Even though this is supposed to be our off-season, the restaurant was open New Year’s Eve (la festa di San Silvestro), in part because we’ve missed it and because my recent trip to Rome left me longing to cook and share some of the dishes I enjoyed there.
Among the Roman dishes we served that night were suppli al telefono (rice croquettes filled with mozzarella), spaghetti alla gricia (that is, with guanciale – cured pork jowl), and coda alla vaccinara (braised oxtail). I’ve written recently about guanciale, especially the first-rate guanciale produced by La Quercia in Iowa. For this post, I’d like to focus on the oxtail as a representative of Rome’s quinto quarto tradition.
Oxtail is something of a misnomer, since these days it rarely comes from ox but is instead a cut of beef, the skinned tail of the animal sliced into pieces about two-inches thick with bits of rich meat surrounding quite a bit of bone. More than any other city in Italy, it is Rome which has the richest traditional of offal: internal organs such as liver, kidneys, intestines, brains, etc. Although not an internal organ, oxtail is usually included in this classification of less desirable meats, known in Italy as the “quinto quarto”, or fifth-quarter. It is this hidden, fifth quarter which was left to the butcher and the poor in Rome until relatively recent times, all of the more expensive cuts of meat acquired by those few with means to afford them. But in the great Italian peasant tradition of making the most with the least, a wonderful cuisine was born and the genius of Italian cooking given a stage to show its brilliance.
In the case of oxtail, its inherent toughness demands slow braising with plenty of liquid. The result of hours of patience however is a dish not quite like any other. After slow, long cooking, oxtail becomes fork tender and exquisitely rich in flavor. Its high amount of collagen produces a lusciousness not found in many other cuts. When used to make broth (excellent for the inevitable few tiny pieces of tail), it helps congeal the liquid. Best of all, one recognizes the beauty in finding a splendid use for something otherwise to be discarded and unappreciated.
These days, of course, both in Rome and in the States, oxtail is not unappreciated. Once almost given away for free, oxtail can now be hard to find and in high demand; after all, there’s only one tail per animal. For this dinner, we were lucky enough to purchase it from John and Todd Hopkins of Forks Farm, whose oxtail was not only wonderful but whose farm is only 8 miles away and open to the public. They believe whole-heartedly in humanely-raised, pasture-fed animals. They are leaders in that movement, and their on-farm farmers market during the summer months is the heart of sustainable agriculture in our region. John and Todd were among our guests on New Year’s Eve, and there’s nothing more satisfying for a cook than to prepare for a farmer the fruit of his labor. My recipe for oxtail is offered below.
In Rome, the district most connected to the quinto quarto tradition is Testaccio, not surprisingly the district formerly housing the butchers of Rome. Today, Testaccio is a foodie heaven, with an excellent farmer’s market, fine butchers, and first-rate restaurants, many specializing in offal. Although not perhaps for everyone (including me, who has yet to try this dish), one of the most remarkable expressions of this strain of Roman cooking is La Pajata, the cooked intestines of unweaned calves, usually cooked with tomatoes and used to sauce rigatoni. The little bit of milk left in the intestines creates a ricotta like cheese when cooked. Remarkable. An acquaintance, Katie Parla, writes passionately about the quinto quarto tradition and jokes that it was “archeology that brought [her] to Rome but organ meats that kept [her] there.” Perhaps when I’m in Rome again in March I’ll have the courage to bring on La Pajata.
Recipe for Coda Alla Vaccinara
In most markets, you’ll find each oxtail cut into four to six pieces of various sizes, adding up to around 2 or 3 pounds, which might serve 4 to 6 people. In our area, since I recently bought up the supply at Forks Farm, Wegman’s is the best bet. Many markets don’t carry it but will order it for you.
Essential to the braise is the aroma of celery, increased by adding additional celery near the end of the cooking and by garnishing with chopped celery leaves. Also essential to some, but I admit it is a tradition I don’t quite get myself, is the addition of grated chocolate to the dish. Others add bay, cloves, or raisins, but as in many traditional recipes, there is not one single, definitive version.
1) To begin, brown the oxtail well over medium high heat in a little bit of olive oil, seasoning well with both salt and pepper. Remove to a plate.
2) Brown a little pancetta if you have it (if not don’t worry) in the pan, and add a half cup or so of diced onion, and then a few minutes later, some diced carrots and diced celery.
3) When the vegetables have softened and begun to brown, deglaze the plan with some red or white wine, and scrape all the tasty browned bits from the bottom of the pan.
4) Add a cup, more or less, of chopped canned tomatoes with a little of their juice, and season with salt.
5) When the tomatoes have begun to break down, return the oxtail pieces to the pan, and add enough water or broth to the pan to come a good way up the side of the oxtail. Some cooks recommend submerging it completely, but I have not found this necessary. Keep in mind that if you use water, some extra seasoning might be needed.
6) Bring the liquid to a simmer, and then cover and reduce the heat to produce a gentle but steady simmer, either on the stovetop or in the oven (325 degrees works well for me).
7) Braised for 2 or 3 hours, until the oxtail is very tender.
8) During the last half hour of cooking, add some extra strips of celery, reduce the cooking juices a little (but taste for salt first since it become saltier as it is reduced), and serve with a garnish of fresh celery leaves.
9) Most cooks think such braised dishes are even better the next day, though I am not one of them, though resting for a few hours at room temperature before reheating might be desirable.