Time was when oxtails were cheap. In fact, if you bought some hamburger and a pot roast from one of the butchers in Hayward, Wisconsin, where I grew up in the 1950’s, he would often give you an oxtail free if you asked for it. When hamburger was 30¢ a pound, oxtails were a nickel or dime.
Oxtails were peasant food. That was probably why my mother made oxtail soup, and I know that was why I made it when Jerri and I were first married.
How times have changed. When I told a friend what I had to pay for oxtails last week, he said, “Why not use prime rib?” However, when I make oxtail soup, I don’t want to skimp on ingredients. Prime rib is good, but it won’t make one of the finest beef soups you will ever taste.
From what I read, gourmet chefs are responsible for the high cost of oxtails today. They’ve discovered that oxtails are a wonderful meat, whether braised or barbecued, used to make a paté, ragout, terrine, stew or…soup. And since there is only one tail per cow, oxtails provide a perfect example of the law of supply and demand.
Mr. Olson, the butcher who supplied us with many oxtails when I was a boy, would have thought you were crazy if you had told him that people would some day pay more for oxtails than hamburger. Today you are competing with people who pay $5 for a cup of coffee, but you need an oxtail no matter what the cost.
As is true with any meat you buy, the cost of oxtails varies from store to store. In the past year, I have seen prices from under six to over ten dollars per pound, which is pretty darned expensive for meat that is mostly bones and gristle. However, the connective tissue and bones are the reason why oxtails make such great soup. The long slow simmering releases the gelatin and flavor, which creates the delicious full-bodied broth that characterizes this wonderful vegetable beef soup.
This is my recipe from over forty years ago. I don’t make it too often today: Oxtails are pricey, but I can resist temptation only so long. Make this soup once, and you’ll begin saving pennies for the next batch.
1 oxtail, 3 to 4 lbs., disjointed (cut into sections)
4 or 5 slices bacon
1- 3 T butter
1 medium onion
4 – 5 cups water
4 cups beef broth
1/2 — 1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 bay leaves
4 whole cloves
3 or 4 garlic cloves
1 large carrot
1 small diced rutabaga
1 medium diced parsnip
2 ribs celery
1/4 cup parsley
1 small to medium tomato
1 cup pearl barley
1/2 tsp. thyme
1/2 tsp. marjoram
1/2 tsp. basil
1 cup dry red wine
2 T butter
2 T flour
Cut the bacon into small pieces and brown them slowly in a large soup pot until the bacon is crisp. Remove the bacon but leave the bacon fat in the pan. You should have at least two tablespoons of fat to brown the oxtails. Add a tablespoon of butter if you wish.
Increase the heat and brown the oxtails, turning them to brown on all sides. While the oxtails are browning, chop the onion. Remove the oxtails when they have browned. If necessary drain excess fat. Reduce heat to low. Add the chopped onions to about two tablespoons of fat and stir them until they are translucent. Return the crisp bacon and the oxtails to the pot. Increase the heat and add the water, broth and salt and pepper.
Remove the paper from the garlic toes and cut them in half. Put them with the bay leaves and cloves in a spice bag or tied in a piece of cheesecloth and drop it in the pot. Bring to boiling, reduce the heat, cover and let simmer for three to five hours, stirring occasionally and checking to make certain that there is plenty of liquid covering the oxtails. Add more water if necessary. The meat should come easily off the bones. If it does not, let it simmer a bit longer.
When the oxtails have cooked long enough, turn off the heat and use tongs or a slotted spoon to remove them from the liquid. Remove and discard the spice bag. Let the oxtails and broth cool. After it has cooled, chill it in the refrigerator. Skim most of the fat off the broth. If all is going well, you will see that that cold broth resembles a soft gelatin.
While the broth is cooling, remove the meat from the oxtails with a small knife, taking care to separate the fat from the meat. You will end up with shredded beef which you will return to the broth.
Peel and dice the parsnip and rutabaga and scrub and dice the carrot and celery stalks. You should have about 1 cup each of carrot, rutabaga and parsnip and about one and one-half to two cups of celery. Remove the stem scar from the tomato and dice it quite fine. Chop the parsley fine.
Heat the broth to a gentle simmer. Stir the meat and vegetables into the broth along with the the cup of barley. Add the wine, thyme, marjoram and basil and parsley. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover and simmer very gently for about an hour, stirring occasionally.
Make a roux by browning two tablespoons of flour in two tablespoons of butter over moderate heat. The roux should be a dark golden brown to help color the soup. Remove the roux from the heat and carefully add about one cup of the soup broth, stirring well. Return this mixture to the soup and continue simmering for five to ten minutes. Taste and correct the seasoning if necessary.
Serve with a green salad and fresh bread.
As with most meat and vegetable soups, oxtail soup is even better warmed up. It can be frozen and reheated for quick lunches or dinners.
NOTES: If you don’t have beef broth in the house, use three bouillon cubes with the water. Feel free to brown some cubes of steak with the oxtails if you want more meat in the soup.