So, after finishing Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and feeling much like what I imagine our parents felt like after reading Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962, I vowed to myself never to buy industrial beef again. Oh sure, I'd already given up on supermarket eggs and chicken a long time ago, but now I've added meat to the list. Or rather, from now on I'll only be shopping for chicken, meat and eggs at the Greenmarket.
A lofty, unrealistic goal? Yeah, quite possibly. Who knows how sustainable these kinds of ideals are? And yet, I just don't know how to continue to justify buying meat and eggs from a place that doesn't care how those animals were raised or slaughtered and, more importantly, doesn't care about the effects that food has upon me, my family, my friends, and my fellow citizens. If you don't know what I'm going on about, seriously, buy yourself a copy of Pollan's book. It's so endlessly fascinating, rich with information and stories, and hugely important in its message. It's irreverent and funny, heartbreaking and infuriating to boot.
The point of the book is not just to talk about how we eat and why, but also about how we buy, how we're talked to and looked down upon by the industries that purport to nourish us, and how we can change the way we see our kitchen, the dinner table, grocery store and the people we rely upon to feed us. Forgive me if I'm proselytizing, but I'm feeling transformed.
The point of all this? To tell you that after finishing the book (and realizing I had friends coming over for dinner a few days later), I thought I should put my money where my mouth was. So I went to the greenmarket and bought what felt like the world's most expensive oxtail from John Gigliardi's Grass-Fed Beef. The recipe I wanted to make came from a piece in the New York Times last year about cooking with animal bones and called for five to six pounds of oxtail. If I had bought that amount from Gigliardi, it would have cost me $37. So, I asked for a little under four pounds, and figured I'd fudge the recipe a bit. The meat still cost $25.
Which makes me wonder - do grass-fed beef producers have to charge such high prices to actually make a profit? Or is it my mistake to think that oxtail, historically among the cheapest cuts, hasn't increased in price due to its "reverse snob appeal"? You tell me.
After a day of defrosting in my refrigerator, the oxtail were ready to go. First I browned them in batches, which always takes longer than I expect. When each piece was crusty and well-browned, I removed them to a plate, poured off the fat and poured in the Shaoxing wine to deglaze the pot. Then I added soy sauce and the aromatics and brought the mixture to a boil. The oxtail went back into the pot, as did some pieces of orange peel, and the whole thing went, covered, into the oven for three hours.
It takes a large amount of discipline not to eat dinner right at the moment that the kitchen timer buzzes, because your house will smell of all kinds of good things - browned and braising meat, savory sauces, fragrant fruity and spicy flavors. Good luck with your willpower. I removed the quivering oxtail to a baking pan and strain the dark sauce into a pan, before covering both and stashing them in the fridge. The next day, I warn you, you might be slightly disgusted at the task of scraping off the quarter-inch thick layer of fat on the sauce, but the heavenly smell will motivate you to keep going.
I liquefied the jellied sauce over a low flame, poured it over the chilled oxtail and put the baking dish back in the oven for another hour. In this time, the sauce thickened and the oxtail edges crisped while the interior meat became meltingly soft. We ate our oxtail stew over plain white rice, which soaked up the deliciously aromatic sauce. I didn't actually halve the sauce ingredients despite the fact that I used less meat - and it seemed to work out just fine. And the amount for four people was more than enough - I even had leftovers the next day.
This is humble food, but the exotic flavors give it a sheen of sophistication (not to mention a sense of accomplishment that the sauce tasted as good as something I've had in a Chinese restaurant - a good one!). Was the grass-fed beef so much better than the industrial kind? To be honest, it's kind of beside the point. This beef tasted delicious, cooked up perfectly and made me feel good on a couple different levels. So what if it cost more? I don't eat meat all that often anyway. Who knows, maybe this idea of eating as sustainably as possible isn't something I can afford in the long run, but I'm going to try. And maybe, just maybe, we're around the corner from a food revolution in this country and soon everyone will feel like I do. Wouldn't that be nice?
Aromatic Chinese Oxtail Stew
5 to 6 pounds oxtails, cut into pieces, fat trimmed
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
2 to 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ cup Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
1/3 cup dark or regular soy sauce
1½ tablespoons brown sugar
1 star anise, broken into pieces
3 scallions, trimmed and cut into 2-inch lengths, plus 2 scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal, for garnish
6 slices fresh ginger
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1 orange, 4 large strips of zest removed with a vegetable peeler and reserved
Cooked rice, for serving
1. Heat oven to 300 degrees. Season oxtails with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large ovenproof pot with a tight-fitting lid. Working in batches if necessary to avoid crowding, brown oxtail all over, removing each piece when done. Add oil as needed.
2. When done browning, pour off extra fat from bottom of empty pot and set pot over high heat. Add wine and bring to a boil, scraping up browned bits. In a bowl, mix soy sauce and sugar with 2 cups water and pour into pot. Add star anise, 2-inch pieces of scallions, ginger and garlic and bring to a boil. Turn off heat. Return oxtails to pot and add orange zest. Cover and transfer to oven. Cook 1½ hours.
3. Turn over pieces of oxtail, cover again and cook 1½ hours more, or until oxtail is very tender. Transfer oxtail pieces to a baking dish. Strain sauce into a separate saucepan; discard contents of strainer. Cover oxtails and sauce and refrigerate overnight.
4. The next day, heat oven to 300 degrees; remove oxtails and sauce from refrigerator. Lift off any fat on surface of sauce and discard. Gently warm sauce until liquid, then pour over oxtails. Cover with foil or a lid and bake 30 minutes.
5. Uncover, stir and raise oven temperature to 400 degrees. Cook, uncovered, 15 minutes. Stir again and cook another 15 minutes, until hot and glazed thickly with sauce. Meanwhile, squeeze ¼ cup juice from orange. Remove oxtails from oven, stir in orange juice, and serve in bowls over rice. Sprinkle each serving with thin scallion slices.