, chorizo and black pudding with butter beans and potatoes to make a filling, spicy, one-pot meal. I was thinking about this in terms of the meatier oxtail flavour (not that I’d ever actually tried oxtail but since it’s just another bit of a cow I reckoned I could guess) and it wasn’t really working in my mind. It kept just morphing back into oxtail and heart stew, and I already have that one on the ‘to make’ list, which gets longer by the day. So many recipes in the world, so little free time in comparison. It doesn’t seem right.
The fabada was out, then, as I think the pleasure in that particular dish is the saltiness of the ham and the way that all the flavours come together, and I didn’t think the more robust oxtail would do the trick there. Plus it was too similar to the other recipe I already had in mind and heaven forfend that I should ever make two meals that were similar… That’s not true at all, there are some things that I make all the time but they’re not exciting in the same way and usually not noteworthy. This assumes that the things I’ve been posting so far *are* intrinsically noteworthy and we could launch into a long (or perhaps crushingly short) debate around that, but I’d rather not at this time.
Of course, I’m sure anyone reading this will immediately have thought of paella when I mentioned Spanish food. I do have a recipe for paella that I’ve made a number of times with satisfying results – the combination of saffron, garlic and thyme with chorizo, chicken and prawns is a real winner. The original recipe calls for more seafood, of course, but as I haven’t always been a fan of seafood, and as good quality ingredients aren’t always easy to find in that area, I’ve usually made a paella that is more meat than fish, and have never had any complaints. Despite this, it still lives in the ‘seafood recipe’ section of my brain, so it took a while for it to come out in the cross referencing process. Once it did, though, I liked the idea. I liked it more the more I though about it – a meat paella, or paella de carne, if you will. Heck yes. It’s often the case that I have to remind myself that there are no actual rules about food, except maybe that it has to taste good at the end – there is no reason in the world that I shouldn’t make a paella without any seafood. I had a wee search online to see if anyone else was making something similar, and was hit by hundreds of recipes, all different. That more or less settled it – oxtail and chorizo paella was the way forward. Now that I was settled on *what* I was making, it was a case of figuring out *how* I’d be making it, in the time available. I knew I’d have about an hour and a half between getting home and my friend being there and ready to eat. This wasn’t as much time as is usually recommended for cooking oxtail but I had my heart set on it now, and the following is how I used the time…:
For poached oxtail (and to make oxtail stock):
- one large joint of oxtail
- several turns of a mill containing pepper, salt, dried chili and dried garlic
- two or three tbsp of red wine
- four cloves of garlic, crushed
- four bay leaves
- one red chili, cut in half
- 2 tsp of smoked paprika
- three or four stems of thyme
- boiling water to fill a pot big enough to comfortably hold the oxtail
I started by putting the oxtail joint in the pot and seasoning it from the mill I keep on hand by the cooker. I gave it a shake inside the pot, flipping it over a few times, to makes sure that any seasoning left loose in the pot found its mark and added a bit mor to any areas that looked bare. Then I put all the other ingredients in and simmered it all for an hour. So far pretty simple, right? It doesn’t get any more complicated, I promise.
While the stock was simmering, I prepared the other ingredients, which this picture shows along with the shadow of my hands. I figure that this is the way forward, having everything ready to go in before you really start to cook, because it makes the process easier, even though it is more time consuming at first. You have to speculate to accumulate, a stitch in time saves nine, and other sayings of that nature. What I have on the chopping board, clockwise from top left, is:
- two ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
- half a red pepper, sliced lengthways then into three
- a ramekin (not just a small bowl, mark you) of frozen peas
- two cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced
- one red chili, sliced on the diagonal and with half the seeds removed
- a few sprigs of thyme
- half a white onion, finely chopped
- a chorizo ring, sliced and slightly diminished from tasting
I also measured out 200g of long grained rice – this is a lot more than I would usually make for two, almost double, but the friend in question eats like a bone crunching giant who’s trying to quit smoking, and I also wanted to save some for my gentleman friend if it was nice. I couldn’t get paella rice, and long grain works just as well as far as I’m concerned. Maybe it’s not super authentic, but it tastes good and that is really the main thing. Authenticity is an added bonus. For cooking and seasoning, I decided to use a mix of truffle oil and regular olive oil – I thought that the truffle flavour would add to the richness of the dish without overdoing it, as long as I was careful about how much I used. I was missing saffron, which I would usually put in a paella, but the local supermarket doesn’t stock it and I decided to rely on the red wine and paprika in the stock to provide colour rather than trudge to the next-nearest supermarket for just one thing. It meant missing out the saffron flavour, but again I thought I had enough flavours and also wondered if saffron might not be smothered in this more robust dish anyway, with the red meat and rich wine flavours rather than the lighter seafood and chicken. No point putting an ingredient that, pound for pound, is worth more than gold into something if you’re not going to taste the difference. And for those of you who thought I’d missed the Grandmaster Flash reference in my own writing there: Freeze! Rock!
So after the stock had simmered for an hour, and I had everything else prepared, I put my wok on over a medium high heat and put in a spot of the truffle oil. Once it was hot, I put in the garlic, onion, chorizo and chili, and stirred round until the onion was transparent. Putting the chorizo in this early on allows its great flavours to permeate all the other ingredients, and get all round the base of the pan, too. This is important because the next thing I did was add in the rice and stir it round until each grain was coated with oil, flavour and colour. I then added enough of the oxtail stock (avoiding the whole garlic cloves, bay leaves and chili) to cover the rice by 1cm, stirred well, and left for ten minutes. In the meantime, I took out the oxtail and removed the meat. This took longer than I would have thought, and was more difficult, too. I think that slow roasting the meat would encourage it to fall neatly off the bone, but this way I had to kind of hack it off and separate it from the fat with a sharp knife. I made sure to keep an eye on the rice while I was at it – I understand that an important, if not the *most* important, part of a true paella is the crunchy rice on the bottom, but I haven’t got the hang of that yet and suspect you need a proper paella pan to get it right, so I prefer to keep stirring mine to stop it from sticking. After ten minutes, I added the tomatoes, pepper and peas, plus another ladle of stock and stirred through, then left for another five. I also threw in the oxtail meat as it came off the bone, to keep it hot and let the flavours really mingle. After that five minutes I tasted the rice, seasoned a bit more with the ever-present grinder and drizzled with a little truffle oil and a little plain olive oil. I turned the heat off and let it sit, covered, for five minutes more, then served.
I have to say, it was a triumph. I was delighted with it, it tasted just like I had hoped it would. The oxtail was chewy without being tough, and the chorizo gave way after an initial resistance to meltingly good paprika, garlic and meat flavours. The rice had taken on the paprika colour and the flavours of the stock without being over garlicky, if you can believe it with the amount that I put in. All in all, I’m very pleased with myself, and hugely smug.
Tunes: if we’re talking oxtail, it has to be Bad to the Bone, although Good to the Bone might have been more appropriate, if far less rock and roll. I’m going to cheat and throw in a film clip here, too, because this is my favourite use of the song. Altogether now – ‘I need your clothes, your boots, and your motorcycle’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RITE-FiW5Gg
Movie: I have gone with one of the very, very few Spanish (well, partly Spanish) films I’ve ever seen and opted for Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s beautiful to look at, although that’s where the similarities with my meal end. It’s a very moving and engaging piece of cinema with elements of horror, and wonderful overtones of fairytale. That’s my tuppenceworth, at least. Here’s the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5d4f1nyLgg