The flesh on an oxtail is sinewy, a delectable road map of bone, cartilage, connective tissue and fat. Slow cooking is the only way to go. Liquid of some sort is essential: red wine, stock or cider is ideal. Water will do. As the oxtail cooks, the fat and gelatine melt, enriching rather than thickening the cooking liquor. The fat is almost the whole point of oxtail to me, and I would never dream of discarding it, but if you prefer not to eat it you can leave the finished dish overnight in the fridge and scrape the solidified fat from the surface the next day. It will peel away easily in large, thin pieces.
You need a good kilo and a half of oxtail for four people, and your tail is most likely to come ready cut, in pieces that descend in size. Those nearer the body will be meatier, but the smaller end pieces have much to contribute to the overall dish, even if they are frustrating and somewhat fruitless to deal with on the plate.
Some people find that cooked oxtail can be less than attractive in colour, and the cooking liquid more grey than brown. The way to prevent this is to bring the pieces to the boil in a pan of water, then skim off the fat that rises to the surface, before draining and rinsing. I can't honestly say I have ever had a problem with this, but this may be due to the onions, wine and stock I often cook it with. A plainer dish of tail cooked with water and carrots, especially if the meat is not browned first, may benefit from this treatment.
My early recipes for this cut used onions, bay leaves, red wine and occasionally orange peel, rosemary and garlic. A more recent and highly successful interpretation involved cooking the meat with sliced onions till they were golden and sweet, the juices enriched with grain mustard and cream. This winter, a new version has been simmering away, its juices given a sharp kick up the backside with tamarind. Available at wholefood shops, Indian and Chinese grocer's and many supermarkets, tamarind paste comes either in a solid and sinister-looking block of paste and seeds or as a more user-friendly, slightly tamer paste in a jar. Either way, it adds the sort of welcome sourness that any fatty meat will appreciate.
In step with many of the slower-cooked recipes, anything with an oxtail is better for a night in the fridge. Let it cool thoroughly first (I often speed up the process by leaving the pan half way up to its rim in a sink of cold water). Then leave it to gather its thoughts in the fridge for a good eight hours. Like a curry eaten the day after it is made, the flavours will be richer, deeper and more intriguing. Some of this is down to the flavourings having time to marry and merge, some of it is sheer magic, and nothing at all to do with the cook.
Slow-cooked oxtail with five-spice and tamarind
Good though this is on the day it is made, the sauce is even better after a night in the fridge. A note about the tamarind. I use the block tamarind, complete with seeds. Simply put it in a small bowl, pour over enough boiling water just to cover it, then leave for 10 minutes or until cool enough to handle. Pour the mixture through a sieve, pushing the solids through so that only the large seeds remain. Discard them. Stir the resulting liquid into the onions. If you have ready-to-use tamarind paste, then start with 2 tablespoons and increase to taste.
Enough for 3
large, meaty oxtail 1kg
rapeseed oil 2 tbsp
fresh ginger a thumb-sized lump
garlic 4 cloves
Chinese five-spice powder 1 tbsp
star anise 3
beef stock1 litre
soft brown or palm sugar 1 heaped tbsp
dark soy sauce 25ml
tamarind paste about 50g, to taste
Set the oven at 160C/gas mark 3. Season the oxtail with salt and pepper. Melt the butter in a heavy-based casserole, brown the meat in it on both sides and then remove from the pan. Pour in 250ml water, bring to the boil, then pour into a bowl and reserve. Peel and thickly slice the onions. Heat the rapeseed oil in the casserole, add the onions and let them cook over a low heat. Meanwhile, peel and finely shred the ginger and add to the onions.
Peel the garlic, halve each clove lengthways and add to the onions, together with the five-spice powder, whole anise, stock, sugar, soy, tamarind paste and the reserved pan liquid. Bring to the boil. Add the browned oxtail and any liquid from it (there won't be much, if any), cover with a lid or foil and bake in the preheated oven for a good two and a half hours. Once during cooking, turn the oxtail pieces over in the liquid. Check the tenderness of the meat; it should come easily away from the bone. If not, bake for a little longer. Adjust the seasoning and serve.
Poached pears with cream cheese and ginger sundae
Enough for 6
caster sugar 100g
vanilla pod 1
orange zest a curl or two
lemon 1, halved
For the sundae
full-fat cream cheese 200g
icing sugar 2 tbsp
double cream 3 tbsp
vanilla extract 1 capful
ginger biscuits, soft and crumbly 200g
dark chocolate 50g
Put the water and sugar into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the vanilla pod, orange zest and cloves and simmer over a low heat. Meanwhile, peel the pears and rub them with the lemon halves to stop any discoloration. Cut them in half and remove the cores and seeds. Place the pear halves in the syrup, squeeze in the remaining lemon juice and cook for 20 minutes or so, until tender. Leave the pears to cool in the syrup.
