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Eric Akis: Make time for oxtail soup

When I was growing up every once in while my father would enjoy a can of oxtail soup. As a kid it sounded exotic to me and later on in life, while attending chef school, I learned why busy guys like him choose this no-fuss version of it.
Hearty and comforting oxtail soup, rich with tender and flavourful meat. ERIC AKIS

When I was growing up every once in while my father would enjoy a can of oxtail soup. As a kid it sounded exotic to me and later on in life, while attending chef school, I learned why busy guys like him choose this no-fuss version of it.

The reason, simple put, is that it takes quite a bit of time to prepare. But if you love to cook and have time on a sleepy Sunday or other day off I’ve found the process quite pleasurable.

To make the soup, you’ll, of course have to buy some oxtail, sold at many grocery stores and butcher shops. As noted in a past column, according to The New Food Lover’s Companion, the cut of meat known as oxtail once really did come from an ox. Today, though, the term refers to beef or veal tail.

To ready that tail for sale, it is skinned and then, most often, cut into thick round- or oval-shaped pieces. Oxtail is not very meaty, but the meat is does have is incredibly flavourful. It’s also very tough and requires long and slow cooking to make it tender.

You’ll find many versions of oxtail soup, but mine begins with pieces of oxtail being deeply seared in hot oil in a skillet, before being set in a tall pot. Onions are cooked in the skillet, and then tomato paste, thyme, garlic and red wine are added, and then eventually poured over the oxtail.

The next step is to add beef broth (or stock), water and more flavourings to the pot, bring the liquid to a very gently simmer, and then cook the oxtail two hours, or until very tender. The pieces of oxtail are removed from the pot, cooled, and then the meat is removed from them. You also strain the liquid you simmered the oxtail in and use that broth as the base for the soup.

I prepare the oxtail and strained broth early in the morning, or even the day before, I’ll finish making the soup. The reason being that the broth needs to be refrigerated awhile so the fat on the surface can solidify.

When it’s time to make the soup, that fat on the surface of the broth is removed. Finely diced carrots, celery and leeks are then sautéed in a pot, the broth is poured in and those vegetables are simmered a few minutes. In goes the oxtail meat and some diced potatoes, and then the soup is simmered a while longer, until the potatoes are tender. The soup is seasoned with salt and pepper, if needed, and it’s ready to ladle up.

The end result is a splendid, rich and comforting bowl of soup that’s hearty enough to serve for dinner. Perhaps with some good bread and a wedge of aged cheese alongside, such as cheddar or Stilton. If you’re having a special multi-course dinner, smaller portions of the soup could also be served as a starter.

Oxtail Soup

There’s a bit of time and preparation required to make this, but your reward will be a full-of-flavour, hearty and comforting soup perfect to enjoy on an autumn day.

Preparation time: 45 minutes, plus chilling time

Cooking time: about three hours

Makes: 4 (large) or 6 (smaller) servings

1 to 1.1 kilograms cut pieces of oxtail

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

3 Tbsp + 2 tsp olive oil (divided)

1 medium onion, halved and sliced

2 large garlic cloves, sliced

2 Tbsp tomato paste

1 tsp dried thyme

1 cup red wine

4 cups homemade or store-bought low-sodium or no-salt beef broth or stock

3 cups water, plus more, if needed

1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce

2 tsp soy sauce

1 bay leaf

1/2 cup finely diced carrot (cut into 1/4-inch cubes)

1/2 cup finely diced leek, white and pale green part only

1/2 cup finely diced celery

3/4 cup finely diced peeled potatoes, such as red-skinned or yellow-fleshed

• chopped fresh parsley, to taste

Pat the pieces of oxtail dry with paper towel; season with salt and pepper. Pour 3 Tbsp of the oil into a large skillet (mine was 12-inches wide) set over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add the oxtail and deeply sear on all sides, about 10 minutes. Remove skillet from the heat.

Lift oxtail out of the skillet and set in a tall pot (mine was 8-inches wide and 7-inches tall). Drain all but 2 tsp of the oil/fat from the skillet. Set skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook and stir four minutes. Mix in the garlic, tomato paste and thyme and cook one minute more. Pour in the wine and bring it to a simmer. Now pour wine/onion mixture over the oxtail.

Set the pot over medium-high heat and add the broth (or stock), 3 cups water, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce and bay leaf. Bring the mixture to a very gentle simmer (a few small bubbles should just break on the surface). Now lower heat to maintain that gentle simmer. Gently simmer the oxtail, uncovered, two hours, or until meat is very tender.

Remove pot from the heat. Use tongs to lift the pieces of oxtail out of the broth and set on a plate. Set a fine sieve over a bowl. Strain the broth through the sieve, pushing on the onions and other ingredients with the back of ladle to ensure you squeeze out every drop of it. Measure broth, you should have at least 6 cups. If not, top up with cold water until you do.

Cool broth to room temperature, and then refrigerate at least four hours, or until the fat in the broth has set on the surface.

When the pieces of oxtail have cooled, but are still warm, pull the meat off of them and set on a cutting board. Now go through the meat and remove any sinew or fatty bits on them. Pull or cut larger pieces of the meat into smaller, spoon-sized ones. Now set meat on a plate, cover and refrigerate until needed.

To finish the soup, remove the solidified fat on the surface of the broth. Pour the remaining 2 tsp oil in a medium pot set over medium heat. When oil is hot, add the carrot, celery and leek and cook four to five minutes. Pour in the broth and bring to a gently simmer, adjusting the heat as needed to maintain that simmer. Simmer soup five minutes. Now add the oxtail meat and potatoes. Return the soup to a simmer, and simmer 10 to 12 minutes more, or until potatoes are tender. Taste soup and season with salt and pepper, as needed. Ladle soup into bowls, sprinkle with chopped parsley, to taste, and serve.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.