Looking through a number of recently acquired cookbooks, I came across a recipe for a Tuscan beef stew called peposo (peppery) owing to its liberal use (up to 6 tablespoons) of black pepper. As I researched the recipe both in my books and online, my mouth started to water. But the more I read, the more it appeared that this tasty dish was better suited for winter than early summer. So, I placed peposo on the back burner and began to search for a more seasonal recipe, which eventually led me to Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca’s insightful collection of authentic recipes, The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen.
An old favorite found its way to our table this weekend, Chicken Thighs, with Saffron, Green Olives and Mint. I had forgotten how good this dish is with its sweet and savory onions, tangy olives, and whiffs of saffron and fresh mint. The long cooking time, actually a braise, renders chicken thighs with meat that falls of the bone and a rich sauce just waiting to be sopped up by couscous. The saffron and mint lead me to believe the origins of the dish are Sicilian, or perhaps even Moroccan.
I know that braised meat dishes serve typically as cold-weather fare, but I had some lamb shanks in the freezer that were reaching their use-by date. Moreover, since I usually prepare lamb for Easter dinner, I thought that Mario Batali’s recipe for “Braised Lamb Shanks with Leeks and Grapes” from his book Molto Batali was a good choice.
What I found interesting about the recipe was the absence of any herbs. So many lamb recipes use at least one, most often rosemary, but this had none. Even the seasoning was minimal: just salt and pepper. In addition, I was intrigued by the addition of red grapes at the end of cooking, which I thought would serve the same role as a mint sauce or red-currant jelly does with a lamb roast. I should perhaps note that until my husband mistook a garlic clove for a grape, I hadn’t realized that I had failed to stir in the grapes at the end of cooking. Consequently, I stirred them into the sauce after serving and then placed a few on each plate.
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
This is not a Polish joke: What do you do when your husband asks you to make kielbasa? You make it. After five years of marriage, my better half, who is of Polish heritage, asked me for the first time in our relationship to recreate a dish his mother often made: Kielbasa with Sauerkraut.
I admit I was somewhat intimidated to attempt to replicate a childhood memory. But this was the first time he’s ever requested an eastern European meal.
When I agreed, he informed me, most enthusiastically, that he had already found a recipe that reminded him of the original. It was from a 1995 issue of “Bon Appetit” that had been published on the “Epicurious” website.
Although it takes almost two and a half hours to prepare, most of the dish’s cooking time is devoted to a long braise in the oven and the prep is relatively simple. I departed from the recipe only slightly by using chopped onions as opposed to sliced and substituting fennel seeds for the caraway. For the wine, I opted for a California Dry Riesling.
My husband’s only other request was to serve the dish with a boiled potato to which I added butter and dill.
Given that the evening weather was beautiful, we dined on the terrace just as the sun was setting. Maybe it was the lighting, but as I caught a glimpse of my husband’s face as he took his fist taste, he appeared to be aglow with contentment.
6 smoked bacon slices, cut into 2-inch-wide strips
1 large onion, sliced
1 carrot, chopped
1 2-pound jar sauerkraut, rinsed, drained well
2 cups dry white wine
1 1/2 cups chicken stock or canned low-salt broth
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
4 juniper berries, crushed, or 1 tablespoon gin
1 1/2 pounds kielbasa sausage, cut into 3-inch lengths
1- Preheat oven to 300°F. Place bacon, onion and carrot in heavy large ovenproof Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Sauté until onion is tender but not brown, about 5 minutes.
2- Squeeze as much liquid as possible from sauerkraut. (I placed my drained sauerkraut in a clean dish towel and twisted until the sauerkraut gave up most of its liquid.) Add sauerkraut to Dutch oven. Add wine, stock, caraway seeds and juniper berries.
3- Bring to simmer. Cover tightly, place in oven and bake 1 hour.
4. Add kielbasa to Dutch oven, pushing into sauerkraut.
6. Cover and bake 1 hour. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Rewarm over medium heat, stirring frequently.)
Wine Pairing: Dry Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc
Given the reluctance of spring to appear in New York City and finding a $6.00 off a pound sale on short ribs at my local market, I chose to make a braised dish more suitable for winter. The recipe is from the New York Times Cooking website and its blend of spices and prunes with fennel and leeks made it most appealing for a chilly weekday night supper.
I had also planned to photograph the preparation of this dish, but just as I started to cook, our cable repairman showed up. What I thought would be a twenty-minute service call wound up taking almost three hours, including assisting the repairman with un-mounting a wall-mounted 55” television, which given the disparity in our heights (he stood 6’ tall and I’m 5’3”), was not an easy task. As a result, I had to rush to get the ribs into the oven for a three-hour braise so that we could have supper on the table by 9PM.
Despite the gloomy cold day and the cable madness, our day ended well thanks to this truly delicious braise. Although the recipe calls for a pressure cooker, the website gave options for a Dutch oven as well as for a slow cooker. I chose to braise the ribs in a enameled-cast iron Dutch oven in a 325°F oven for 3 hours.
If you’re not a fan of highly spiced food, you may want to reduce the amount of chipotle chile powder. I also found that the amount of liquid called for (1 cup of wine) resulted in a rather thick sauce. This amount may work for a pressure cooker, but if you choose to oven braise, I’d recommend at least doubling the amount of liquid.
2 teaspoons kosher salt, more as needed
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
3 to 4 pounds bone-in beef short ribs
1 tablespoon olive oil or other fat (like bacon fat or duck fat), more as needed
3 leeks, whites only, chopped
2 large fennel bulbs, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon chipotle chile powder
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup dry red wine
½ cup pitted prunes, diced
Fennel fronds or sliced scallions, or both, for serving
- If time permits, rub salt, coriander and pepper all over beef and let marinate in refrigerator for 1 hour, or, ideally, overnight.
- Set electric pressure cooker to sauté function and add oil (or use a large skillet on the stove over medium-high heat). Sear beef until evenly browned on all sides, about 2 minutes per side. You’ll probably have to do this in batches. Transfer to a plate as the pieces brown. Or if using a skillet, transfer them to pressure cooker
- Add leeks, fennel and pinch of salt to hot pan and cook until soft, about 8 minutes, then add garlic, chile powder and tomato paste; cook until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Pour in wine. Add prunes and beef (or add prunes and fennel-wine mixture to the meat in the pot).
- Cover, then cook for 35 minutes on high pressure. Manually release pressure. If sauce seems thin, pull out beef pieces and reduce sauce using sauté function. Serve with fennel fronds or scallions, or both, for garnish.
Wine Pairing: Zinfandel