In this month's Test Kitchen I tackle one of the biggies -- the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, one of the most lauded cookbooks of its time, written by Judy Rodgers, chef and owner of the San Francisco institution of the same name.
I got this cookbook as a gift, and for years it's mainly been a paperweight because of its hefty weight. The recipes are a mix of simple California-style salads to complicated roasts. The reason why Rodgers garnered a lot of accolades is because she really delves into every recipe and technique of cooking, which means a lot of reading.
So finally I busted open the book to test the braised oxtails recipe, which 48 percent of you voted for me to try. It was a clear winner over the shrimp in romesco sauce (20 percent), summer onion pancake (17 percent) and asparagus and rice soup (13 percent). I've been eating a lot of oxtails recently from this food truck parked near my work, so I've been interested in trying them out myself at home.
Full disclosure: I am lazy, so I didn't do everything from scratch, as is the expectations of Rodgers in the cookbook. For example, she expects you to make your own beef stock to be used in the recipe. I used store-bought stock. I am not that patient to make stock while also looking at 5 hours of cooking time for the oxtails. So sue me. Here's how it all went down in my kitchen:
Just like how Rodgers recommends pre-salting for her famous roast chicken recipe, she does the same for the oxtails, suggesting salting the oxtails two to three days before you plan to cook them. I got about 2 pounds (cutting in half the recipe), and didn't really have to worry about trimming any excess fat because my oxtails were beautifully presented when I bought them at the Piedmont Grocery. I used about half a tablespoon of salt, and kept the oxtails in the refrigerator.
On the day I cooked the oxtails, I began by reducing the beef stock. The recipe calls for four cups of beef stock that needs to be simmered until it's reduced by half. The recipe says it'll take about 30 minutes but it took longer for me, maybe because my stock was thin with little body since it's store bought.
After awhile, the stock reduced and it just needs to look syrupy, not necessarily thick. It kind of looks like chocolate sauce, huh?
In a skillet, I warmed some olive oil over medium heat and then added the oxtails to brown. Rodgers made sure to say that every side should be brown, and to be patient to make sure it's done correctly. (About 3-4 minutes for each side.)
Here's how the oxtails looked after browning. I removed them and placed them in the dutch oven that I'm going to use to braise them. Rodgers actually suggests a flameproof roasting pan but I wanted to use the dutch oven with the cover.
Then more reduction, this time the wine. The recipe calls for 1 -3/4 cup of red wine, either Cabernet, Syrah or Zinfandel. Something heavy to live up to the oxtails. I used my go-to Malbec from Argentina, where people revere red meat.
In the same skillet I used to brown the oxtails, I simmered the wine over medium high heat and scraped any bits that were left from the oxtails. The recipe also called for a "splash" of brandy, but I don't have brandy in my kitchen and wasn't about to buy a whole bottle just to use a splash.
After the wine reduced, I poured in the beef stock, blending the two and then set the pan aside. This is the braising liquid.
Now I had to assemble the braise. The first items to go into the dutch oven with the oxtails were a clove of garlic (cut in half), a bay leaf, several peppercorns (slightly cracked) and a twig of thyme.
Then went a small yellow onion, roughly diced, a few stalks of celery cut into 2-inch length, a carrot (also 2-inch length) and a cup of chopped tomatoes from a can. (The recipe actually calls for tomatoes from a can.)
Here's my dutch oven with all the ingredients snuggled around the oxtails. Once they were all in, I added the liquid so that it was one-third the depth of the oxtails. Then I covered the pot with parchment paper and put on the lid, placing everything in a pre-heated oven at 300 degrees. Now the braising, where I just sit and let this cook slowly and perfume my apartment with the wonderful smell of oxtail meat.
The recipe says it should take 3.5 to 4 hours, but Rodgers suggest you check the oxtails after 2.5 hours. The meat should be tender. If not, it goes back in the oven and she suggests checking every 30 minutes afterwards till done. After 2.5 hours, I checked and it was still tough, so I cooked for another 30 minutes and then it was tender. Rodgers also suggest to leave the lid slightly ajar to let some of the braising liquid evaporate, but there really wasn't much liquid in my pot so I didn't have to worry about letting the liquid evaporate.
And here's my oxtails after being cooked for roughly 3 hours. The recipe says to tip the pot so that the oil could settle to one side. As you let the oxtails cool, you can then begin to skim off some of the oil. But you know me. Lazy. So after awhile, I skimmed any oil I could see (not much) and just got ready to eat because I was hungry after nearly 5 hours of prep and cooking.
The recipe says that if you taste the vegetables and it has a weird texture, then you should run it through a food mill. But mine tasted fine, tender and keeping up its shape. So I left them as is.
And below is how it all turned out. You can serve the oxtails over polenta or mashed potatoes. I went with grits because I had some in my pantry. What do you think?
My tips and warnings about this recipe:
- Plan ahead. With the pre-salting, the beef stock making (if you're not lazy like me), you actually have to spend days, maybe weeks, getting ready for this recipe. And I dedicated a whole Sunday afternoon to make the braise.
- Make your vegetables pretty. If I knew I would plate my vegetables as is, I would have cut them more nicely and not as rough or coarse. I've seen places that use baby vegetables which probably would look beautiful on the plate.
- Be careful not to let the braising liquid dry out. Mine almost did. If it looks like it's running low when you're checking the oxtails' doneness, then I would add either a bit more wine or beef stock. Just add a little at a time though so you don't make it too wet.
Taste: I don't know if you can go wrong with oxtails, which are such a rich cut of meat with that glutinous fat with lots of flavor. So the overall dish tasted great. The wine makes the dish taste a bit richer and not just like another beef/vegetable stew recipe. I could have made my oxtails a bit more tender, maybe a half an hour longer, but it was still good and tasty.
Overall grade: A. Not surprisingly, I loved the recipe, partly because I love oxtails. While it was time consuming and laboriously, it all tasted great at the end. I would make this again for a dinner because it has that "wow" factor.
Don't forget to vote for this month's Test Kitchen poll on the upper right hand column. I'm featuring one of celebrity Chef Tyler Florence's many cookbooks. I have a couple of his cookbooks, and he's constantly releasing a new one. But this is a classic, "Tyler's Ultimate" partly inspired by his old Food Network show of the same name. Now he's busy chasing food trucks.