For the longest time, I’ve been wanting to make oxtails like the ones I enjoyed years ago on my first trip to Rome. It was in that city’s Testaccio district that I had coda alla vaccinara, a dense stew of oxtails braised with vegetables, primarily celery, tomatoes, and white wine.
The Testaccio was the location for Rome’s slaughterhouse from 1888 to 1975. Here the need to use every part of an animal led to the district’s reputation for offal, or in Italian, the quinto quarto, the fifth quarter. The best known dishes of the variety include pajata, veal intestines; trippa alla Romana, tripe, and the subject of today’s post coda alla vaccinara. All dishes that are associated with Italy’s cucina povera, or peasant cooking.
I looked through a number of cookbooks for a recipe and found some excellent ones in Oretta Zanini De Vita’s Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds (the most authentic), David Downie’s Cooking the Roman Way, and Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook. Ultimately, however, I chose a recipe by Amanda Hesser in the New York Times. It seemed the most straightforward; though I did modify it with elements from the other recipes, for example increasing the amount of celery and onion or adding raisins during the last hour of braising.
The dish required at least 30 minutes of prep and more than 3 hours of cooking. And there were some hiccups along the way. Lacking marjoram (either fresh or dried), I substituted fresh oregano. Increasing the amount of onion and carrot required using a bit more oil than called for; my pancetta being somewhat lean didn’t render enough fat to thoroughly brown the oxtails; my soffritto (diced onions, carrots, celery and pancetta) always looked like it was about to burn. Nevertheless, the end result was exceptional. A richly flavored thick sauce, with hints of cinnamon and cloves, coated succulent fall-of-the bone pieces of meat accompanied by silky slivers of celery.
As I was cooking for two, I used a little less than two pounds of meat; however, I kept close to the original amounts of the recipes other ingredients. Fortunately, doing so yielded plenty of left over sauce for pasta later this week.
Finally, don’t be tempted to substitute red wine for the white. The latter allows the flavors of the meat and the celery to take center stage.
Oxtail Braised with Tomato and Celery Coda alla Vaccinara (Adapted from Amanda Hesser in the New York Times)
¼ pound pancetta, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 large carrot, peeled, finely diced
1 medium onion, peeled, finely diced
7 inner stalks celery, 1 finely diced, 6 sliced into thirds (about 3-inches long) pieces ¼ cup raisins
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 pounds oxtail (trimmed weight), severed at each joint into pieces about 3 inches long
Sea salt or kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups white wine
3 sprigs fresh oregano
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 (28-ounce) can peeled Italian tomatoes, partially drained
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a deep, heavy casserole or pot that can fit all the oxtails in one layer, combine pancetta, carrot, onion and diced celery and enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan (about 3 tablespoons). (Note that the size of your pan will play a part in determining the amount of olive oil; I had to use 4 tablespoons.)
2. Place pan over medium heat and cook until pancetta renders its fat, about 15 minutes.
Season oxtails on all sides with salt and pepper, add to the casserole, and brown well on all sides, turning them only after they’ve browned. Using tongs, remove oxtails from pan and place in a bowl. Set aside.
3. Add the tomato paste to the vegetables in the casserole and cook, stirring, until paste caramelizes, about 2 minutes. Stir in wine and mix, being sure to scrape up any browned bits sticking to the bottom of the pan. Heat to boiling and cook 3 minutes. Add oregano, cloves and cinnamon and then tomatoes, squishing them between your fingers as they fall into the pan.
4. Return oxtails to pan. Liquid must be as high as one-third of the ingredients. If not, add a little water. Bring the liquid to a boil, cover pan and place in oven. Braise for 1 1/2 hours, turning the oxtails now and then.
5. Add the remaining celery and the raisins, then continue cooking until the meat is tender and falling off the bone, about 30 to 60 minutes longer. (I opted for 60 minutes.)
6. Remove the pan from the oven and let sit for 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve on a large platter or in shallow bowls, making sure everyone gets a bit of the pulpy sauce and celery.
Wine Pairing: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo