Wednesday, 2 February 2011

A Tail of Two Dinners – Coda alla Vaccinara – Roman Oxtail Stew

Oxtail was one of the winners of my recent poll and I was determined to get it done this week. There must be many British oxtail dishes (soup for one) but I had my heart set on another cuisine. If you read my Nonna’s review, you’ll know that the husband had coda di bue - which I now gather means oxtail of beef (i.e. not of pig?!). Anyway, it was good and reminded me that I had a Roman recipe for oxtail in my trusted David DownieCooking the Roman Way’ cook book.

Coda alla Vaccinara is a traditional Roman dish, so called because old and retired working oxen would be slaughtered and butchered by vaccinari who would be paid in kind with skins, unwanted offal and oxtails. The recipe is taken from Carla Bertini, who, according to Mr Downie, makes the best coda alla vaccinara he has ever tasted. Hmm. This guy knows his Roman food so it should be pretty good! 

First of all I had to buy the oxtail. In the past I have seen this for sale all nicely chopped up and ready to go... so I did have a little bit of a shock when, after asking for 3 pounds of oxtail, my butcher reached up above his head to unhook a whole tail hanging over the counter. Shiiiiit! It really did look like a tail! Then the next shock – the price. It was about £6.50, for just under 3 pounds. I have heard people moan about the price of oxtail increasing but still didn't expect it to be that much – especially as most of it is bone!

Anyway. Back at home I started the prep, and there is quite a bit of prep. But first of all, just for you guys, I laid the oxtail pieces out from end to end so that I could take a picture of the whole tail…

Oh it’s a good job I’m not squeamish! On to the recipe...

1 oxtail (about 2½ to 3 pounds)
12 celery stalks
1 clove garlic
1 carrot
1 medium onion
110 g pancetta
2 heaping tablespoons of finely chopped flat leaf parsley
olive oil
salt and pepper
250 mls red wine
2 cans of tomatoes
1 tablespoon of tomato puree
boiling water
5 cloves
1 bay leaf

To Serve 6

First of all I prepared the oxtail. Mr Downie told me I just needed to hold the pieces under warm running water and use my fingers and a knife to ‘eliminate any fat or gristle’.  This is much harder than you think and to ‘eliminate’ all the fat and gristle I would really have to put some hours in. So I eliminated as much as I could. I then peeled the celery to remove the stringy bits and chopped all but one stalk into finger sized sticks. 

Using a food processor I minced up the one whole celery stalk with the garlic, carrot, onion, pancetta and 1 tablespoon of the parsley. I then took a large pan, heated it up, added a splash of olive oil and cooked the veg and pancetta mix for 4-5 minutes on a medium heat. I then added the oxtail with some salt and pepper and cooked it, whilst stirring, for about 15 minutes. Next in was the wine, which I boiled for about 2 minutes to evaporate.  Then I tipped in the tinned tomatoes and squirted in the puree. That just needed a good stir, to make sure the tomatoes were crushed and I then poured in enough boiling water to just about cover the bones. 

Mr Downie then says to make a purse out of gauze to hold the cloves in, with the view that it is then easy to remove before serving. I don’t have any gauze so my cloves were free to swim around the pan. The bay leaf went in too. I then left the stew to simmer for just over 2 hours, partially covered.

I had already planned to make this to be eaten the next day, as I knew that oxtail gives off a lot of fat which can be skimmed off when the dish is cold. Also Carla Bertini says that this stew is ‘best of all when reheated’. 

When I came to warming the dish up again the next day, there was a reasonable layer of fat, which I skimmed off. I then reheated it to simmering point and added the sticks of celery. Then I simmered the stew for 40 minutes, with the lid on. Once done, I stirred in the remaining parsley and served.

This can be served in soup bowls with bread, but we had it with mash and red cabbage. The question for me was whether it was worth the two nights of cooking. I think it was. There was no gruesome butchery involved (as had been the case with the pork cheeks) and it was an easy dish to make. More importantly the meat was tender and tasty and the sauce was nicely rich. So yes, it was good and worth the effort, but it wasn’t exactly easy to eat! You really do need to work the meat from the bones! The recipe for the sauce is a good one to know and should be pretty adaptable. I think I’ll try it with stewing lamb or beef.

Why the Tail of Two Dinners then? Well, Mr Downie suggests that the leftover meat and sauce should be used to dress pasta and that is exactly what I shall be doing tomorrow. Although this time I’ll skip the celery. I don’t care much for celery.

So will you give it a go? Are you already partial to a bit of oxtail, even if it is only in the tinned soup form?


  1. I reckon it is worth the effort. A very tasty sauce, and the oxtail is lovely. We've invested in better value for money cuts recently (the lamb's hearts and ham hocks are my two favourites so far), but I'm definitely looking forward to the pasta.

  2. The oxtail needs to be cooked longer so the meat falls away from the bone. I always double the recommended cooking time since I had a similar experience to yours.

  3. Thanks Diane. I agree. I think it would also benefit from bring cooked in the oven rather than on the hob. Think I'll try 4 hours at 160C next time.