[Tita] noticed a smell that struck her. A smell that was foreign to this house. John opened the door and stood there with a tray in his hands and a bowlful of ox-tail soup!
Ox-tail soup! She couldn’t believe it. And behind John, in came Chencha, covered in tears. The embrace they exchanged was brief, because they didn’t want the soup to get cold. With the first sip, Nacha appeared there at her side, stroking her hair as she ate, as she had done when she was little and was sick, kissing her forehead over and over. There were all the times with Nacha, the childhood games in the kitchen, the trips to the market, the still-warm tortillas, the colored apricot pits, the Christmas rolls, the smells of boiled milk, bread with cream, chocolate atole, cumin, garlic, onion. As always, throughout her life, with a whiff of onion, the tears began. She cried as she hadn’t cried since the day she was born. How good it was to have a long talk with Nacha. Just like old times, when Nacha was still alive and they had so often made ox-tail soup together. Chencha and Tita laughed reliving those moments, and they cried remembering the steps of the recipe. At last Tita had been able to remember a recipe, once she had remembered the first step, chopping the onion.”
–Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel, 1992 Doubleday, New York
Oxtail is a bony, gelatin-rich meat, which is usually slow-cooked as a stew or braised, and as such, it is a good stock base for a dynamite soup. As with short-ribs, the sections of tail put out a lot of fat, and you’ll need to skim this off during the process.
Nacha’s recipe has 2 ox-tails, onion, garlic, tomatoes, potatoes and string beans. The recipe is within the narrative of the chapter but from what I can tell the tails are cooked on the stove with the onion and garlic, and “a little more water than you normally would, since you are making a soup. A good soup that’s worth something has to be soupy without getting watery.”
I was leaning more toward a barley-vegetable version, and wanted to include red wine and mushrooms to really boost the flavor. I didn’t have any quick-cooking barley but I did have Trader Joe’s 10-minute Farro which I’ve been totally into lately. Farro is composed of the grains of certain wheat species. The exact definition is the subject of much debate. Suffice it to say it is nutty and delish, the 10-minute kind is particularly awesome, and you can read more about Farro here
So after some reconaissance I ended up halving and loosely following a recipe on Epicurious, which offers this little teaser: During hard times, luxury cuts like steaks and chops give way to humbler ones. None are humbler than the oxtail, and all across the country, depression-era cooks made much of it, frequently in soup. Even in these days, when humble cuts have become restaurant menu stars, soup is still a good way to go with oxtails. Simmering them slowly with garlic and vegetables in red wine yields a rich broth and tender, succulent meat, making a lavish feast for us all.
Lavish Oxtail Soup
- 1 pound oxtails (4 or 5 3-inch sections), patted dry
- 1 onion, diced
- 1 shallot, diced
- 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 oz dried porcini mushrooms, reconstituted in 1 cup hot water, water reserved
- 5 more cups water
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 cup red wine
- 6-8 carrots, sliced
- 3-4 ribs celery, sliced
- 1 scant cup quick-cooking farro or barley
- Chopped parsley
- 1 or 2 beef bouillon cubes (just in case)
Heat olive oil in dutch oven over medium-high heat. Season oxtails with salt and pepper and brown on all sides. Remove from pot and set aside.
Add onion, shallot, garlic, and thyme and saute 2-3 minutes. Fish mushrooms out of the warm water and chop fine. You don’t have to…I only do to disguise them. Among the shredded meat, they are not recognizable as mushrooms and then the kids eat them. Ha. So chop or not, but add them to the pot.
Add 1 cup red wine, scraping up bits from bottom of pot with wooden spoon. Put oxtails back into pot, add the 5 cups water, the reserved mushroom water, and the bay leaves. Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover, and simmer for 3 hours.
Strain broth into a clean put, reserving solids. Put pot into fridge for 2 hours, or the freezer for about 45 minutes so the fat rises and solidifies. Skim off as much as possible and discard. Pour broth (which will be very jelly-like) back into soup pot and heat over medium
Shred the meat off the tailbones and add to pot along with carrots, celery, the reserved onions and mushrooms, and farro. Taste broth and add salt, pepper, or a boullion cube if necessary. Simmer about 20 minutes until carrots are tender. Stir in chopped parsley and some frozen peas if desired, and serve.
Peasant food: it serves a certain purpose.