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Oxtail stew and trimmings recipes

A warming treat fit for Burns Night, complete with neeps and tatties.

Bonnie bones: braised oxtail with smoked garlic. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin/The Observer


sudden need for a dinner seasoned with tradition and nostalgia. I pick up lumps of oxtail from the butcher’s, a jumble of bones with deep maroon meat marbled with cream-coloured fat. I cook them with sweet roots and ribs of celery, letting the heat of the oven do the work. There is red wine and beef stock, tufts of thyme and twigs of bay and I serve it in the casserole in which it is cooked, with a mash of swedes and a flat, crisp cake of potatoes. The dinner is a dry-run for Burns Night, the sort of food to set us up for wine and whisky and song.

This is the sort of food to set us up for wine, whisky and song

Of all the bonnie, bony possibilities on the butcher’s counter – the osso buco and the neck of lamb, the shanks and the trotters – it is oxtail that needs the slowest cooking. Once browned in hot fat, you need to lead an oxtail along the slow road to tenderness in a slow oven, the bones wallowing in stock or wine, and with robust aromatics. Thyme, bay leaves, a head of garlic. Rosemary perhaps. It is not a dish that needs updating, but a curious cook can tweak the details. I gave mine a soft smoky note with a whole head of golden-skinned smoked garlic.

Swede is a favourite vegetable in this kitchen, less sugary than carrot, and makes a fine accompaniment to a mahogany-hued, onion-dense gravy. I have baked it in stock, diced and fried it with sausages and added it to a lamb stew, but have never found a better end for one than roughly mashed with butter and black pepper.

Determined to serve neeps and tatties on the 25th, I will be baking potatoes to accompany the oxtail. They will be baked in a round pan, sliced as thinly as my amateur knifemanship will permit, each slice tossed with olive oil and salt and rosemary. Then baked in the same oven as the oxtail, until the top layer is crisp in patches, its edges nut-brown.

Braised oxtail with smoked garlic

It is worth serving a stew such as this in a bowl and offering a spoon as well as a knife and fork. No one will want to miss one drop of the dark and sticky sauce, with its notes of bay and smoked garlic.

Serves 4

olive oil 3 tbsp
oxtail 1.5kg
onions 3, medium
carrots 350g
celery 200g
plain flour 3 heaped tbsp
red wine 350ml, light and fruity
beef stock 1 litre
smoked garlic a whole head
bay leaves 4
thyme 6 bushy sprigs

Warm the olive oil in a very large, deep casserole over a moderate heat. Add the pieces of oxtail and let them sizzle in the hot oil, turning them as each side darkens to a rich golden brown.

While the oxtail is browning, peel and roughly chop the onions and carrots, and cut the celery into short pieces. Remove the oxtail from the pan to a plate then tip the onions, carrots and celery into the pan, toss them in the oil and general stickiness left by the oxtail, then leave them to cook for 5 minutes. Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4.

Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables, stir and continue cooking for 3 or 4 minutes until the flour is no longer white, then pour in the wine and bring to a fierce but brief bubble. Slice the head of garlic in half horizontally. Pour in the stock and bring back to the boil then season with a little salt, the garlic, bay leaves and thyme. Return the oxtail to the pan.

Lower the heat so the liquid bubbles slowly, cover with a lid and transfer to the oven for 2 hours. Lift the lid, check the oxtail’s progress. If the meat still clings tightly to the bones, cover and continue cooking for a further 30 minutes or until the meat is soft and can easily be pulled from the bone. Lift the garlic out and remove the soft cloves from their skins, crush them with a fork and return them to the sauce. Check the seasoning and correct with black pepper and, if necessary, more salt.

Mashed swede and potatoes with rosemary and olive oil

Golden brown: potatoes with rosemary and olive oil, and neeps. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin/The Observer

Unlike carrots, potatoes and turnips, you can’t get away with not peeling a swede.

swede 1.5kg
butter 50g

Peel the swede then cut into small pieces. Pile into a steamer basket and leave to steam over a pan of boiling water, covered with a lid, until soft. Check for tenderness from 15 minutes.

Put the swede into a bowl or empty pan, add the butter in pieces and crush roughly with a potato masher or fork. Keep warm and covered.

Potatoes with rosemary and olive oil

Should the oxtail be ready before the potatoes, remove it from the oven (it will come to no harm, with its lid in place) and turn the heat up to 220C/gas mark 8, until the potatoes are the requisite golden brown.

potatoes 1kg, Maris Piper or similar 
olive oil 250ml
rosemary 4 large sprigs

You will need a 25cm ovenproof frying pan that doesn’t stick. Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Scrub the potatoes (I don’t think you should feel the need to peel them) and slice very thinly. Pour the olive oil into a mixing bowl. Finely chop half of the rosemary, leaving the rest on their stems and add to the bowl. Grind in a little black pepper then add the potatoes and gently turn them over in the seasoned oil. Cover the base of the pan with a single layer of slices, each overlapping the other and adding a little salt as you go. Place a second layer on top, then another and so on, until all the potatoes are used up. Pour any remaining oil over the top.

Bake the potatoes in the preheated oven for 1 hour or until the top layer is golden and lightly crisp at the edges.

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