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[Samia's food facts and recipes] Oxtail soup, a comfort food

Last week, I was discussing oxtail over a heavenly dinner with my Swedish friend. He went on and on about how delicious oxtail was when braised with Barolo wine and simmered for 12 hours. I had no idea the Europeans considered oxtail a gourmet food. there was a time when oxtail was thought of as a throw-away meat. It was a food for the poor, along with offal – but today, oxtail has become a gourmet dish with many variations on the theme. however, it is not easy to find and has become very expensive. But don’t let the price stop you from enjoying this delicious treat!

What exactly is oxtail? Well, an ox is a neutered adult dray cow, meaning it spent its life pulling heavy carts. the hard labor causes the ox’s muscles to mature, giving its meat a strong flavor. however, today, any cow tail can be used to make what we call “oxtail,” and therefore, the flavor is different because the cows are not that old. In fact, there are few real oxen, due to decreasing need. Some purists insist that true oxtail should only be gleaned from a true ox. the stronger flavor of mature ox meat is the reason for this opinion.

This transformation in the taste of oxtail brought about the development of cooking techniques to create many flavorful dishes featuring this ingredient. the development of cooking methods put oxtail into the gourmet section of supermarkets and restaurants. Today, oxtail is rather expensive because people realized that great soups and stews can be made from it, because oxtail releases lots of collagen during cooking, making for a unique, almost gelatinous soup. the oxtail makes for an incredible stock for soups and other sauces.

Oxtail is popular in many parts of the world. Many types of oxtail soup exist in China, Indonesia and the southern United States. even Korea has its own version of oxtail soup; it’s thick and eaten with a bowl of rice. the Koreans also use oxtail as a stock to make rice cake soup. the Jamaicans and Trinidadians stew oxtail with butter beans. Filipinos use oxtail to make many dishes. the Brits have been serving oxtail since the 18th century.

The history of oxtail reads like a Cinderella story for food. For thousands of years, the vaccinari in Rome (people whose job was to slaughter and butcher oxen) were rewarded for their work with the skins, oxtails, and offal that no one else wanted. the slaughterhouses and tanneries became the places to cook these unwanted meats, and they became an important part of today’s Roman cuisine. With the advent of better ways of plowing the land and transportation, the use of oxen is virtually obsolete. by the 1800s, cows were raised for beef, not to be used for plowing and transportation.

According to Dr. Mao, as featured in the Yahoo! Health alternative medicine archives, soup therapy is great for many reasons, including losing weight, boosting immunity, and detoxifying. It has been noted both in literature and folklore that chicken soup is great for colds and other health problems, perhaps because of the soothing steam. Some believe that the therapeutic value of soup comes from the fact that the body can absorb the nutrients more fully. because the vegetables and chicken in the soup have been simmering for a while, the nutrients are easily absorbed by the body. Dr. Mao claims that one can lose weight and build immunity simply by eating more soup! He believes that soup has great healing powers. Dr. Mao quotes an old Chinese proverb that states, “A good doctor uses food first, and then resorts to medicine. A healing soup can be your first step in maintaining your health and preventing illness.”

Oxtail Soup

l 1 kilogram beef tail (each piece is about 8cm in diameter)

l 2 tablespoons olive oil

l 1 cup green onions, chopped

l 1 large white onion, chopped

l 2 cups carrots, either cut into 2cm pieces or use baby carrots

l 2 teaspoons Korean red pepper flakes (optional)

Rinse oxtail under cold running water. Pat dry with paper towel. place oil in skillet on medium heat. Sprinkle salt and pepper on beef tails. place in skillet and brown both sides. This takes about 15 minutes. place tails in pot with 1 cup water to start. Partially cover pot and simmer for about 2 hours and keep an eye on the pot to ensure it does not dry out.

Add both green and white onions and carrots. Cover pot and continue simmering for about 45 minutes or until onions and carrots are tender. Add red pepper flakes if desired and stir. Serve in soup bowls. Serves 6.

Note: the oxtail can be put in a crock pot with 1 cup of water on low overnight. the next day, add vegetables and put on high for an hour.

(Samiamounts@yahoo.com)

Samia Mounts is a long-time nutritionist and gourmet aficionado. she works as the Assistant Principal at Seoul American Elementary School. – Ed.

2010.02.06

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