“Food is not rational. Food is culture, habit, craving and identity.”
Jonathan Safran Foer
For me, this quote has never been more true than when I think about Oxtail. When I hear the word Oxtail I can not only taste the smush of the baby carrots and the crack of the new potatoes’ skin when you push down with your fork, but I can also smell the richness of the aroma that fills the kitchen. I can hear the shhhhh of the gas and the clang of the cast iron lid against the pot as you peek into your treasure chest.
I can hear the laughter of my family around the table and the shlurrr as we suck on the bones to get the very last morsel of marrow out of the intricate crevices. I can feel the stickiness between my thumb and fingers where the gelatine left its traces; our faces glistening with fat in the midday Sunday sun.
When I hear Oxtail I hear my grandfather’s unique laugh when he exclaimed after our elaborate Sunday lunch: ‘My rooiderm sal afruk!’ meaning he is so full that he feels like his intestines will rip out…
Now that I live in England, oxtail is a bit harder to come by. And it comes in such tiny amounts when you do find it, that you have to buy several packs at a time just to have a decent family meal.
With the English weather, it is not so easy to have a cast-iron potjie outside simmering away for hours on end. I did, however, discovered that I can make this very enticing meal in my Instant Pot. It doesn’t come with the cast-iron clangs and grts-grts of the wooden spoon percussing on the iron sides, but it does come with the aromatic promise that when you hear the beep that something spectacular is about to happen.
But first, the wine…
I love cooking with wine. So much so that I even put some of it in the food – sometimes! In the case of a great oxtail stew, you have to pour in a good glug; I ensure that I make that tail so drunk that it will start swaying again!
Let’s face it, any good stew has veggies at its root. But you cannot, I repeat (this time in capitals) CANNOT use any old veggies in an oxtail stew. Yes, it is just carrots, onions and potatoes, but it cannot be just carrots, onions and potatoes. Prepping these staples in the wrong way is the difference between a pile of slop and an elegant dish that becomes one of the greatest memories on a plate for years to come.
The carrots have to be baby carrots. Not sliced or diced, but kept whole so they bring integrity to the whole dish.
The onions bring character. Baby onions, skinned and left whole. You should be able to pop a whole onion in your mouth and peel the layers one by one with your tongue until you reach the sweet core. Eating an onion in an oxtail stew, should be delightful and leave you wanting for more.
Baby new potatoes serves elegance to the table. Covered in a blanket of gravy, they should be squished with your fork and serve as a carrier to mop up every bit of the gravy delight.
The button mushrooms are just for pure indulgence!
It is for the above-mentioned reasons that I actually have a secret…
Shhhh, I’ll tell you my secret now…
Whenever I cook stew in my Instant Pot, I double-up on the veggies. I use the bog-standard, mundane, everyday veggies to form my base before topping with meat and cooking it until the meat is falling apart and the veggies have disappeared in the gravy. This is also how I thicken my sauce – I put a few Maris Piper potatoes with the meat. Once cooked the potatoes will be mush and thickens the sauce. If that failed to do the job, I use Gram flour instead of cornflour as it gives the dish another level of depth.
Once the initial cooking is done and I’ve left my pot to depressurise naturally, I add my fancy veg and only pressure-cook them for a few minutes.
I take all the good stuff out, mash the Maris Pipers if needed to thicken the gravy and put it all back for a quick swirl around to give an even coating.
In South Africa we serve our Oxtail with Samp or Maize Rice. Both of which is nearly impossible to find in Britain, unless you know where to look… You can read my post on my Maize Rice recipe here, just in case you happen to come across some and would like to give it a go!