Put the cream cheese in a mixing bowl, add the icing sugar and beat lightly, folding in the cream and vanilla as you go. Crush the biscuits lightly and fold them into the cheesecake cream. Take care not to over-mix.
Halve or quarter the pears, depending on size, and divide them between 6 dishes. Add dollops of the cream cheese mixture and grate over the chocolate.
Tomatoes, spices and coconut – shouldn't work but it does. If you cannot find small cans of creamed coconut, then break off 100g of coconut cream, crumble it and make up to 160ml with boiling water, stirring to a thick cream.
Enough for 4
groundnut oil 1 tbsp
mustard seeds 1 tsp
onions 2, finely chopped
garlic 3 cloves
fresh ginger 3cm piece
chilli a medium-hot red one
red or orange peppers 2
ground turmeric 1 tsp
cherry tomatoes 8, halved
large plum or vine tomatoes 8
creamed coconut 160ml
Heat the oil in a saucepan, add the mustard seeds and cook until they pop. Add the onions and leave to soften and colour while you peel and slice the garlic, peel and finely shred the ginger and chop the chilli. Add the garlic, ginger and chilli to the pan and continue cooking till the onions are pale golden brown. Core and thinly slice the peppers and stir them in. Continue cooking over a moderate heat, with the occasional stir, till the peppers start to soften, then stir in the ground turmeric and the halved cherry tomatoes.
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Remove a slice from one side of each large tomato (or the top if you are using large vine tomatoes), then scoop out the seeds and core to give a deep hollow. Chop the filling you have removed, discarding any tough cores, and add to the pan. When the mixture has cooked down to a soft, brightly coloured mush, pour in the creamed coconut. Bring to the boil, season with salt, then remove from the heat.
Fill the hollowed-out tomatoes with the mixture, spooning any extra around them. Bake for 40 minutes, until the tomatoes are soft and fragrant.
Warm aubergine tarts
You can use puff pastry for these aubergine tarts if you wish, scattered with grated parmesan just before baking, but the handmade pastry – like a very cheesy biscuit – works even better. It doesn't take long to make. If capers aren't your thing, then a few sliced olives – purple or green – might be an interesting substitute.
large onion 1
garlic 2 cloves
olive oil 10 tbsp
thyme 4 sprigs
anchovy fillets 16
capers or a few olives 1 tsp
For the pastry
butter 80g, cut into cubes
self-raising flour 120g
mature cheddar 40g, grated
parmesan 50g, finely grated
egg yolk 1
milk 1 tbsp
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Cut the aubergine into cubes of roughly 2cm, then place in a large roasting tin or baking dish in a single layer. Peel and finely slice the onion. Remove the skin from the garlic, finely crush the cloves to a paste and add to the aubergine with the onion. Pour over a good 6 tablespoons of the olive oil, then pull the leaves from the thyme sprigs and add them to the aubergine with a generous grinding of salt and pepper.
Toss till lightly coated in the oil and seasonings. Bake for an hour or so, tossing once or twice during cooking, until the aubergine is soft enough to crush with a fork.
While the aubergine is baking, make the pastry. Rub the butter into the flour with your fingertips until the mixture resembles fresh breadcrumbs, then add the grated cheeses, egg yolk and milk. Bring the mixture together to form a ball, then knead lightly for a minute – no longer. Wrap in greaseproof paper or cling film and leave in the fridge to rest for 20 minutes.
Cut the pastry into eight equal pieces and roll each into a thin rectangle measuring roughly 12cm x 10cm. Transfer to a baking sheet and bake at 200C/gas mark 6 for about 10 minutes, till pale golden and lightly crisp.
Remove the aubergine from the oven as soon as it is tender. Reserve about a quarter of the mixture, then put the rest in a food processor and blend to a stiff paste. Pour in the remaining 4 tablespoons of oil and blend again till smooth and spreadably soft.
Spread the pureed aubergine over the pastry, then top with the reserved aubergines and some capers or olives. Criss-cross each tart with 2 anchovies.
Grilled figs with marsala
I like this made with small, intensely sweet black figs. If you have any other sort, they may need a little longer under the grill, or may be better baked. The recipe, incidentally, will also work with very ripe plums.
Enough for 4
ripe figs 10
thick honey 2 tbsp
dry Marsala 125ml
Heat an overhead grill. Wipe the figs tenderly and cut them in half. Place them, cut-side up and in a single layer, in a baking dish or roasting tin.
