Port-Braised Oxtail Cakes on Yellow Corn Polenta- It’s the Little Things
Fact: when you stack things, they taste better.
Proof: ice cream cones, layers of cake, s’mores, and now this. What is this, you ask? It’s the silver lining. Yesterday I failed, albeit deliciously. Today I succeeded.
I turned a soggy pile of oxtail mush into a panko-fried cake and I put it on a round of polenta. Then I topped my savory “sundae,” but not with a cherry. Instead I used a port-poached plum. I love dessert, I really do. But as I go through life, the savory courses captivate me in a way no sweet ever could. I think it’s because you can tuck so many flavors into something savory- it can host salty, sweet, acidic, bitter and the elusive umami all in one bite. The alchemy is achieving the right balance between all five. With dessert, there is generally just sweet, with maybe a little saltiness thrown in if you’re feeling edgy.
So I’ve been experimenting with using traditionally-sweet form factors for savory ingredients. If you know me at all you know I am hooked on variations of the cornet, for instance. The savory sundae was inevitable. This is a great thing about having a blog. You have a catalogue of your obsessions. You can trace the dishes of today back to their inceptions.
You can measure your growth.
Two years ago I looked at five recipes and synthesized them into one, taking bits and pieces from each as I liked. Now I look at five ingredients and combine them with confidence, hardly ever glancing at a pre-existing recipe unless it’s to consult @ruhlman for ratios (and then, generally only in baking). Cooking is an art of intuition, but intuition can be cultivated. Especially when you measure it, and blogs help immensely in that regard. It’s like with dreams- if you keep a journal of them they tend to become more vivid. There is a really cheeseball sign up at my gym, “what gets measured gets improved.” –corny, but true.
Two years ago I would have shoveled a mess of polenta on the plate and topped it with the braised oxtail. It would have been good, but not great. Now I’ve learned to spread the polenta in the pan so it is easily cut into pleasing shapes, but beyond that, to fry the polenta after it’s formed so that it develops a toothsome crunch to contrast with its silky interior. By coating the oxtail cakes in panko and frying them to re-warm the meat, they too become an exquisite study in contrast between the unctuous oxtail and the satisfying, crackly crust.
I’ve also learned not to give up. When my less-than-perfect oxtail ravioli didn’t come out as I had hoped, a few years ago I would have moved on without a backward glance. (I also had much less exacting standards so I probably wouldn’t have recognized them as a failure.) This time, I decided to pick up the pieces with the basic set of ingredients because I was confident the flavors would work together, just not in the way I initially imagined. Believe it or not, form affects taste more than we realize. The ravioli tasted gook and looked just ok, but the fact that the broth seeped out of them into the boiling water meant that the form was incorrect. By substituting the pasta sheets for polenta cakes, I added an element that would absorb the sauce rather than drive it away.
When I thought about what I wanted to top the oxtail-polenta sundae with, I considered the elements I had used to braise the oxtails originally. The two main components were port and plums. The port and plums reduced beautifully, and eventually wound up as a sauce to end all sauces, but I lamented the fact that you might not realize port and plums composed the sauce since they were disintegrated and reduced beyond recognition. So I poached plums in port and they became delicious, dramatic icing on the cake. I love the way the plum jackets shrink off the fruit in little glassine ridges.
When we ate, I closed my eyes and enjoyed the sweet taste of progress.
Port and Plum Braised Oxtails
*note- this recipe is only for the oxtail cakes and their sauce. I recommend serving them with polenta cakes as well, a great recipe for which can be found in Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook.
- ¾ c rice flour (rice flour browns better)
- 2 tsp garlic powder (I make it myself using a smoker)
- 2 tsp salt
- ¼ tsp pepper
- 1 tsp Cajun spice
- 5 lb oxtails (I like to use the larger oxtails with more meat, but some butchers balk at not fairly dividing the oxtails among customers)
- 1 stick of butter cut into several pieces
- 2 leeks, roughly chopped
- 5 plums, halved and pitted
- 2 stalks of celery, roughly chopped
- 2 carrots, roughly chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, smashed
- 5 juniper berries, crushed
- 6 bay leaves, torn once each
- 2 cups beef stock
- 1-750 ml bottle tawny port- no need to get expensive here
For dredging and frying the oxtail cakes:
- ¼ cup flour (or more, as needed)
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 cup panko breadcrumbs (or more, as needed)
- ¼ c butter, cut into several pieces
- 1. Preheat the oven to 325°F.
- 2. In a spice shaker or sieve, combine the flour, garlic powder, salt, pepper and Cajun spice. Sprinkle it over the oxtails covering them evenly.
- 3. Working in batches in a large dutch oven, brown the oxtails in the butter, using more butter as needed. This should take about 2 minutes per side on medium-high heat. I had to do it in three batches to avoid over-crowding. Once all the oxtails are browned, add the remaining ingredients to the dutch oven (including all of the oxtails) and bring to a boil. Cover the pot with aluminum foil or an oven-safe lid.
- 4. Place the dutch oven in the oven and cook for 3-4 hours, or until the oxtails are fall-off-the-bone tender.
- 5. Remove the oxtails from the oven and strain them using a china cap. Return the resulting sauce to the stovetop in a saucepan and reduce at a low simmer until approximately 2 cups of liquid remain and the sauce is slightly thick. Adjust seasonings as necessary and serve sauce with the oxtails.
- 6. Meanwhile, separate the oxtails from the vegetables in the china cap. Discard the vegetables. Pull the oxtail meat off the bones and press into a round 2.5” cutter. You should be able to form between 10-15 patties this way, depending on how high you make them.
- 7. Dredge the oxtail patties first in the flour, then the egg, and finally the panko.
- 8. Fry them in the butter in a large skillet over medium heat for 3 minutes per side, or until golden brown.
- 9. Serve the oxtail patties in their sauce. You can also serve them on polenta cakes and top them with port-poached plums, if you wish.