I have a new favorite oxtail recipe, and it’s one I literally threw together on the spot. For the second day of Chinese New Year, we had asked my in-laws to come over for lunch. I has originally wanted to roast up a big, beautiful prime rib (they love their steaks), however, I didn’t get my act together and by the time I went looking for my beef, the places I’d normally shop at were all closed. Fortunately, we had some lovely oxtail in the freezer. So that became the star of the show.
As many of you may have noticed, I’ve been recently hosting a new Channel News Asia television series called Vanishing Foods. In each episode, we visit a different place in Asia where certain communities are in danger of losing elements of their food cultures. On one of our last overseas shoots, we visited the town in Fujian provence in Southern China that is responsible for some 80% of the world’s production of red yeast rice. We went there, after wrapping up a full episode in Hunan province, to learn more about red yeast rice, which is actually being featured in one of our two Singapore episodes. Anyway, while there, we picked up not just some of the red yeast rice (which I’d need to use to prepare the dishes for that episode) but also a pretty large amount of red yeast rice wine lees.
Among the people of Fujian, the most popular way of using red yeast rice is to make rice wine. They ferment glutinous rice, wine starter, and the red yeast rice in water to create this wine. When ready, the liquid is strained away. The lees is the thick, deep red paste that is left behind. This is a great product to cook with and imparts a subtle, sweet, earthy flavour to dishes. But even more interestingly, it both tenderises proteins as well as softens powerful (and sometimes not-so-pleasant) aromas. It also colors any dish it’s used in red (or sometimes pink).
I wanted to serve an oxtail dish that celebrates Chinese New Year and since red is an auspicious color for our lunar new year’s festivities, I thought that using the lees would be really interesting. I marinated my oxtail in the lees, along with some kecap manis, Chinese rice wine, fish sauce, honey, sesame oil, and a little five spice.
The resulting oxtail was really beautiful. The meat was really soft and tender, and full of flavour. My in-laws were really pleased. They commented that they loved that the sauce was light but very tasty. They said that too often western oxtail braises result in sauces that are too rich and, after a few bites, too cloying. This version, I agreed, was full of flavour but didn’t feel sticky or heavy. You didn’t feel full after your first portion. In fact, both my father-in-law and I had seconds.
I liked how the oxtail had a balance of flavours — sweet and salty, and even the slightest hint of sour too. It also had a nice depth, most likely the result of the red wine lees. It was also an interesting combination of familiar flavours… Somewhat Asian but also somewhat Western. And all things delicious. This quickly thrown-together recipe is something that I’m definitely making again, for myself and for friends. My wife suggested that I’d better record the recipe down so that I’d be able to recreate it accurately in the future, hence this post.
I had served the (deboned) oxtail with some super soft and creamy polenta. I love polenta when it’s slow-cooked with a lot of liquid. It takes on a beautiful soft silkiness that just works so perfectly with certain dishes. The ratios and timing are pretty easy to remember. But you need to set aside a lot of time and have patience. 500ml of stock to every 33g of polenta. Get the stock boiling, then slowly pour in the polenta. Lower the heat so the liquid is just simmering and stir continuously for about 50 minutes. When the polenta is a nice soft porridge-like texture, add in 80ml of cream and 40g of grated parmesan. Adjust seasoning to taste and voila! Perfect soft, delicious polenta.
Red Wine Lees Oxtail
9 big meaty pieces of oxtail
1/2 cup of Chinese red wine lees
4 tablespoons kecap manis
1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon five spice powder
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
2 tablespoons cooking oil
2 large white onions, thinly sliced
2 carrots, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 thumb of ginger, peeled
In a large bowl, mix the red wine lees together with the honey, rice wine, kecap manis, sesame oil, fish sauce and five spice. Add in the oxtail pieces and mix so that the meat is complete coated. Cover with cling wrap and let sit in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
Preheat your oven to 150 degrees Celsius.
Prepare a large Dutch oven and put it on your hob at medium-high heat. Pour in the cooking oil. Once hot, saute the onions and carrots for a few minutes, until the onions just start getting soft. Add in the garlic and ginger and cook for another minute.
Then add in the oxtail pieces. I didn’t bother to add in the remaining marinade in the bowl. But I did make sure each piece of oxtail was fully coated. So I probably was only left with a couple spoons worth of marinade after placing all the oxtail in the Dutch oven. Fry for a few minutes, using a pair of tongs to turn the oxtail pieces. Then sprinkle the all purpose flour over everything. Stir gently so the flour is evenly distributed.
Then pour in chicken stock until all the oxtail is just barely covered. Stir so the chicken stock gets mixed completely with the oxtail marinade. Taste and add a touch of salt if you think if needs it. Then take a sheet of baking paper and cut out a round that fits perfectly into your Dutch oven. Use the baking paper to cover the oxtail and liquid.
Close the lid and pop the whole thing into your oven for 3 hours and 30 minutes.
When finished, take the Dutch oven out and remove the lid, also removing and disposing of the baking paper. If you are eating this another day, you can cool everything off, then cover again and pop in the fridge. I highly recommend letting braises like oxtail sit overnight in the fridge before eating.
But if you want to serve this right away, it’s still fine. I suggest taking the oxtail pieces out of the liquid, holding them somewhere warm. Then strain the sauce to remove the now mushy carrots and onions. I also take a few minutes to separate the oil from the sauce. This takes a bit of time and a small bit of practice but is well worth the effort.
I also prefer to serve my oxtail deboned. So I’ll debone each piece and then put the meat back into the now strained (and less oily) sauce, which can be reheated together if needed.