"Is oxtail what it sounds like?"
It's Monday night, and I'm doing dinner with the law students. I have made good on my warning (the one I issue to all my dinner guests) about mad culinary experiments: we're eating bitter chocolate pasta with oxtail sauce. The law students appear to be nonplussed by the pairing of meat with chocolate, but Tom's question takes me by surprise.
It seems so self-explanatory to me that I'm not sure what to say: oxtail is the tail of an ox.* It takes some gentle prodding on Tom's part to remind me that not all culinary nomenclature is literal - Bombay duck isn't duck, after all, and Welsh rabbit contains no meat whatsoever. For all Tom knows, "oxtail" could refer to something else entirely.
Sometimes, despite all reminders to the contrary, I forget that mainstream American cuisine does not embrace the "weird bits."
Frankly, as far as "weird bits" go, oxtail is fairly tame. If you removed the bones, you'd probably be hard pressed to tell the difference between stewed oxtail and stewed short ribs. But for whatever reason, it's classed as a weird bit, and this is how we get dishes like coda alla vaccinara, and, by extension, my aforementioned mad culinary experiment.
Coda alla vaccinara, literally "oxtail, butcher's style," is a kind of oxtail stew. It belongs to a very particular aspect of Roman cuisine, one that specializes in dishes using the quinto quarto, the "fifth quarter" of the animal. This cuisine comes out of Testaccio, the slaughterhouse district, because the workers were once partly paid in weird bits, and the restaurants in the area would cook them.**
There is no single recipe for coda alla vaccinara. The stew is tomato-based and contains onions and celery. Its seasonings are bay leaf, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. There are countless variations in the other additions, however. Some recipes use candied fruit. Some of them use raisins. Some of them use chocolate. And leftovers are traditionally used to sauce pasta.
Which brings us to my mad culinary experiment: why not skip straight to sauce, and put the chocolate in the pasta instead?
I added cocoa powder to my standard pasta recipe, creating a dark pasta that smelled appealingly of chocolate. I used my standard technique for stewing meat (vegetables, herbs, lots of red wine) to cook the oxtail, and added the seasonings used in coda alla vaccinara.
The resulting dish is subtler than you might expect: the sauce has the familiar flavors of beef and tomato, but it's fragrant with nutmeg and cinnamon, and golden raisins add sweetness. The cocoa in the pasta has a similar effect to chocolate in mole sauce, adding depth to the flavor. Finally, a dusting of cocoa powder on top adds a smoky, bitter note.
For the record, it went over pretty well with the law students once we cleared up the confusion about the exact nature of oxtail. Maybe I'll stick with the quinto quarto for my next mad culinary experiment... anyone for tripe?
Bitter Chocolate Pasta with Oxtail Sauce
(Serves one, with lots of leftovers. The sauce freezes well.)
For the pasta, dump two cups of flour and a quarter-cup of cocoa powder on a clean surface. Make a well in the middle, and crack in four egg yolks. Add two teaspoons of salt, a glug of olive oil, and a little water. Knead until everything comes together. Continue to knead for another ten to fifteen minutes, or until you have a smooth, elastic dough. (If you'd like more detailed instructions for making pasta, go here.) Wrap the dough in plastic. Stick it in the fridge. You can forget about it until tomorrow.
For the sauce, take an onion, a carrot, and four ribs of celery, chop them all finely, and sauté over low heat in a large, heavy-bottomed pan with lid. Throw in a few sprigs of fresh thyme, a bay leaf, and four cloves.
Add one-and-a-half pounds of oxtail pieces. Pour in two cups of cheap red wine, and add a little water if the pieces aren't completely covered. Bring the mixture to a boil, and skim off any scum that forms on the surface. Once the alcohol has burned off, put the lid on the pot.
Let the mixture simmer for three to four hours, or until the meat is falling off the bones. Turn off the heat. Remove the lid and allow the mixture to cool. Stick it in the fridge and forget about it until tomorrow.
The next day, remove both the pasta dough and the oxtail mixture from the fridge. Set the pasta dough aside. Back to the sauce:
Skim the congealed fat from the surface of the mixture. Put the pot on low heat and bring the mixture to a simmer. Reduce until you have less than half an inch of liquid in the pan.
Fish out the bones, the bay leaf, and the cloves, if you can find them. (If you can't find them, keep an eye out for them while you're eating.) Add two to three tablespoons of tomato paste, and stir until incorporated.
Throw in a generous handful of golden raisins, a teaspoon of salt, a sprinkling of ground nutmeg, and a sprinkling of ground cinnamon. Put the lid back on the pot and let it simmer for another hour or so.
While you're waiting for the sauce to finish, set up your pasta machine. Roll and cut the pasta. Put it on a baking sheet and set it aside.
After the sauce has simmered for another hour, remove the lid, and if it looks a little thin, let it reduce further. Check for salt; add a little more if the sauce needs it. Turn off the heat.
To assemble, set a large pot of salted water on the stove. Once it reaches a rolling boil, drop the pasta in (give it a stir to make sure it doesn't clump.) Cook for three to four minutes, drain, and add it to the pan with the sauce. Toss to coat.
This pasta tastes better warm rather than piping hot, so let it cool for a few minutes if necessary, then spoon it onto a plate. Dust with cocoa powder. Serve immediately.
*Strictly speaking, it's not always an ox, but it's bovine.
**If you're going to Rome and feeling adventurous, one of the most famous quinto quarto restaurants in Testaccio is Checchino dal 1887. I am sorry to say that I never ate there myself, but I hear excellent things about the food there.