I do most of my heavy reflection about the New Year in September when the summer tapers off and fall quietly steals all the glory. That leaves me with more of a celebratory rather than contemplative feeling during the holidays. I do like to remember how and where the year began and how and where it’s ending. The ways in which I’ve grown and changed. Lessons learned, stories unfolded and unfolding. While outwardly much seems the same, it’s amazing to observe the patterns in our lives, who we reach for and when, how our feelings morph, grow and congeal. Rinse, repeat. I try to acknowledge any sense of regret (non, rien rien) and let it inform my goals. I appreciate any sense of accomplishment and remain grateful to all those who helped me get there. I try to look forward with excitement, less at the whim of the weather and more like a tour de force.
This time of year always has me running around, feeling rushed, behind and cold. I decided to carve out some quiet time for a slow-simmering braise, to take a moment to appreciate the whimsical symmetry of ginger root and the natural shapes of spices. I needed something that would make me mindful of the time it takes to create and nurture something truly superlative. Something to warm the bones. A fusion of cultures and time. With a flair of cilantro.
Bánh mì is a Veitnamese-style baguette sandwich filled with a different variety of braised meats (grilled pork, pork belly, pate, beef, chicken, lamb), cucumber, shredded carrots and daikon, cilantro, scallions and chili peppers. When the French colonized Vietnam in the late 1800’s, they brought their french style baguettes with them. So this traditionally Asian meal went into a baguette.
The only time I’ve ever had oxtail was in stew. And oh and it makes a wonderful stew. Throw in a delicate amount of the perfumed, complementary flavors of star anise and cloves and let the marrow do its job, adding an intensely rich and deep flavor. I have been eyeing these sparse beauties at my butcher’s shop for a while, always passing them up for a more familiar cut of meat or a piece of fish. When they permeated my dreams, I knew it was time.
Important question: What is an ox? Sancho Panza’s donkey comes to my mind for some reason, faithful servant of Don Quixote. Practicality tempering idealism. But, alas, I don’t think we eat donkeys. Then I figured it was likely a cow. A little research reveals that an ox is a castrated adult male bovine, more commonly known as a steer. A cow is an adult female bovine. A little more digging revealed that today tails simply come from beef cattle of both genders. Sancho’s donkey is safe.
Braising is a cooking technique in which you first sear meat at a high temperature on the stove top, creating a nice brown crust then placing the food in a covered pot with a braising liquid for a couple hours. Don’t skip the browning part. It comes from the magical Maillard reaction that occurs when sugars and proteins are heated together. It’s one of life’s great luxuries. To get a good sear, dry your meat. The drier the better. Use a very hot pan and a little bit of oil with a high smoking point, like canola oil. I use rice wine for the braise, which can be found in an Asian market. I also use beef stock, a touch of soy sauce, brown sugar, star anise, and cloves. Sweet, malty, salty, syrupy. I cannot say enough about this braise, but you can braise meat in just about anything. The process softens the toughest cuts of meat because it breaks down the tough connective tissue and renders meat tender and flavorful. The kind of succulent meat that melts off the bones.
While the concoction simmers, make the accompaniments. All of them. Throw in a load of laundry, start that book you were excited about. Change into your gym clothes. Engage in all of the wonderful things that bring you joy because happiness isn’t just connected with the season. That’s excitement. The stuff that lasts is connected to balance, fulfillment, strength and persistence. Happy holidays. Stay where the light is and may it shine on everything around you.
Oxtail and Lamb Bánh Mì adapted from Feasting at Home
Makes about 8 small sandwiches.
Vietnamese Braised Oxtail and Lamb
- 5 to 6 pounds oxtails, fat trimmed
- 1 lb lamb rib, fat trimmed and cut into 1 inch pieces
- Salt and black pepper
- 3 tablespoons canola oil
- 2 C beef stock
- 1/2 cup Rice wine or Red Wine or Dry Sherry
- 1/3 cup soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 2 star anise, broken into pieces
- 2 whole cloves
- 1 onion – chopped big
- 3 inches -sliced fresh ginger
- 6 whole garlic cloves, peeled
Pickled Carrots and Daikon
- 1 cup shredded carrots
- 1 cup shredded Diakon
- 2 tablespoon unseasoned rice vinegar
- 2 tablespoon sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 2-3 tablespoon sriracha chili sauce
- squeeze lime
- pinch salt
- Cucumbers, scallions, fresh jalapenos, French baguettes
For the Oxtail and Lamb
Pre heat oven to 300 F. Trim fat off the oxtails and lamb. Generously salt and pepper all sides and patiently brown all sides of oxtail in large dutch oven in canola oil. Set aside browned oxtail. Repeat for lamb then remove. Pour out the oil and fat. In the same dutch oven, sauté onion, whole garlic and ginger slices about 6-8 minutes till browned. Add Rice wine, scraping up all the brown bits. Bring to a boil. Add beef stock, sugar, soy sauce, cloves and star anise. Place oxtail back in the liquid, marrow pointing up. Place lamb pieces around the oxtail. Liquid should come to 3/4 the height of the oxtail. Cover and bring to a boil. Place into the 300 degree oven. Cook 1 1/2 hours, turn oxtails over and cook another 1 1/2 hours. Remove oxtails, strain braising liquid and place the strained liquid in a container for about an hour in the freezer. Fat with rise to the top and harden. This will allow you to remove the fat. (you could skip this step, but it’s worth it). Remove bones from the oxtail meat and place all the meat in a skillet with the de-fatted braising liquid, and heat on the stove. Taste for salt. Meat will be sticky and succulent, almost caramelized.
For the PICKLED CARROTS AND DAIKON
Mix all ingredients together in a bowl and let stand 30 min
For the SPICY MAYO
Mix all ingredients in a small bow
Spread baguette with spicy mayo, place oxtail on the bottom, then cucumbers, pickled veggies, cilantro, scallions and fresh jalapeño.