Oxtail Ragu with Gnocchi
I've had gnocchi (potato pasta--kind of like dumplings) in restaurants before. They're usually sturdy little solid lumps. Kind of heavy, a little chewy. Thursday is gnocchi day in Rome and although I didn't hate gnocchi (it's all starch, how could I?) I admit I didn't really understand.
Having made homemade gnocchi, I now understand. Gnocchi deserve a day of their own. Really.
Monday I finally made the oxtail ragu with homemade gnocchi. The ragu recipe asks for homemade stock and homemade tomato sauce. I had homemade chicken stock--actually a brown chicken stock in the Italian manner, because that's what I like. So I was good there. I made the tomato sauce. Tomato sauce isn't hard. I found really good Italian canned plum tomatoes at Whole Foods last week, so I was prepared. But it did mean that I had to start cooking at noon to get dinner on the table by seven. When you make tomato sauce you have two options. One is to crush fresh tomatoes with some garlic and basil and cook it for just a few minutes. The other is to simmer it for a good long time. The tomato tastes fresh for a few minutes, but when it cooks longer than that, it gets acidic and it's not good. The solution to that is to cook it for a much longer time, the way Italian grandmothers do, and then it slowly becomes really good again. I don't have an Italian grandmother and my only living grandmother when I was a child was a lousy cook, but it's still true.
I made it, and now I have a couple of pints of homemade tomato sauce in the freezer. That has to be a good thing.
Oxtails are pretty ugly pieces of meat. A slab of beef, say, a brisket, is pretty anonymous. Sure, it's meat, but you don't look at it and think, 'oh! that's the cow's wall of muscle just at the end of the ribcage and along the belly. But because oxtails are 1. called 'oxtails' and 2. bear a striking resemblance to what you would expect to get if you chopped a cow tail into lengths and took off the hair, it's pretty obvious looking at them what they are which is probably why they're kind of unpopular. There's also not a lot of meat on an oxtail. I mean, when was the last time you saw an animal with a big fat tail? Besides, say, a lizard.
So why bother? (If you've ever watch Alton Brown of Good Eats, you should imagine him explaining this.) The answer is bone marrow and collagen. Bone marrow is a sublime substance. Cook a piece of tough meat with lots of connective tissue, and a thick bone split to allow you to get to the marrow for a really long time and what you get is, well, good eats. Bone marrow and collagen will saturate the cooling liquid so that the result is an almost gelid, thick, meaty tasting substance that sticks to pasta, or potatoes or even a spoon like an exquisite sauce.
I dredged my oxtails in flour and browned them in olive oil and then cooked them in a lot of wine--a whole bottle--some homemade stock and some homemade tomato sauce for almost two hours. Then I took them out, let them cool and took the meat off the bones (what little meat there was) and put the meat back in the pot with all that good braising liquid, and cooked it some more.
The house smelled so good the dogs thought they were going to die of starvation.
It's great stuff. But the gnocchi. By this point I was a little worried about ruining this great stuff by screwing up the gnocchi but I couldn't think of anything else to put this on that was good enough for it. I made the gnocchi dough and followed the directions for making gnocchi. Making pasta, like pie dough, and tortillas and a bunch of other foods is often a matter of experience. I can't make tortillas you would feed a dog. And my biscuits aren't to great, either. So I was prepared for my gnocchi to be, well, sad. But my directions (which were slightly different than the ones in the link above because I used Mario Batali's recipe from Babbo) seemed straight forward enough and low and behold, as I followed them, the things that were supposed to happen did happen. The dough came together, and when I had incorporated all the flour, although it wasn't all satiny and elastic and stretchy like pasta dough, it wasn't like mashed potatoes, either. So I cut them and flicked them off the fork. The photo is actually of my gnocchi, by the way. And here's another.
As I heard Bob pull into the garage I put them in boiling water, and in a minute or two they were ready. Then I put them in a sauce pan holding some of my heated ragu turned them in it and emptied it all on two plates.
I'm sorry I don't have a photo of the finished dish but that's because we ate them. They were lighter than air. The ragu was everything it was advertised to be. Sort of like the best pot roast you've ever had. Plato's ideal of braised beef. And I have a couple of quarts of oxtail ragu in my freezer, so if someone drops in unexpectedly for dinner, it's all there.
If you want the gnocchi recipe, let me know. It makes a ton. And it takes some time. But damn it's good.