Warm the honey and Marsala in a pan, stirring until the honey has melted, then pour it over the figs. Grill for 10 minutes or so, until the figs are dark and soft, basting them from time to time with the juices to keep them moist.
Leave the figs to calm down for 10 minutes before serving.
During this time the juices will thicken very slightly. Serve the figs, spooning the juices over as you go.
Another quick supper. Tonight I knock up the quickest curry ever. Mild, sumptuous, a doddle. Serve with rice or with Indian bread that you have warmed under the grill.
Tamarind paste is available in Indian and southeast Asian shops and in major supermarkets, usually near the fish sauce.
A mild and fruity curry of salmon
I serve this with a spoon, so as not to waste a drop of the gently spiced juices.
Enough for 4
salmon fillet 500g, skinned
large onion 1
groundnut oil 2 tbsp
small, hot chillies 2, finely chopped
mustard seeds ½ tsp
ground turmeric ½ tsp
ground cumin 1 tsp
ground coriander 1 tsp
tomatoes 6 fairly large ones
tamarind paste 1 tbsp
coconut milk 200ml
Cut the salmon into about 20 thick cubes. Peel the onion and chop it finely, then let it soften in the oil in a deep, non-stick pan. When it has started to colour lightly, add the chillies, mustard seeds, turmeric, cumin and coriander and stir for a minute or so till the spices are warm and fragrant.
Chop the tomatoes, add them to the pan and leave to soften for a minute or two. Stir in the tamarind paste. Bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes.
Add the salmon and some salt and black pepper. Leave to cook for 10 to 15 minutes, until the salmon is completely opaque. Pour in the coconut milk and simmer for a further 4 or 5 minutes.
All Hallows' Eve
Hallowe'en, when the dead are supposed to be able to communicate with the living, used to be an evening I looked forward to. The death of summer. Good riddance. All the witches and ghosts, fairies and hobgoblins are abroad. Tragically, the ancient and frankly terrifying black-faced mummers who called door to door asking for money have been replaced by pesky kids playing trick or treat, demanding money and some of whose antics barely stop short of vandalism. Such is modern life. The pumpkin lantern, such a rare sight when I was a kid, is now common, the squash's insides gouged out for a hollow in which to put a nightlight. If you get the face right, with wide teeth and a scary grin, it can bring a suitable shiver to the proceedings. Food at All Hallows is often pork based, this being the season for killing the family pig, and apples usually get a look in too, often baked in the embers of the fire. Those coming to dinner tonight will have a slow, pig-based meal followed by classic baked apples.
Simple doesn't have to mean quick. Simple cooking can also be something that is left to cook for a long time over a low heat, quietly puttering away, filling the kitchen with the scent of welcome.
There's a pan on the stove, on a heat so low that its contents, a carrot-speckled mixture of onions, celery and mushrooms with baby pork ribs peeping up through the surface, are barely moving, just a blip and shudder. The smell that fills the kitchen and wafts up the stairs is ancient, earthy, dark, faintly rank and yet full of bonhomie. It is a simple smell (barely half a dozen ingredients), yet deep and rich (beef stock, browned pork, sweet carrots) and seasoned, reeking of nostalgia. The recipe is uncomplicated, its apparent complexity coming from nothing more than a few ingredients thoughtfully combined and left to get to know one another over a low heat. The mixture of pork ribs with beef stock seems odd at first, but as the ingredients slowly become acquainted, it starts to make sense. This recipe was first cooked by James, whose help in this kitchen is invaluable, to celebrate the end of filming the first series of Simple Cooking.
It has become a favourite. No shortcuts, by the way. If you are pushed for time, make something else. The long, slow simmering is essential.
Rib ragout with pappardelle
Enough for 6
onion 1 large one
celery 3 ribs
large carrots 3
baby pork ribs 1kg, cut into short racks (about 3 bones each)
beef stock 800ml
olive oil a little
Peel and finely chop the onion, celery and carrots. Melt the butter in a large, deep casserole, add the ribs and brown lightly. Add the vegetables and cook for 15 minutes, stirring from time to time, till slightly softened. Finely chop the mushrooms, add to the pan and continue cooking for 5 minutes. Add the stock, bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook, covered, at a low bubble for a good 3 hours, stirring from time to time. Take the lid off for the last half hour.
Bring a pan of water to the boil, salt generously and add the pappardelle. Cook until al dente, then drain. Season with a little olive oil and some black pepper.
While the pasta cooks, slide the flesh from the ribs – it should come off effortlessly – and stir it through the sauce. Serve with the pappardelle.
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