Monday, January 31, 2011

Red Wine Braised Oxtails

A friend of mine sent me a recipe around Thanksgiving for braised oxtails. Life got crazy, and before I knew it, my mom's family was visiting for Christmas. Aha! I thought to myself, now is the perfect time to try this recipe.

A time-intensive labor of love it was: first, I made a beef stock from scratch, which took a day and a half. I then had to braise the oxtails, which was another day, plus the two days it took me to source the oxtails themselves. (On a side note: I called the Northbrook Whole Foods to see if they had the oxtails and was told they did. I took an hour detour specifically to go by the store, and once inside, found out that they had no oxtails. WTF? One of the two people I spoke to had made a mistake, and it pissed me off so much that I will never return to that store for any reason. I ended up going to Little Mexico to track down the oxtails, and they were not free-range, grass-finished beef.)

So, more than 24 hours went into this dish, and it showed in the end result. Meltingly succulent oxtail was enveloped in a thick sauce made from reduced stock and red wine. I had plans to serve the oxtails with a beautifully smooth purée of root vegetables and a tart cranberry compote to cut the richness, but then reality struck: no one would eat oxtails.

Well, phooey! This was one of the richest, most decadent dishes I have made at home, a dish through which the beauty of peasant food (poor people making good food out of the scraps because they had to) shined in all its beauty. The dish was refined, yet also comforting, and represented what "cooking with heart" is all about.

So, I was forced to gnaw on the bones for a couple days. I'll leave you with this glory shot of the stock, one of many magnificent pieces of this dish that, unfortunately, no one else got to enjoy.

What Am I Doing?

Maybe it was the oxtail fiasco, which consumed 24 hours of my life and then no one wanted to eat it, or maybe it was the experience (yes, experience) of finally enjoying tonkatsu ramen. More likely, it was too many late nights watching Iron Chef reruns. I'm not totally sure, but I have recently lost my inhibition against making Asian food at home, or more specifically, I have become enamored with the idea of making homemade dashi.

What is dashi, you ask? I had no idea until the beginning of December. It's Japanese stock, is what it is, as foundational to Japanese cuisine as veal stock is to classical French cooking and water is to the Italians. I haven't been able to figure out when certain dashi are used over others, but the most commonly referenced one, the one I have become enamored with, is a simple stock made from simmering kombu (a type of seaweed) with bonito flakes (shavings from a piece of dried tuna). (For those sad, pathetic souls who are familiar with Iron Chef, Rokusaburo Michiba's "broth of vigor" is a very strong version of this.)

To that end, I swung by Mitsuwa today and picked up some ingredients to try my hand at a common wintertime dish utilizing dashi: oden. Oden [Wikipedia article here] is both familiar and exotic, an immediately recognizable melange of hot broth and root vegetables, but dosed with fish cakes and fried tofu fritters. This dish, I decided, was the one to cut my dashi teeth on.

Of course, all I knew of dashi making were a few 3-second clips of Michiba dumping bonito into a weird pot of boiling...water? So, the first thing I did was Google dashi, which led me to UmamiMART's page on the subject [link]. Using this and the TV show as a guide, I started.

Here's the kombu at first.

And after a twenty-minute soak.

The bonito flakes being added to steaming water. (I nibbled on the bonito a little. Let me just say, bonito flakes will probably be a pantry staple for me in the future.)

At this point, I let the water come to a boil, then turned off the heat and let everything steep together for about half an hour. Then I strained the dashi through a paper towel set in a fine mesh strainer, and I had about a quart of dashi. Super simple to make, much easier than a classical French stock. How did it taste? Um... Japanese? It was strong and simple, but the bonito is a very complex flavor. Definitely, this dashi could be worth the trouble (which was really minimal, about five minutes of actual work).

So, on to the oden; going into this, I decided that if the oden was terrible, or at the least not worth the effort of making it, I really didn't have any reason to try dashi again. Well, the oden was simple, at least. I peeled and cut up a couple smallish potatoes and a large daikon, some maitake mushrooms (not traditional), then added those together with some tofu fritters and hard-boiled eggs to the pot. I also took the kombu out, sliced it into ribbons, and tied it in a simple overhand knot, which I either made up or else is traditional. I had read that you're supposed to par-boil everything first, but this was the first time I made this dish, and I had never eaten it before, so I figured, what the heck? No time like a first try to mess up and not feel bad about it. I also added a tablespoon or so of soy sauce.

So, here it is with everything added to the pot. I added enough dashi to cover everything comfortably, with the idea that it would slowly simmer down to a more concentrated broth. (It did not, because I covered it.)

Here it is after an hour on the stove, when I served it. Over the course of simmering, the smell changed from one dominated by the bonito to one dominated by a combination of the seaweed and the radish.

How was it?

I liked it. A lot. As with all Asian food, the flavor profile was foreign but not bad, and the texture of the tofu fritter was surprisingly spongelike. All told, I would definitely make this again, although I might not have a chance for a couple winters. It was pretty cool, though, having my home smell like Sushi Kushi Toyo.